What it Means to be a Conservative


The conservative self-image, from Three Languages of Politics by Arnold Kling…


My heroes are the people who have stood up for the traditional values and institutions that created our civilization. The people I cannot stand are the people who hate and undermine those values and institutions.  


Conservatives seek to maximize virtue, prudence, and personal responsibility. Conservatives believe that…


  • Hard work and thrift can solve most social problems as long as virtue is present 
  • Civilization starts to decay when people give vent to their base desires
  • Hard work and thrift are impossible when self-discipline is absent
  • Those who elevate their base desires over virtue inevitably come to hate the values and institutions that contradict their sloth, self-indulgence, and decadence
  • This hatred of values and institutions undermines civilization and pushes humanity back toward barbarism
  • Those professions that risk or sacrifice themselves to defend our values and institutions – such as the police and the military – provide the best models for what we all should be.
  • Those who favor base desires over virtue will naturally tend to look down on these professions. They will likewise sneer at the churches and people of faith who are the main advocates for virtue. 


Conservatives also realize that state power can be used to undermine the values and institutions that make civilization possible. This is why they favor limitations to protect the freedom of expression and the exercise of religion. They also oppose programs that discourage work and self-responsibility, or that attempt to re-engineer society from the top down. Such efforts are immodest and imprudent. However, some conservatives think that self-expression must be legally limited whenever it threatens to undermine virtue.  

What would things look like in a conservative world?


The conservative vision seeks to leverage what has worked before to achieve even better results in the future. 


The conservative view does not oppose progress. Rather, it recognizes that innovations fail more often than they succeed. Thus, real progress – especially social progress – comes slowly and at the margins. Civilization does not make leaps. It advances step by careful step. 


More importantly, real progress cannot be predicted, managed, or engineered by politicians and bureaucrats, even if they award themselves the label progressive. Mere labels cannot guarantee improvement. Only virtue can do that. 


More often than not, attempts to force things to be better will actually make things worse. That is why the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is also why tried and true values and institutions must serve as the foundation upon which innovation and progress are constructed. 


In a conservative world, each year will be slighter better than the one that came before. The conservative focus on virtue will permit simple hard work, thrift, and prudence, to steadily build the wealth we need to solve most social problems. It will be a world of security and stability, prudence and modesty, law and order. 


  • Poverty can only be solved through wealth creation, and that requires hard work, prudence, and thrift. 
  • Substance abuse can only be solved by abstinence, without which hard work is impossible.
  • Ignorance is likewise cured through hard work. This is better achieved through self-discipline than by self-indulgence. 
  • Bigotry is best combated by permitting people to disassociate from bigots rather than by allowing the bigots to hide by legally silencing them. People must be allowed to feel the consequences of their own bad actions. 
  • Security and peace can only be achieved by being well-prepared for war. 
  • And we can best combat crime by honoring the risks police take to protect us. 


Thus, a conservative world would be one of increased affluence, more sobriety, greater knowledge, sequestered and shamed bigotry, and enduring peace, both at home and abroad. 

Types of conservatives


  • National Conservatives – Donald Trump, Pat Buchanan
  • Traditionalist Conservatives – Mike Pence, Rick Santorum, Tim Scott, Mike Huckabee
  • Paleo Conservatives – Ronald Reagan, Robert Taft, and Pat Buchanan have all been described as paleo-conservative
  • Libertarian Conservatives – Barry Goldwater, Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell 

Important conservative heroes and accomplishments


  • President Ronald Reagan is revered by conservatives for his commitment to limited government, free markets, traditional values, and a strong national defense. His key achievements include implementing supply-side economics by reducing tax rates, and causing the end of the Cold War through a defense build-up that bankrupted the Soviet Union. 


  • Senator Barry Goldwater was the Republican Party’s 1964 presidential nominee. Conservatives credit him with bringing conservatism to national relevance. His book “The Conscience of a Conservative” was influential in shaping modern conservative thought.


  • Economist Milton Friedman was a Nobel laureate with libertarian views. He had a strong influence on many conservatives and his ideas on monetary policy, free trade, and deregulation had a significant impact on legislation. He helped create the volunteer military, the earned income tax credit, and the system of free-floating international currency exchange. 


  • William F. Buckley, Jr. was a conservative intellectual, author, and the founder of National Review, which has long been the premier conservative intellectual journal. He played a crucial role in articulating and popularizing conservative principles, emphasizing limited government, free markets, and traditional values. He had a strong libertarian bent reflected in his opposition to many victimless crime laws. 


  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was highly regarded by conservatives for his defense of conservative legal principles, including originalist interpretation, limited judicial activism, and the preservation of individual rights.


  • British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rolled back welfare state socialism in the UK, privatized many government businesses with good results, and reduced the overall role of the state in the economy.


  • Thomas Sowell is a libertarian conservative economist, social theorist, and historian. He has challenged the official narrative on subjects of race, culture, education, history, and the true record of free markets versus state intervention. 


  • Edmund Burke was an Irish member of the British Parliament. Many consider him to be the father of modern conservatism. His writings, such as “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” emphasized the importance of tradition, stability, and gradual change in preserving social order.


  • Russell Kirk was a prominent conservative intellectual, author, and political theorist. He published his most seminal work, “The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot,” in 1953. He traced the intellectual roots of conservatism and highlighted the importance of tradition, order, and virtue in preserving a healthy society. He emphasized the value of limited government, individual freedom, and the free market, but cautioned against unchecked capitalism and argued that economic efficiency had to be balanced with the moral and social well-being of the community.

Important conservative organizations


  • The Heritage Foundation was founded in 1973. It conducts research and promotes conservative policies in areas such as limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional values, and a strong national defense. 


  • The Federalist Society was founded in 1982. it promotes a textualist and originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. It provides a forum for conservative legal scholars, lawyers, and judges to discuss constitutional law. It also advocates for the appointment of conservative judges who adhere to the principles of limited government and judicial restraint.


  • The National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded in 1871. It works to defend the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. It also promotes firearm safety, education, and training. 


  • Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) was founded in 1985. It promotes lower taxes and limited government. ATR is best known for its “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which asks politicians to commit to opposing any net tax increase.


  • The Club for Growth was founded in 1999. It supports pro-market candidates in primary elections, aiming to influence the Republican Party’s direction. The organization promotes pro-growth policies such as tax cuts, deregulation, and entitlement reform, with the goal of advancing economic freedom and prosperity.


  • The Young Americas Foundation (YAF) was founded in 1969. It is the largest conservative outreach and training organization for young people. It also operates the Young Americans for Freedom chapters on universities. 

Important conservative books


  • The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk was published in 1953. It is often regarded as the foundational text for modern American conservatism. Kirk outlines the intellectual history and principles of conservatism, emphasizing the importance of tradition, order, and moral values as the bedrock of a stable society.


  • The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater was published in 1960. It provides a political manifesto for American conservatism. Goldwater articulates his beliefs in limited government, individual liberty, and free-market capitalism. This book laid the intellectual groundwork for Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, which then paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980. 


  • The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 by George H. Nash was published in 1976. It gives an in-depth analysis of the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement. Nash explores the ideas and individuals who shaped the conservative resurgence, including William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, and Milton Friedman.


  • The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom was published in 1987. It critiques the state of higher education in the United States. Bloom argues that the prevailing moral relativism on college campuses is eroding the foundations of Western civilization. He emphasizes the importance of a classical education as the antidote to decadence. 


  • The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America by Arthur C. Brooks was published in 2015. It presents a compassionate conservative vision for addressing societal challenges. Brooks argues that conservative principles, such as free enterprise and limited government, can help alleviate poverty and promote individual opportunity. He emphasizes the importance of human dignity, community, and entrepreneurship.


  • The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek was published in 1944. It has been an influence on both the conservative and libertarian movements. Hayek, a Nobel laureate, argues against the collectivist ideologies of socialism and fascism and predicts that “liberal” planned economies are likely to evolve in a totalitarian direction. 

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman was published in 1962. This is another book that has influenced both the conservative and libertarian movements. Friedman, who was also a Nobel laureate like Hayek, advocates for free-market capitalism, limited government intervention, and individual liberty to solve social problems.

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