Posted by: N.S. Palmer | December 11, 2012

Why I Am a Conservative

By N.S. Palmer

People sometimes accuse me of being a “liberal.”

There’s some truth in that accusation, because I advocate a few ideas that people identify as liberal: government help for the poor and sick, avoidance of war when possible, environmental protection, public education, and regulation of big business to protect the public good.

But neither liberalism nor conservatism is a clearly-defined viewpoint.

Ted Olson, a Republican lawyer who worked for the “conservative” Bush-Cheney administration, represented plaintiffs in a lawsuit to legalize gay marriage. That’s usually identified as a liberal issue.

Meanwhile, numerous “liberal” politicians and commentators see nothing wrong with warrantless wiretapping, imprisonment without charges, or murder by drone as long as it’s a Democratic president doing those things. Those activities are usually identified as things that conservatives support.

Human life and society are too complex and unpredictable to reduce to a few simple slogans, such as “support the free market” or “provide help to the needy.” One needs to look at the facts of each situation, consult the relevant moral principles and historical examples, then decide on a case-by-case basis.

Conservatives recognize that whether the current state of society is good or bad, millions of people have planned their lives on the assumption that things will remain pretty much as they are. That’s why real conservatives oppose change that is too rapid or too radical: it disrupts people’s lives, perhaps destroys their jobs, and thrusts them into a society they barely recognize as their own. Even if Social Security were a bad idea in the abstract (which it isn’t), real conservatives oppose cutting, privatizing, or abolishing it because millions of people planned their lives on the assumption that it would help them in retirement.

Conservatism means different things in different times and to different people. However, in his book The Conservative Mind, the influential thinker Russell Kirk identified six common tenets of conservative thought:


Russell Kirk in a typical pose. He also wrote ghost stories and lived in a “haunted house” on Piety Hill in Mecosta, Michigan.

1. “Belief in a transcendent order.”

In other words, God exists, and He’s pissed as Hell.

2. “Affection for the proliferating variety of human existence.”

In other words, support for real diversity of belief, culture, and practice instead of fake diversity that has to be enforced by politically-correct censorship.

3. “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes.”

In other words, all people are equal in dignity and in their basic human rights. All people are entitled to respectful and compassionate treatment. However, those are about the only ways in which they are equal.

4. Belief “that freedom and property are closely linked.”

In other words, a system based mainly on private property tends to maximize freedom and prosperity as long as it’s guided by a wise system of laws. If it’s not guided by a wise system of laws, then you get contemporary America or post-Soviet Russia.

5. Suspicion of plans to reconstruct society based on abstract ideology.

In other words, any goofball scheme can seem reasonable in the abstract, as long as it’s not evaluated against the lessons of human history. Turning society upside down in pursuit of abstract justice can cause a lot of real-life injustice.

6. Recognition that change is not necessarily a good thing.

In other words, as Dr. Kirk warns, “hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration rather than a torch of progress.”

I have a pretty similar list but would put it in more common-sense terms. I believe:

  • If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.
  • If it is broke, then decide if it’s important enough to fix. Not everything is.
  • If it’s broke and you decide to fix it, then fix it slowly and carefully so you don’t make it worse.
  • Look at history to see what worked and what didn’t.
  • Abstract ideological solutions are probably wrong.
  • All people are equal in dignity and rights, but differ in most other respects.
  • God exists, but He’s not pissed as Hell. He’s just very, very disappointed in you.

Copyright 2012 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. And to think I was misguided into thinking that real conservatives believe everything they hear on Fox News.

    • I only believe some of the things I hear on Fox News, such as the words “and” and “the.” (Apologies to Mary McCarthy for stealing her quip about Lillian Hellman.)

      • +1!

  2. Part of the problem is that what being “conservative” entails in the English-speaking world, and the US in particular, has changed in the last couple of generations.

    Thanks to a comment left on my own blog, I’ve been reading John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience. It’s a description of the current neoconservative ilk who’ve taken over the Republican Party since the late 1970s, and raises a lot of points about the authoritarian nature of these people. Dean, who for a long time described himself as a “Goldwater conservative”, has had to admit that these days, he—and Barry Goldwater—would likely be classed flatly as liberals for being social progressives. Dean makes the point that Richard Nixon, a man who thought things like creating the Environmental Protection Agency were a good idea, would be ideologically unacceptable to the modern “conservative”. He also makes the point that, as grasping as the man was, it’s hard to imagine Nixon suborning torture. A “conservative” like Eisenhower, whose “bookend” speeches included warning the country and the world about the military-industrial spending eating up money that could be used for schools and homes to hang humanity on a cross of iron, is now so far off the radar he might not even make the Democratic primaries.

    Dean’s of the opinion that this mindset represents a unique threat to democracy in the history of the United States. We’ve gone in a couple of generations from a man who faced impeachment for covering up the bugging of one office, to men who can get away with telling the country they’ll be listening in on your phone calls and reading your email, and it’s good for you! It’s only bad for you if communists do it, and hey, they’re all gone.

    Which, when you think about it, is the one fact of history that can give us hope for a return to the kind of conservatives we used to know.

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