Classical liberal attitudes about government have much in common with those of the American (i.e., constitutionalist) conservative, yet the self-nominated conservative tends to ask himself somewhat different questions about a proposed action of government:
- Is the proposed action properly authorized by the relevant constitution or charter?
- Given the context, does the government possess adequate power to make the proposal plausible?
- Can we expect the unintended consequences of the action to be bearable -- that is, given a "reasonable" extrapolation from present conditions, are they likely or unlikely to negate the gains expected from the action?
Many a good idea founders on one of those shoals.
Question 1 is central to the operation of a constitutional order. Granted that there have been liberal polities that have "done without" a formal constitution, such arrangements strike me as excessively dependent on the character and judgment of the governors. The American system, which sprouted from the soil of a revolution against such an order, emphasizes its constitutional foundation, even when the constraints imposed by the Constitution appear to stand in the way of a good idea, for it prevents the implementation, by well-meaning enthusiasts, of a far greater number of bad ideas.
Question 2 is often seen as a matter of practicality -- "how many guns do we have?" -- but is often more germane to constitutional constraints than to the weight of enforcement power. If the enforcement of a proposed law would transgress some constitutional guarantee of private rights, the state lacks the effective power to enforce the law without undermining its overall legitimacy, no matter how many guns it has. The War on Drugs is an excellent example of this sort of legitimacy trap.
Question 3 is one that applies to all human action, but which deserves particular attention from governments. The prevalent liberal attitude -- classical or social-welfarist -- is that a good idea deserves to be acted on: that if the Constitution and enforcement power permit, not to act to uplift society or ameliorate suffering is a form of political nonfeasance. The prevalent conservative attitude is that society is a complex web of relations and tensions, interference with which will have side effects and incentive effects that might not be easily damped, and that these should be pondered at least as deeply as the predicted gains from the proposal. That attitude militates toward a degree of caution about political and social change unappreciated by persons who don't share it.
No one is as smart or knowledgeable as he needs to be to redesign society. "In all societies, some description must be uppermost," wrote Edmund Burke. Therefore, the conservative, sufficiently aware of his limitations and of the history of human error to be humble, proceeds tentatively and with circumspection with even his best notions. For there are many things that, once done, one cannot undo; to set forth rashly on a scheme for re-engineering one's nation is to court disaster on a scale that could blot one's name for centuries to come, no matter how good one's intentions.