(Executive Summary: If justice becomes our primary concern, we'll all be in jail and there will be nobody left to feed or protect us.)
A buddy of mine recently wrote that conservatives have been wrong about virtually everything over the last 50 years. A strong and sweeping statement, but that's cool. I like strong and sweeping, as it often holds more truth than weak and mealy-mouthed.
It's hard to know what conservative means. If it means opposing radical change, then yeah, I plead guilty. If being a conservative means opposing all progress, well, I wouldn't want to be caught dead in a field with one.
Conservative commonly means defending the status quo, and since the world is not as good as it can be, conservativism cannot be the embodiment of good. And where conservative can become a catchall for all the imperfect or even bad in the status quo, liberalism can be a catchall for all things good.
It's clear that America as a whole has embraced the New Deal as a good and desirable safety net for the weakest among us, so liberalism in the FDR sense has captured and defines the American center. Even Edmund Burke, the philosophical godfather of conservatives, acknowledged the need for change as essential to the life of a nation or a people, and both he and the reputed apostle of capitalism, Adam Smith, saw the need to make provision for the poor as both a moral and practical imperative. We may properly call them classical liberals.
Many conservatives think of themselves as classical liberals, at least the best of them, and in economics, free markets and personal enterprise are often referred to as neo-liberal. The conservatives in Australia are known as the Liberal Party. Rhetorically, when liberal equals good, everybody wants to be a liberal.
Hey, I'm a liberal. I can live with that.
What's troubled me about the current vocabulary is that there is a difference between liberal and left. Conservative is routinely used in contradistinction to both, which lessens its accuracy. By that standard, almost anything can become conservative. For instance, the radical Islamic revolutionary mullahs in Iran, although also anti-liberal, are now "right-wing" in the common media parlance. But conservative might be most properly used in contradistinction to radicalism, and Iran's in particular.
Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in spirit is/was liberal for instance, to lift the lowest, and as one of FDR's Four Freedoms, it pursues the freedom from want. One of the two children secreted under the robes of Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Present was Want.
The other was Ignorance. Had Dickens lived another 100 years later, he'd've had to include their evil triplet, leftism, which combines and maximizes the worst features of both. Its willful ignorance of human nature serves only to increase, not alleviate, human want.
What Hugo Chavez is up to in Venezuela right now, bringing the economy under control of the state, is leftist, radical, and supposedly in the name of justice, of homogenization. This equals that equals you equals me. Because he has decreed what everything should cost, the grocery store shelves are empty of everything that people tend to like and can still afford. All that's left is filet mignon and canned turnips, the sublime and the ridiculous.
What the classical liberal seeks to liberate is the human potential, our individual talents and pursuit of our individual excellences, but leftism is another kettle of fish altogether. If America is not a melting pot but a seafood salad or a cioppino, think of putting one in your Cuisinart. Ick. They're trying to feed us Purina Human Chow, and no matter how tasty it is at first, it's disgusting after a mouthful or two.
The question becomes whether progressivism as a politics, when its end becomes justice and not charity, saps its host society of its dynamism and cohesion.
And so, per Edmund Burke, I find myself a conservative and a liberal on the same day. Conservativism, when used in its best sense, is not opposed to change but to radical change, which is why, unlike the more radical Thomas Jefferson, the French Revolution scared the bejesus out of Burke.
Although the tension is often unbearable, change and status quo must remain in tension, so we may sort out babies and bathwater. So I'm conservative not out of dogma, but because as Burke would note, once the baby's tossed, you seldom get it back. The inevitable consequence of radicalism, of leftism, and of Chavez and Marxism in particular, is that babies get tossed, usually off the highest floor.
By disposition, conservatives don't do anything, which is their failing and their virtue. They aren't creative towards the problems of our condition. Not progressive, if you will.
On the other hand, that's not their role. It's not fair to judge them on what they "do," but on what they by persuasion or obstruction prevent. You might say conservatives are the condoms of the human race. History doesn't reveal its alternatives, and prophylactics don't come with a printout with all the bad things that didn't happen because of them.
I can live with that, too.