What is a conservative?


Confusion and misunderstanding are abound concerning the definitions of "liberal" and "conservative." The labels are typically applied after hearing a person's position on a single issue. This has led to these labels becoming almost meaningless in popular usage.

These words do have meaning, however, if we try to grasp it. To that end, this piece is the first in a series of Special Editorials that will appear in the Pilot and Today to be written by several local citizens. We are conservatives, and we will try to explain what that means. We will explore the basic tenents of conservative thought and will apply this framework to specific policy issues. We hope that you will join us for the ride.

Let us start by acknowledging that the term "conservative" is a rather misleading, and historically inaccurate, description of the underlying philosophy.

Conservatives are advocates of limited government, free speech, the rule of law and free enterprise. Conservatives are advocates of freedom and defenders of liberty. They advocate economic freedom and low taxes and oppose coercion. Conservatives understand the interrelation between economic freedom and political freedom.

In other words, eighteenth and nineteenth century "liberals" such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Adam Smith would be conservatives under the current terminology. By contrast, modern "liberals" advocate greater governmental controls and more closely resemble the early Americans of the Federalist Party, such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

It is sometimes said that conservatives hate government. This is untrue. Conservatives do oppose over-sized and over-aggressive government as it limits freedom, is inefficient, and delivers poor results. In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union was the prime example of central control and large, intrusive government. That system was an abject failure. The system failed, not just because it was extreme, but because its basic theory is fundamentally flawed.

The theories of communism fly in the face of basic economics and human nature. It eliminates the free market and its natural controls and incentives, including the incentives to take risks and increase inventiveness, productivity and efficiency. (Similarly, modern liberalism limits the effectiveness of the free market.)

By contrast, the United States has flourished in the nineteenth and late twentieth centuries - times when governmental intrusion was limited and the free market was allowed greater latitude. Consider some of the conveniences of today. Think of the automobiles, computers, airplanes, high definition televisions, mobile telephones, iPods and any number of other innovations that we enjoy each day. Are these the product of government programs? No, they are the products of personal ingenuity, economic incentives of the free market, and the freedom to pursue these ventures. When any of these elements are removed or limited, society suffers as a result.

This principle can be clearly seen in the world today. The countries with the greatest degrees of freedom enjoy the highest standards of living and the longest life expectancies. Those with the most interventionist governments, such as a variety of countries in Africa and South America, have substantially lower standards of living and shorter life expectancies.

Conservatives understand this. The Conservative thought process involves stopping to think of the broader consequences when addressing particular problems and tends away from the easier, band aid solutions of increasing governmental intervention - solutions that, no matter how well-intentioned, normally cause more harm than good in the long term.

Please join us on this journey. We invite your input and your disagreements. You will even find that the authors of this series will not agree on each and every issue. We are in favor of open discussion.

Discussion provokes thought, and thought creates conservatives.

Rick Akin is an Attorney practicing in Steamboat Springs and Austin, Texas, a former member of the Pilot & Today Editorial Board, and a Director of the Conservative Leadership Council of Northwest Colorado.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.