In this election season it's not uncommon to hear the ideological labels "conservative" and "liberal" used to describe either an individual or a particular policy position. Since a lot of people may be unclear as to what these terms mean we thought it might be useful to offer a thumbnail sketch on what it is people are referring to when they use the word "conservative". Perhaps later we'll do something similar for the term "liberal".
There are at least four fields or arenas where the labels conservative and liberal are applied: Foreign policy, economics, social policy, and religion. Many people are conservative in some of these and liberal in others. Few people are uniformly one or the other so it behooves us to know, when someone is identified as a conservative, exactly what area of life he is considered to be conservative in.
It also should be pointed out that the ideological spectrum has shifted to the left over the past 100 years so that what is conservative today would in some cases have been considered liberal in the 19th century. Thus, to add to our confusion, people who are considered modern conservatives are sometimes said to be classical liberals. That is, they embrace the values of political and individual liberty advanced by liberals of the 18th and 19th century.
So what does one who calls himself a conservative believe? The foundational principle of conservatism is individual freedom. Conservatives tend to be in favor of small, decentralized government, low taxes and spending, and minimal governmental interference in our economic and personal lives. They believe that excessively high taxes are not only a violation of one's right to keep his own property but are also economically counterproductive.
Conservatives maintain that high taxes are counterproductive for this reason: The more money people have in their pockets the more they will save and spend and both of these activities are good for the economy. The more money people save the more money that is available for businesses and home and automobile buyers to borrow and therefore the lower interest rates will be. The more money people spend, the more money businesses earn and the more jobs that are created. The higher the earnings business enjoys, and the more people who are employed, the more taxes that are paid. Thus lowering taxes actually increases the tax revenues taken in by the government.
High taxes, on the other hand, have the opposite effect. They depress spending and saving and reduce the rate of job creation. This increases poverty and accomplishes nothing good except to allow people who resent the wealthy to feel good about taking their money.
The conservative emphasis on individual freedom and small, unintrusive government underlies their support for giving parents the right to send their children to whichever schools they wish. It also accounts for the conservatives' desire to privatize social security. They want the people who earn the money to have the freedom to decide for themselves how they will provide for their senior years, and they oppose what they see as a government sponsored pyramid scheme that passes the obligation to pay for social security benefits onto future generations.
Conservatives also tend to see human nature as inherently sinful or flawed. They believe that, although society should maximize individual freedom, it needs to balance liberty with the need to maintain a healthy moral environment for families to thrive in. Society needs to erect fences around human appetite to keep people from shedding the tenuous moral leashes which enable us to live together in community. Thus conservatives prize free speech, but believe that some speech, like anything taken too far, or too broadly interpreted, can be harmful to society. Thus the right to freedom of expression needs to be balanced by the right to raise one's children in a psychologically and morally healthy culture.
Conservatives, furthermore, tend to advocate a strong military which should be employed only in defense of our national interest. Many conservatives opposed the peace-keeping missions in Bosnia and Haiti in the nineties because they could see no national interest at stake. Many also opposed the war in Iraq, though not the war in Afghanistan, for the same reason.
This is one of the differences between "paleo" conservatives and "neo" conservatives. "Neo-cons" are much more willing to use American power in defense of those who cannot defend themselves. Paleo-cons would argue that we have no national interest in Sudan, for example, so we should do nothing more than use diplomatic and economic levers to effect change there. Neo-cons would argue that we should not stand by and allow people to be slaughtered if we can prevent it. We should do whatever we can to help those people, and if that includes the application of military force then we should not shrink from such a measure. "Paleos" tend to be militarily isolationist while "neos" tend to be more willing to intervene around the world on behalf of the poor and oppressed.
Conservatives also maintain that human rights need to be grounded in the transcendent, i.e. God. If there is no transcendent source of our rights then there are no rights at all. There are just arbitrary words on paper (See here for a fuller treatment of this topic). For this reason, it is less common to find atheists in conservative ranks than it is to find them among liberals who tend to see human rights as somehow inherent in persons.
Conservatives tend to hold, or at least support, traditional values and religious beliefs and oppose major structural change when undertaken just to accommodate current cultural, social or political fashion. They will, therefore, tend to oppose gay marriage, easy divorce, abortion on demand, and attempts to purge the public square of religious influence (for example, removing God from the pledge of allegiance).
They also tend to be strict constructionists with respect to interpretation of the constitution. The constitution, in their view, is not a document which can be stretched to mean whatever a handful of justices think it should mean. Conservatives believe that the constitution should be interpreted in the light of the intentions of those who wrote it. This leads them to oppose some gun control laws, which they see as an infringement of the second ammendment and to oppose the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which overturned the laws prohibiting abortion in every state in the union and for which they can find no constitutional warrant.
Conservatives are strong believers in personal accountability and consequently tend to favor tough enforcement of laws and serious punishment for serious crime. Their belief in personal responsibility combined with their conviction that government should be decentralized and unobtrusive leads them to be skeptical of the efficacy of many government welfare programs. Their objection to these has been primarily that historically they provide relief to people but require no accountability from the recipient and don't really help people in the long run. Indefinite relief with no accountability or reciprocation nurtures vices which tend to perpetuate the very poverty government wishes to eliminate.
It's probably fair to classify President Bush as a conservative or neo-conservative. He certainly fits this identification with respect to his positions on national defense, the constitution, and religion. He's somewhere in the middle of the ideological spectrum economically, favoring low taxes but indulging in high government spending, a combination that earns him criticism from both conservatives, who are aghast at the high spending, and liberals, who deplore low tax rates, especially if they apply to the wealthy.
On social issues Bush tends to be conservative in his stance on life issues like abortion and stem cell research, as well as on protecting marriage. He receives a lot of criticism for his immigration policy, but it's not clear that the criticism is ideologically grounded. He favors maximum opportunities for people to come to this country, but so do many conservatives and liberals. Both camps are split on this issue for quite different reasons.
There is doubtless much more that could be said about conservatism, and we invite readers to contribute their thoughts on the topic to our Feedback Forum.