What is a conservative?

From the initial guidebook from Patrick Allitt’s course:

Conservatism is, above all, an attitude about the world, which sees the past as the best guide for navigating our way into the future. It assumes that all the really important questions confronting humanity have already been answered, and that it is generally safest to stick to what is tried and true. Blueprints for transforming society, say conservatives, will not work; they do not pay sufficient heed to the complexity of human nature, and their unforeseen side effects can easily do more harm than the good they intend. Conservatives tend to be skeptical about the possibility of human perfection; even those who are not religious understand the wisdom embodied in the idea of original sin: that we are all capable of evil as well as good. Conservatives think of imperfect human nature as the bedrock of social and political reality; it may seem different under different social and cultural conditions, they admit, but it never changes in its essentials.

Several things jump out at me here. The first is that I strongly resonate with the idea of original sin and how that affects public policy. This is part of why I like capitalism. The basic economic dictum of neoclassical economics states that when selfish, self-interested individuals try to maximize their own welfare in a free market environment they unknowingly bring about a “virtuous” world where everyone becomes materially better-off. Like Adam Smith said,

. . . every individual . . . intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. . . . By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (Smith, p. 423)

So this is at least one link between my economic, religious and political beliefs, which is nice and tidy. However, I am interested how Allitt’s quote intersects with other conservative beliefs/positions. Choose, for example, don’t ask don’t tell (DADT). The military is about to have a huge battle here as the administration (and congress) will make this a major push (cf. the letter from the president

here) and the Defense Department is ready to go along, at least Adm Mullen and Secretary Gates are. So naturally, this will be an issue with conservatives lining up in (probably weak) opposition. I don’t want to get into the current politics of this, but how does this position mesh with Prof Allitt’s description above? My views on this issue relate to my faith and personal preference. Period. I haven’t had time to consider the public policy, ethical stance on this, let alone think about how issues like abortion, gay marriage and DADT mesh with conservative philosophy. If we stick with the opening quote, is it because “all the really important questions confronting humanity have already been answered, and that it is generally safest to stick to what is tried and true” or simply because many conservatives happen to be Christians who oppose openly homosexual relations in the military because of their faith? (I want to leave room for other Christians to disagree with DADT or support openly gay relations in the military.) In any case, what do you think of the quote above? I really don’t want to debate/discuss DADT here, but how principles in the quote above apply to non-fiscal current issues. Does Allitt get it right or is he mischaracterizing conservative philosophy?

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