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What is Political Conservatism?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 23, 2024
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Political conservatism is a philosophy that is characterized by a belief in individual liberty, small government, low taxes and fiscal responsibility. Like many political ideologies, it is sometimes misunderstood. For instance, many people believe that conservatism is simply a desire to maintain the status quo or even return to previous conditions. In fact, when political conservatism came into being as an identifiable ideology in Europe after the French Revolution, it was exemplified by resistance to change and adherence to the status quo, which was seen as representing continuity and stability. In the ensuing centuries, though, political conservatism has developed a clear set of policy objectives as opposed to mere nostalgia, and in many cases, it promotes a change from the status quo.

Small Government

Modern political conservatism espouses a small government. From this viewpoint, government undertakes only those things that cannot or ought not to be undertaken by private individuals or private business, such as building roads and providing for the common defense. It's the conservative view that most government involvement in business — including regulation — equates to interference and that a nation's economy would be stronger with less interference.

Opposed to Economic Interference

Political conservatism also opposes the intrusion of government into people's economic lives. From the conservative perspective, government-operated social welfare programs, whether established for retirement and healthcare or simply as assistance for the poor, substitute the government's judgment for one's own with respect to saving and planning. Many conservatives believe that these programs make citizens more dependent upon the government. When people become destitute or needy, many conservatives believe that it is the responsibility of the social infrastructure, including religious groups and charity organizations, to address the problems of the poor.

Low Tax Rates

The conservative position typically is that government should operate at a subsistence level, bringing in just enough revenue to support essential spending. In some cases, the conservative approach to government budget deficits has been to seek spending reductions. When this goal is unattainable, conservatives generally resort to borrowing to make up the shortfall, rarely resorting to tax increases that would increase the economic burdens placed on citizens.

Conservatism also opposes government attempts to influence the economy, often through tax policy, to accomplish socially desirable goals. Conservatives argue that such attempts often have unexpected, adverse consequences. Socially desirable results, according to conservatism, will be achieved if the free enterprise system is allowed to work.

Disagreement also exists among conservatives about taxation. A progressive income tax is seen as a penalty imposed on achievement, and some conservatives prefer a flat-rate income tax, but others support a consumption tax. Conservatism also opposes taxing businesses, arguing that business taxes are inevitably embedded in the cost of goods or services and passed on to the consumer, thus blurring the nation's true tax rate.

National Defense

A strong national defense is a feature of the conservative philosophy. Many conservatives believe that this is the highest priority that a government can have. Political conservatism advocates the dedication of whatever resources are necessary to establish and maintain the national defense at its highest possible level.

Social Conservatism

Like most systems of political thought, political conservatism is an ideology that generates controversy, sometimes because people and groups that have other agendas latch onto the conservative label as a vehicle for spreading their own message. Although they might sense a community of interests, they also blur the distinction between political conservatism and schools of thought outside the political realm, such as social conservatism. In many cases, in fact, the distinction between these two particular groups can sometimes be difficult to discern.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By Terrificli — On May 25, 2014

One thing about political conservatism is that the definition of what one is changes regularly. The same is true of liberalism. A major problem that both liberals and conservatives face is the almost constant accusation that each is betraying their roots.

A question that always pops up during discussions about ideological definitions is whether they should remain relatively unchanged or if they should evolve with the times.

By Melonlity — On May 24, 2014

If you want a crash course on political conservatism, read up on the works of Edmund Burke. He is considered by many to be the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.

And a good understanding of Burke will help dispel the notion that political conservatives simply want to return to the past. Burke was a member of the House of Commons of Great Britain who actually supported the Americans during the Revolutionary War.

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