What are we ‘conserving’ in the 21st Century?

“The age of chivalry is gone. The age of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever,” once lamented 19th Century conservative philosopher, Edmund Burke. Many traditionalists today look up to Burke for inspiration, as he and his European traditionalist contemporaries promoted traditional Christian morality and patriarchal authority, which they felt threatened by liberalism, reason (in the sense of applying the scientific method to philosophy), and changing social forces. The traditionalism championed by Burke survived in Europe for the following century, and although diminished today, is still, in some sense, a force to contend with.

But what of traditionalism in Canada and the ‘new world’? In only its 150th year of existence, the young nation has very little tradition to call upon for ideological guidance, and that which it does have is descended from its European origins or its First Nations roots. So what do conservatives conserve?

Well, today, conservatives spend much of their time defending the intellectuals, economists, and calculators that Edmund Burke spent so much time criticizing. For instance, it is incredibly ironic that Ronald Reagan, at the 1980 Republican convention, quoted Thomas Paine; a Burke rival. They also defend the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of western civilization, especially its Judeo-Christian heritage from Europe. While pure followers of Burke are a sizable part of the Canadian conservative movement, Canadian conservatives are largely supporters of the free market and individual freedom, which was opposed just as much by Burke as it is by socialists. In essence, conservatism in Canada is defending the classical liberal tradition of freedom, in addition to the traditionalist notions of family and faith.

Within the conservative movement, there is sometimes division between those that wish to defend “medieval” or “classical” tradition (i.e. faith, family, and authority) and those that wish to defend “enlightenment” tradition (i.e. reason, free markets, and liberty). Those divisions are apparent in the Conservative Party of Canada, with libertarians and social conservatives each pushing for more influence. In the recent leadership election, Maxime Bernier upheld the enlightenment tradition by promising smaller government and more freedom, while Brad Trost upheld a more radical version of classical traditions, making Judeo-Christian values important in his campaign.

But most conservatives today fall somewhere in the middle, most especially conservatives that identify as fusionists. Most conservatives do not wish for the imposition of religious morals by a Hobbesian ‘Leviathan’, and instead, many advocate for freedom of religion, intertwining the separate ideas of freedom and faith. In this fashion, religious people can practice their faith without persecution from the government. Moreover, many libertarians recognize the importance of moral objectivity in government, so that although individual people should be free to follow whatever system of ethics they choose, the ethics which have arisen from the accumulated knowledge from the millennia of western civilization are those which should guide public policy.

Many religious Christians, who once were the group that advocated for a larger government role in the economy to fulfill Jesus’ message of helping the poor, now endorse the free market as the principle means of doing so. Why? Because although Isaiah 58:10 states “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday,” Christians and other people of faith realize that virtue can only be achieved through voluntary acts of charity rather than forced government taxes.

And most of all, defenders of both traditions place immeasurable value on human life; no matter what religion one believes, no matter what colour of skin one is, no matter what level of development one is, no mater who one loves, all people are equally important in the eyes of both God and the reason of man. This emphasis on human life and the equality of man, regardless the origin of this emphasis, leads to support for pro-life policies, the rule of law, and a strict criminal code for those who would end the sacred life of a human being.

Not only do the defenders of each tradition agree on many things, they are even more united in their opposition to the liberalism – or rather, the liberal-collectivism (to distinguish from classical liberalism) – of left wing politics, and the cultural Marxism of the Far Left. Both traditionalists and libertarians disavow the Far Left’s use of identity politics, labeling people into artificial groups and telling them that there is a “hierarchy of victimhood” upon which an individual’s importance and value is measured. Whether because of Jesus Christ or John Locke, all conservatives agree that every human is equal, regardless of characteristics like ethnicity or gender.

Furthermore, while defenders of medieval tradition often view family as the basic view of society, and defenders of the enlightenment tradition view the individual as the basic unit of society, these views are not mutually incompatible. Canada’s current tax system, where either families or individuals can register as entities to be taxed is an example of this. Both types of conservatives also oppose the Far Left idea that identity groups based on physical characteristics are the basic unit of society. In terms of the more mainstream liberal-collectivism, both types of conservatives will often oppose weak national security policies such as Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau allowing a Chinese company to buy military technology, or former US President Obama refusing to veto UN sanctions against the democratic nation and US ally of Israel. Social conservatives do this out of their principle of authority and protection of the defenseless, and libertarians do this on their principle of protecting individual freedoms of people across the world (that being said, some more isolationist libertarians tend to stray from mainstream conservative foreign policy, altogether.) Additionally, both types of conservatives reject the tax and spend policies that are derived from Keynesian Economics; classical-traditionalists, because those policies fail to better the poor; and enlightenment-traditionalists, because excessive taxation infringes upon individual economic freedom.

Ultimately, while there may be small differences, modern social conservatism and libertarianism are different sides of the same coin; one side for great philosophers like St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Edmund Burke; and the other side for great philosophers like John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, and Milton Friedman. But this dichotomy does not have to be a weakness of the conservative movement, ripe for the liberal-collectivists to exploit. To truly defeat the liberal-collectivists and the far more dangerous cultural Marxists, both sides of the Conservative movement will have to realize this and recognize that they must unite and present a strong, conservative message to the general population. To win against the collectivists in the 21st Century, “fusionism” is the answer.

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