[T]here is an impression—mistaken, in my view—that people who advocate to maintain existing policies are “conservatives,” and people who advocate to change them are “liberals.” […]
This approach, however, renders political theory mere sport, turning “liberalism” and “conservatism” into stand-ins for “offense” and “defense.” There must be something more to those terms. Defending our current use of automobiles, for example, as socially conservative would require more than simply arguing in favor of the status quo. It would require more, even, than arguing that we depend upon it, or that change would be tremendously difficult, or that many of our other social and economic structures would be impacted. A truly conservative defense of a social policy or institution primarily involves the argument that the social policy or institution comports with human nature, with right behavior, and with a proper ordering of society.
I’d suggested in the comments that Michael Oakeshott might be relevant hereabouts. Oakeshott writes:
The general characteristics of this [conservative] disposition are not difficult to discern, although they have often been mistaken. They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. Reflection may bring to light an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past; but there is no mere idolizing of what is past and gone. What is esteemed is the present; and it is esteemed not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity (“On Being Conservative,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays).
Is this a sufficient or merely a necessary condition for conservatism? I’m inclined to think that Oakeshott views it as sufficient. He insists, however, that conservatism in the sense he means it will sometimes very appropriately be absent. In the very next paragraph he writes:
If the present is arid, offering little or nothing to be used or enjoyed, then this inclination will be weak or absent; if the present is remarkably unsettled, it will display itself in a search for a firmer foothold and consequently in a recourse to and an exploration of the past; but it asserts itself characteristically when there is much to be enjoyed, and it will be strongest when this is combined with evident risk of loss.
Oakeshottean conservatism is about valuing the present, about cherishing what good things we now have, and about fearing that they might be lost. This need not turn politics into mere offense and defense, but the way to escape that view of politics as “mere sport” is — as Oakeshott says — to admit that you might actually once in a while change sides. After that, it’s not a sport. It’s an ongoing search for truth, a truth we may (or may not) have partially discovered already.
There are obviously other conservatisms out there, but this is a big one, isn’t it? Theoretically very important? Able to discern reactionary, conservative, liberal, and progressive? I think so, anyway.
At any rate, I don’t find that it adds much depth to one’s policy preferences, and certainly not much that is particularly conservative, to say that one’s preferences “comport with human nature, with right behavior, and with a proper ordering of society.” Everyone thinks this about the policies they prefer. We differ precisely on our views of human nature, right behavior, and the proper ordering of society, and by saying so we’ve just extended the battlefield as we were bound to do in any case, from policy preferences to the reasons we have for holding them.
Now people of this disposition commonly defend their belief that the proper attitude of government towards the current condition of human circumstances is one of acceptance by appealing to certain general ideas. They contend that there is absolute value in the free play of human choice, that private property (the emblem of choice) is a natural right, that it is only in the enjoyment of diversity of opinion and activity that true belief and good conduct can be expected to disclose themselves. But I do not think that this disposition requires these or any similar beliefs in order to make it intelligible. Something much smaller and less pretentious will do: the observation that this condition of human circumstance is, in fact, current, and that we have learned to enjoy it and how to manage it… and that it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom which discloses to theme a better range of beliefs and activities and which gives them authority to impose upon their subjects a quite different manner of life.
To be strict about it, we might call all those arguments for natural rights, or for private property, or even for Lockean liberalism that here justify the status quo not conservative arguments, but arguments that happen to justify the conservative disposition to us. The same arguments alluded to above, made in a society without a sense of natural rights, or without private property, or without Lockean liberalism, would not be arguments justifying the conservative disposition to that society. They would be arguments in favor of some form of progressivism.