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History: The word “conservative,” as used to refer to a political stance, was coined by the French political theorist Chateaubriand around 1790. Chateaubriand’s academic journal, Le Conservateur, took its inspiration from the Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who believed that society should rarely be swayed by new ideas and promises of utopia because such ideas too often reflect the untested preferences of either a single individual or a single generation. Tradition, on the other hand, has been tested by time; it draws on the experience of many generations and is grounded in such important institutions as the Church and the family. Progress, argued Burke, should thus be piecemeal and organic; it should conserve inherited wisdom and avoid hasty modifications based on trendy doctrines or theories. It’s for this reason that Burke and his disciples argued that conservatism, which has no utopian program or master plan, is free of ideology. American liberals would eventually contend otherwise, of course, recasting “conservative” as a negative label that describes one who is ideologically predisposed to reject change or progress of any sort, usually with the goal of preserving his own power.
Etymology: The Latin root of “conservative” is servare, which means “to make safe, guard, protect,” and so on. Other modern words that share this root include “observe” (to watch over) and “preserve” (to make safe in advance). The prefix “con-” comes from the Latin cum, which means “with.” When combined with servare, it means “to keep safe altogether.” Add to that the suffix “-ive,” meaning “relating to or belonging to,” and you have a description of one who seeks to protect something, in this case the collective and time-tested wisdom that inheres in tradition and traditional institutions. Today, however, those who oppose the conservative viewpoint have somehow managed to associate the prefix “con-” with the word “con,” which can mean (as a noun) “an argument against taking action” or (as a verb) “to cheat somebody.” Thus, in the U.S., conservatism has been tarred with a number of negative connotations, including pessimism, deceptiveness, selfishness, and immorality, not to mention ignorance and obstinacy.
Effect: For the liberal, “it’s not simply conservative policies that are wrong,” writes Peter Schweizer, a research fellow at Stanford University whose most recent book, Makers and Takers, features a study of conservative behavior. Many liberals believe that “conservatives suffer from a deficient moral code, and concomitant character flaws. Conservatives are backward, ignorant, and selfish.” But in actuality, says Schweizer, such accusations are part of a disinformation campaign that has no basis in reality. Citing research conducted by the University of Chicago and the National Opinion Research Center, he demonstrates convincingly that, in aggregate, those who identify themselves as conservative are less selfish, less focused on money, more emotionally satisfied, more honest, more knowledgeable, and more generous than their liberal peers. It would thus seem that a belief in what T. S. Eliot called “the permanent things”—in longstanding moral truths, the natural law, first principles, and ordered liberty—does not make one a bad guy after all. In fact, argues Schweizer, it is the moral relativism that attends the constant desire to “change with the times” that has made liberals, on the whole, the far dicier citizens.
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