Some Thoughts On Conservatism

So, since being converted back to a kind of “realist conservatism” by Edward Feser (from libertarianism), I have been pondering what this system implies for more particular political policy judgments. I see clearly what it means for matters like marriage and life and death issues like abortion and euthanasia, but what really intrigues me is more the economic and financial matters. Feser argues (see article linked here) that natural law may support a right of a kind of state education system and a state health care system in certain situations, specifically a system where the people who would receive the assistance were in real distress (i.e., not the whole society generally):

A further possible justification of a right to assistance when in distress vis-à-vis health care and education would be to hold that such assistance falls under the “public good” that the state is obliged to provide for under natural law. The operative principle here is that of subsidiarity, according to which the more central authorities within a society should not carry out any functions that can be performed by the less central ones, though the more central authorities should carry out those that cannot be performed by the less central ones. To the extent that those in distress vis à vis health care and education simply have no other recourse, a right to assistance would arguably follow, if not from the Natural Law Proviso by itself, then at least from that proviso together with the classical natural law theory’s conception of the state and its proper functions.

The extent of governmental assistance such a right would justify is another question, and here I will end with three points. First, what classical natural law theory strictly requires and strictly rules out in the way of practical policy is much less than many partisans of various political persuasions would like. What it strictly requires is a system of private property rights that are robust but not absolute. What it strictly rules out, accordingly, are socialism at one extreme and laissez-faire libertarianism at the other. Between these extremes, though, there is wide latitude for reasonable disagreement among classical natural law theorists about how best to apply their principles, and these disagreements can largely be settled only by appeal to prudential matters of economics, sociology, and practical politics rather than fundamental moral principle. (50-51)

It strikes me, too, that “conservatism” itself is not a term that says much about what particular decisions one should make on those issues. If it just means, “what governments traditionally do”, well then libertarianism is certainly not the answer. In the 18th century, as far as I understand, the British government indeed had welfare systems and practiced economic protectionism of a kind. So would a “conservative” be labelled a Keynesian socialist by today’s standard “conservative”? It strikes me that this gets to the problem with the label in general: “conservatism”, as a label, seems to only mean “wants to change slowly”, but doesn’t determine in any clear way what change exactly is desired, or what end-goals are permitted.

If one wants to go back further (perhaps this is the conservative impulse itself?), to the dawn of the modern era, then most political systems would affirm a natural law, and draw from it several policies which would probably include a mixture of a welfare state (in a very broad sense) and a desire to preserve some private property. Is this what the “conservative” policy really is?

I know changing labels is not an easy thing to do, but as someone who feels forced to identify with “conservatism” in a broad sense in our culture (for lack of a better alternative), I really wish there were a more descriptive word that identified what “conservatism” really is for.