What do we mean by conservatism? We do not mean, as the critics charge, an unreflecting culture of tradition. Conservatism, ever since Edmund Burke has been a self-conscious effort to balance the past, present and future.
Let us take three strands of conservatism and illuminate each one. First of all there is cultural conservatism, which finds its founding statement in Burke's declaration that we, the generation of the living, have a contract both with our dead ancestors and with generations yet unborn. Then there is economic conservatism that begins with Adam Smith's declaration of the Invisible Hand, that there is a natural cooperation between people that directs them into socially beneficial actions even when they are seeking their own self interest. Then there is political conservatism that begins with Montesquieu's doctrine of the three branches of government and the separation of powers.
The cultural strain that begins with Burke and his jeremiad against the mechanical culture of the Age of Reason, its reduction of everything to Newtonian mechanics and "sophisters, economists, and calculators" continues with people like George Eliot, who argued for the dignity of ordinary people, from Adam Bede to Maggie Tulliver to Mary Garth and to Mirah Lapidoth. In our time we have Berger and Neuhaus arguing for the dignity of authentic self-governing mediating structures between the individual and the mega-structures of big government and big corporations. And we have people like Lawrence Cahoone and his Civil Society working out the details of people living in dignity, equality and freedom. And there is Charles Taylor, a liberal Canadian philosopher, who makes a conservative case for a society that digests the modern ideas of freedom, equality, dignity, and expressive creativity into a blend that conservatives can live.
The economic strain that begins with Adam Smith and his Invisible Hand, was expanded with Ricardo's law of comparative advantage. Then in 1870 came the marginal revolution that unified the idea of exchange value and intrinsic value. Finally, Mises demonstrated the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism, and Hayek showed the impossibility of bureaucratic centralism: the man in Washington cannot hope to out-think the millions of consumers and producers. The idea that only a wise ruler can negotiate the conflicts of a people is shown to be impossible. People do better negotiating with each other than through the middle man from the government.
The political strain that begins with Montesquieu's idea of the three branches of government, legislative, executive, and judicial was implemented with astonishing success by James Madison. It remains unequaled in its approach to the political problem: how do you give government enough power to fight enemies, foreign and domestic, yet not too much power that it can oppress its legitimate opponents? Now Michael Novak has extended the separation of powers doctrine to society as a whole. Differentiating society into three sectors, economic, political, and moral/cultural, he proposes what I call a Greater Separation of Powers. In this view the separation of church and state, adumbrated in the First Amendment prohibition of an establishment of religion, is extended to the notion of a separation of power between the three sectors: separation of political and moral/cultural power and separation of economic and political power.
We have in this triple conservative vision a people independent and free and institutions that will protect freedom while encouraging social cooperation. Now all we need is the implementation.
And that starts, after the horror of Obama, with persuading the American people to abandon the welfare state Battle of the Benefits, the reduction of social life to a scramble for loot, and return America to a land that is first of all a society of Makers from its current shame as a robber band of Takers.