So, what is modern conservatism? I will start with two comments. One is that I am no scholar of modern conservatism. I have not read Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, or other conservative philosophers. But secondly, I do not think being a scholar of modern conservatism is necessary to comment present day right wing politics. Few of our politicians are scholars of any ideology and few still (proportionately) of the voting public. I do not believe, therefore, that any more than the crudest approximation of modern conservative ideology is necessary to discuss practical politics.
With that out of the way, I would define modern conservatism in comparison and contrast to pre-Enlightenment conservatism.
Modern conservatism is secular:
Modern conservatives individually may be either believers or non-believers. Even the non-believers may encourage religion as necessary to promote good behavior. But modern conservatives do not believe that God has decreed any one social order. Modern conservatism began as a critique of classical liberalism, but it has adopted at least one classical liberal premise -- "Because God said so" is not a sufficient argument. When modern conservatives want to argue for a particular institution, policy or tradition, they make their argument in secular terms.
Modern conservatism upholds the status quo:
Generally speaking, modern conservatism rejects not only revolution, but reform as illegitimate. Social engineering is a dirty word to modern conservatives, while the Law of Unintended Consequences is almost sacred. Modern conservatives do not see society as a static unit ordained by God, but they do see it as the product of a long process of development, a set of organic traditions, a spontaneous order, the workings of the free market, or similarly complicated process. What they do not see society as is a rational construct that is the product of conscious decisions by individual social planners. Or, put differently, God did not say, "Let there be a specific social order," and neither did any human actor. The social order, in one form or another, is seen as a complex, fragile, tightly interdependent whole. Tampering with any part of it may have unforeseen and possible devastating consequences to other, far-flung parts of the whole.
At the same time, modern conservatism recognizes the necessity and inevitability of change:
While modern conservatives distrust all reforms as "liberal social engineering," they also realize that change is inevitable, and that any attempt to freeze society in amber is itself a form of social engineering. Modern conservatives are therefore most accepting of change if it happens on its own without anyone specifically intending it. The proper mechanism depends on the branch of modern conservatism. Perhaps an organic tradition may develop slowly or a spontaneous order emerge on its own. To a libertarian, a mass of atomized actors may all individually decide they want something new and convey that change through the mechanism of the market. Or a brilliant entrepreneur may come up with a new invention that has far-ranging social consequences. For instance, when Henry Ford invented the assembly line and changed cars from a rich man's luxury to a product available to the general public, this invention had far-ranging consequences. It broke the power of the railroad companies which once had such a stranglehold on commerce and travel. Making travel much faster from any point to any other had complex effects on residential density. And (rumor has it) easy access to cars worked a loosening of sexual mores. But Henry Ford did not intend any of these far-ranging social effects; he was just making cars.
All of this illustrates an obvious reason why pre-Enlightenment conservatism is no longer viable in the modern age. Before the Industrial Revolution, one might realistically fantasize about a static, unchanging society. Since the Industrial Revolution, it has become obvious the technological change is with us to stay. And to expect technological change not to bring about social change is simply unrealistic. And yet some Republicans are doing just that these days. That will be the subject of my next post.