Why conservatism is rational (Rhianwen Daniel, 12/27/23, The Critic)

Conservatism is typically contrasted with progressivism, where progressivism conjures up thoughts of improvement and moving forward with the times. Who in their right mind would oppose this? Hence the inference that if you’re not progressive, you must be regressive or reactionary.

Such an inference, however, rests on an equivocation whereby two senses of the term progressivism are fudged. The specific progressivism which conservatives have traditionally been sceptical of is the Enlightenment concept that society is perfectible via rational intervention. Such social, cultural and economic progress will cumulatively unfold with the succession of time.

This ideology, in its various guises, ranges from the political thought of Voltaire, Hegel and Marx, the Progressive Era, through to the post-civil rights proliferation of social justice and welfare reforms. Although it clearly differs from the everyday sense of the term, equivocating between both senses all too easily yields the conclusion that conservatism opposes progress without qualification.

The fact, however, is that conservatism concerns the optimal rate of change, as opposed to resisting it altogether. Indeed, conservatives have always maintained that change is necessary to conserving institutions in the first place. As Burke puts it, “a state without the means of some change is without the means for its conservation.”