Constructive Conservatism, #6

For what are the principles of Conservatism, these leading ideas and ideals which are the essence of its view of life?

The first of these is the stability of the social structure. A stable condition of society is the main preoccupation of Conservatism. This is the real clue to its whole political philosophy. If change has been resisted, it has been because the Conservative has feared that it would produce confusion and instability. When it has been clear that only by change can stability be re-established, no party has been more fearless in making the most drastic changes. And similarly, the situations which have given to Conservatism its moments of intense anxiety have been those when “marginal cases” have arisen in which the problem has been whether stability is best secured by the existing conditions or by the proposed change.

And this insistence upon stability is no fad or catchword, for as the generations come and go, the opportunity offered for full enjoyment and full development to each individual during his little span of consciousness depends upon the society and community which surrounds and contains him being stable—at peace with itself, not at war.

But stability is not stagnation. Stability is as much the condition of steady progress for a society as it is for a ship. Stagnation, since life is movement, means necessarily that atrophy is at work; that tissues are dying which should be living; that dead matter is accumulating which must, by more or less violent means, be cast out. To confuse stability with stagnation is, however, from the nature of things, a special danger for Conservatism, for it is the natural defect of its virtue. And just because Conservatism is the real guardian of stability in the community—the school of thought which alone gives stable conditions their just valuation—it has a special duty constantly to search out the means by which stability threatened can be saved, stability lost can be recovered.

The second fundamental Conservative principle is that the character of the individual citizen being the greatest asset of the State, the primary object and the best test of all legislation which deals with the individual is its influence upon his character.

Everything that weakens individual character and lessens individual effort and initiative is anathema to the Conservative. Everything that strengthens and increases these is very near to his heart. The consequences flowing from this principle are so manifold that they cannot be elaborated here. The main and most essential one is the insistence by Conservatism on the necessity of limiting the action of the State as far as possible to “helping the individual to help himself.” Further, it follows that the best kind of social legislation is that which gives to the citizens a better chance of helping themselves during their working lives, and that only second best (though admittedly essential in many cases) is direct State intervention to sustain, shelter, and support those who have failed in health or occupation. For these failures only touch the fringe of the life of the nation. It is improvement in conditions during the working life which marks the real advance.

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