George Will has a thoughtful column titled (in the Washington Post, at least) “The Case for Conservatism.” You might say that it demonstrates that George Will has accepted modernity, because his definitions of liberalism and conservatism are thoroughly modern, not historical. Consider:
Today conservatives tend to favor freedom…. Liberalism increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.
Traditionally, of course, it was liberals who favored freedom and minimal government. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines liberalism as a ”political doctrine that takes the abuse of power, and thus the freedom of the individual, as the central problem of government.” Wikipedia is similar: “Liberalism refers to a broad array of related doctrines, ideologies, philosophical views, and political traditions which advocate individual liberty…. Broadly speaking, liberalism emphasizes individual rights.”
Conservatism, on the other hand, according to Britannica, is a “political philosophy that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.” In many societies, of course, freedom is not a traditional practice. George Will may be talking strictly about American conservatism, in which case it is plausible to say that a conservative should want to preserve the traditional American institutions and practice of liberty and limited government. I have often wondered, what does it mean to be a conservative in a nation founded in libertarian revolution If it means preserving the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, then a conservative is a libertarian — or what used to be called a liberal.
But what if one wants to conserve something else Who’s to say that the principles of 1776 are the right thing to conserve What if you wanted to conserve Southern plantation society Or the rights and privileges of the British monarchy Or the institutions of the Dark Ages Or the traditional Indian practice of suttee, in which widows are expected to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre