Do conservatives believe in conservatism, or is conservatism whatever conservatives happen to believe? I think commenter Ken Nielsen is right when he says ‘“conservative” means different things to different people in different countries.’ In the very useful introduction to his book Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present, Jerry Muller says:
..conservatives have, at one time or place or another, defended royal power, constitutional monarchy, artistocratic preregotative, representative democracy, and presidential dictatorship; high tariffs and free trade; nationalism and internationalism; centralism and federalism; a society of inhereted estates, a capitalist, market democracy, and one or another version of the welfare state. …
You get the picture. John Howard fits into this – constitutional monarchy, free trade, soft nationalism, centralism, a capitalist, market democracy and a welfare state – but he could have had contrary ideas without threatening his status as a ‘conservative’. Unlike liberals, conservatives are not committed to a particular set of state institutions.
As I read Muller, conservativism is very hard to define in terms that apply to all times and places, but conservatives can be identified by recurrent themes (human imperfection, epistemological modesty, the value of restraint, the value of custom, historicism and particularlism, anti-contractualism, utility of religion); recurrent arguments (critique of ‘theory’, unintended consequences, latent functions, functional interdependence, anti-humanitarianism); recurrent substantive themes (scepticism of written constitutions, central role of cultural mores, scepticism of proposals to liberate individuals from cultural authority, emphasis on the family, legitimacy of inequality, security of property, importance of the state, assertions that capitalism depends on pre-market and non-market institutions and practices), and various recurrent images and metaphors.
Because conservatives don’t have a precise institutional framework they want to put in place (as liberals do) or have an ever-pressing though never-achieved goal like equality (as leftists do), they end up being defined politically in their time and place by what they are against as much as what they are for. They may deploy Muller’s themes and arguments to defend their position, but with a few exceptions those themes and arguments don’t in themselves tell us, without knowing the local context, exactly what substantive position a conservative will hold. Conservatism is a chameleon philosophy.
So at an given point in time and at any given place ‘conservativism’ is what self-described ‘conservatives’ believe. Academics like Marion Maddox get things hopelessly wrong when they try import analysis based on American conservatism to explain Australian conservatism.
By global standards, Australian conservatism is very mild. As I noted in my big government conservatism article, the modern social conservatism promoted by the former Prime Minister largely gave up on prescriptive enforcement of ‘family values’ in favour of helping families with large amounts of taxpayers’ cash. No-fault divorce stayed, welfare for single-parent families was expanded (via FTB B), contraception and abortion were state-promoted – all with little more than token opposition from within the government or the broader conservative movement.
It is only relative to some local ‘progressives’ that the former government can even claim to be ‘conservative’. Before the 1960s and 1970s, the Howard social policy status quo would have been what ‘progressives’ were trying to achieve. Australian conservatives have (perhaps reluctantly) accepted virtually all the social change of the last generation, while holding out against gay marriage, euthanasia, and genetic engineering of humans. They changed their political colours to fit into the new status quo, while still resisting further change.