As someone who tends to fall on the libertarian end of the political spectrum, I used to struggle with understanding the term “conservative” as a political category. I have noticed the term expresses a broad political ideology. This is generally understood to those that adhere to the principle of conservatism but not something readily available for comprehension insofar as someone is on the outside looking in. So, when one conservative discusses the current political situation with another conservative, there is an unspoken agreement on the axioms.

I struggled with conservatism before because I didn’t understand its situational meaning. That is, conservatism takes on a specific expression depending on the context of the discourse. For example, if one talks about conservative ideas in political discourse, they express ideas of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government. In contrast, if one is talking about conservatism in a cultural sense, then they are referring to traditional values such as family, faith, and personal responsibility.

When I realized conservatism consisted of multiple expressions, I started to map out its situational meaning. I was able to identify four areas where conservatism takes on a different expression but remains connected by the same sense, namely, its underlying philosophy. Here, I briefly layout those expressions.

Philosophical conservatism

If one were to attribute a virtue to conservatism, that virtue would be prudence. Prudence is at the core of conservatism. Prudence is the central theme that gives rise to the other expressions of conservatism. The virtue of prudence gives conservatism that reservationist attitude that tends to be associated with the political right when it comes to transformative ideas in culture, politics, and education, and family life.

Political conservatism

Political conservatism is reflected in the ideas of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government. These political axioms unite conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals in America. Outside of the U.S., the political axioms are advanced by the EU liberals and the United Kingdom Tories. Political conservatism represents the continuation of late 18th century Enlightenment ideals in the 21st century. There is a solid commitment to liberal democracy, individualism, objective reason, and an understanding of the world as it is and not as we wish it to be.

Cultural conservatism

All political movements are influenced by culture. Conservatism is no exception. As in the case of most cultural arrangements in society, culture can be said to have hard and soft tendencies. Within the hard cohort of cultural conservatism, one can find individuals with a very specific view of the world. However, the vast majority of those on the hard end of the spectrum tend to tolerate different cultural worldviews, albeit show very clear preference for a traditional hegemony of culture. On the soft side of cultural conservatism, individuals tend to be very tolerant of different cultural worldviews. In fact, they frequently engage with cultures and subcultures that have a different perspective on life. However, this group is committed to traditional culture as a kind of foundational source for social norms, moral guidance, and generally accepted behaviors.

Fiscal conservatism

While political conservatism tends to represent a more abstract vision of government, fiscal conservatism is the concrete form of political ideology. Fiscal conservatism is concerned with the government having a balanced budget, avoiding deficit spending, low taxes, and limited regulation. Fiscal conservatism tends to be economical with resources and risk-averse when it comes to capital investment.

Empirical conservatism

The last of the five areas of conservatism is empirical conservatism. Empirical conservatism argues that knowledge is derived from experience. Policies are promoted based on trends in historical data. Insofar as historical data can say anything about the future, those statements will default to inferential prudence and tend to be very modest with predications. Hence, policies under the guise of empirical conservatism tend to be incremental and likely to go through long periods of experimentation

Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh, NC. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.