The disastrous American fiscal and financial practices that have produced massive annual budget deficits, an enormous national debt, and the increasing certainty of rising interest rates, inflation, and default raise the important question of the desirability and necessity of significant policy change. It is commonly argued by both self-styled conservatives and critics of conservatism that the conservative approach to statecraft mandates adherence to the status quo and precludes drastic alterations in governance. Although generally eschewing sharp deviations from existing policies, conservatism does not categorically oppose dramatic changes in all circumstances. This essay will briefly explain the conservative approach to statecraft and why it is not incompatible with radical change under exigent situations.
There are several premises of philosophical conservatism that are relevant to the question of whether substantial change is fundamentally incompatible with the conservative disposition toward public policy. The first is the belief that the universal is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for human action which cannot be fully and comprehensively articulated or known by individuals. Although knowledge of the good, the true, and the beautiful is certainly possible, final and complete comprehension of the transcendent is beyond human attainment. As a result, conservatism is highly suspicious of ideological systems which purport to possess universally applicable blueprints for social and political order. Conservatives are strongly opposed to policy prescriptions based upon abstract principles regardless of whether they support or oppose the status quo. However, dislike for ideologically motivated innovation or preservation does not mean that conservatives are categorically against all reform. Instead, the recognition that the universal is not completely exhausted by any existing political order renders conservatives amenable to prudent reformation.
The second is the belief that the universal is discovered or revealed in the particular or historical realm. Individuals encounter concrete instantiations of the good, the true, and the beautiful in the best of historically evolved traditions, customs, and precedents. Consequently, conservatives generally grant deference and respect to longstanding practices which have an observable record of success. However, conservatives are also profoundly aware that many social institutions and practices are deeply flawed and require improvement. As a result, conservatism is not necessarily opposed to the alteration of existing social structures so long as the proposed changes can be justified by concrete evidence.
The third is the belief that human reason is fallible and limited. Although reason is an important faculty for reflecting upon and categorizing concrete human experience, it is insufficient for constructing whole political and social orders. While human reason may be instrumental in discovering inadequacies and deficiencies in political society, it may also provide erroneous and inaccurate assessments and solutions which, if implemented, could constitute civilizational retreat rather than progress. As a result, conservatism is cautious about attempts to reform political society and generally favors limited and incremental rather than drastic and immediate change. If attempts at reform prove problematic, small changes cause less damage and are easier to repair than massive alterations. Nevertheless, conservatives recognize that uneasiness about change does not translate into adamant and unqualified opposition to all attempts at improvement—even radical ones.
The fourth is the belief that real solutions to concrete problems are best derived through intimate familiarity with the particulars of a given situation. As a result, authority for prescribing solutions to problems is proportional to knowledge of the situation in which the difficulty arises. The concrete circumstances not only determine whether change is appropriate but also the necessary magnitude of amendment. Although conservatives tend to be skeptical of significant alterations—especially ones based upon ideology or ahistorical rationality—they recognize that certain conditions may require drastic measures to avoid great evils. If the current practices are sufficiently defective, and if the consequences of continuing the status quo are sufficiently disastrous, it is consistent with conservative philosophy to call for drastic measures to avert or mitigate a crisis. Conservatives recognize that in certain situations, the consequences of preserving or slightly changing the status quo may vastly outweigh not only the perceived consequences of substantial change but also the inherent risks of radical amendment. However, the amount of historical evidence necessary to justify enormous change is usually quite high and thus situations of this type are unusual. As a result, conservatism is not categorically and irrevocably opposed to drastic change in all circumstances.
The fifth is the belief that social and political reformation should be rooted in the totality of a whole tradition spanning centuries rather than in the past few years or even decades of political practice. As Peter Viereck argues in The Unadjusted Man, conservatives adjust to the archetypes of the ages rather than the stereotype of the present age. In order to avoid the assumption that the present period possesses a monopoly on wisdom, conservatism tries to consider all the evidence presented by human history. As a result, conservatives may reject a significant trend which has developed in a given political society over years and decades as inconsistent with the concrete evidence found throughout the vast experience of history. Thus, the demand for a significant change is not necessarily inconsistent with conservatism. It may be conservative to reject a major development within a tradition and it may be profoundly anti-conservative to support the status quo. The ultimate determination of whether an action is conservative depends on the basis for accepting or rejecting a policy and not on whether the acceptance or rejection constitutes opposition to or support for change.
In conclusion, although producing a disposition against radical change, the premises of philosophical conservatism do not mandate absolute opposition to all dramatic alterations of current social practice. Instead, several key principles of conservative political thought are incompatible with categorical and ideological denunciations of all significant change. The question of whether conservatives are able to support significant deviation from the immediate past is relevant to the present American cultural, social, ethical, economic, and financial condition. Since the United States faces crucial problems in each of these areas, radical amendment of existing practices and institutions may become not only advisable but also unavoidable. If conservatism is construed as advocating categorical opposition to all dramatic change regardless of the circumstances, it will fail to prepare individuals for action in the real world and thus become irrelevant if not detrimental to good civilization and constitutional order.