Today’s conservatism developed from the social setting of England around the time of the American Revolution. It was an era of nobles and landed gentry, whose titles and property were inherited, while the remaining population were assumed to be lesser beings. Perhaps it should be noted that we rabble in the colonies thought less of this arrangement than did the English upper class.
Edmund Burke (d. 1797) was the seminal writer on conservatism, and took this society for his ideal. Apparently, nobody asked the peasants whether they thought it was ideal. Then again, they were kept largely in ignorance, and most couldn’t write or read anyway. It was the upper class English who wrote books, which may be why the books on race they wrote, which categorized the various European groups but not the rest of the world, somehow always constructed the hierarchy with the upper class English as the superior race at the top of the heap.
Russell Kirk (d. 1994) was probably the leading spokesperson for the conservative cause in the 20th century. He listed six “canons” (canon means “law”) of conservatism. Or ten, depending on who you ask. When you look at these, you can see why conservatives believe as they do. You can also see why liberals don’t. It appears to be a matter of faith, not only that these canons are immutable laws, but Christian faith as well.
It is the combination of the first, third, and fourth of these “laws” that give me the most difficulty, and this combination grows directly out of the English class system. As stated by Russello in 2004, the first “law” says conservatives have “A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law”. The third is “A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize ‘natural’ distinctions”. The fourth: “A belief that freedom and property are closely linked.”
It would appear, then, that the “natural” order of things in Olde England came from God. However, I have it on good authority that most of the royals, nobles, and landed gentry simply seized their property by force a thousand years ago or so, and that the history of the place is filled with violence and betrayal as they battled to maintain or improve their status. Is that what is meant by “natural transcendent order”?
If freedom and property are so closely linked, then the moneyed classes of England and the US are free indeed. They can pretty much do as they please, because they are not restricted like the rest of us by mere lack of money. It is equally clear that the peasant classes, having no property of their own and purposely kept uneducated, had no freedom. Descendants of our very own “property”, slaves from Africa, have had a few things to say about that too. But this is the 21st century, and conservatives who salute these “basic laws” of society can do naught but believe that the rich (in lieu of an official class system) own their great wealth because of natural distinction. The flip side of the argument is that the poor deserve their fate because they are lesser beings. This may come as a shock to you if your life is not driven by the desire for ever more possessions and money.
What it boils down to is a belief that the inequalities we see are natural and proper. In today’s America it becomes a belief that God says the rich are the natural leaders and deserve all they have because they have it, whereas the rest are simply too lazy and untalented to deserve more.
This crashes head-on into the ideals expressed in our fundamental laws, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Such laws do not prescribe obviously impossible absolute equality. (Liberals are not so foolish as to believe that we are all equal in ability and ambition.) But this conservative tenet does violate the essential American idea of equality of opportunity. America is a classless society in that we have no titles of nobility to be inherited, and therefore anyone should have the opportunity to advance as far as his abilities permit. American conservatives appear to believe that there are such classes, that they are based on how rich you are, and if you are not rich it is because you deserve how little you have.
“All culture arises out of religion”, said Kirk, and Christianity and Western Civilization are “unimaginable apart from one another”. If you are among the large part of the population that is atheist or a believer in a faith other than Christianity, Kirk’s (and Burke’s and practically every other earlier European writer’s) belief in divine Christian revelation and natural law will surely make you see red at being utterly marginalized and discounted. Atheists see clearly that religion itself is the cause of much of the suffering of the world, and there can be no divine revelation because there is nothing divine. Regardless, belief in the superiority of a group of rich Christians based on what they own is hardly the ideal basis for maintaining a democratic society. But what you and I think and believe must have no bearing on anything that matters because it does not mesh with “natural laws” that firmly establish social status and wealth.
So this is where the beliefs of conservatives come from. It is no wonder that they have no interest in preserving the rights and wellbeing of us ordinary citizens, evidence of which invades the public discourse every day. We see it in every attempt to remove any vestige of the only power ordinary citizens have, organization through unions. We see it in demonization of the ordinary working family. It is easy to see why they don’t care that a full day of honest work at ordinary occupations may require a second job to make ends meet. But it is the best reason for battling them tooth and nail to force them to honor the basic American ideals and laws, not to mention the morals that they have abandoned on the altar of the 18th century conservative ideal.