It should be clear by now that classical conservatism is less idealistic than many other political perspectives, and indeed it can be accused of being downright pessimistic. The main reason for this is its opposition to political rationalism, namely the idea that political systems should be patterned after rational and all-encompassing systems of thought. According to classical conservatism, human beings are motivated by feelings, friendships, and allegiances as well as by reason. Therefore, reducing politics and law to a set of rational principles runs the risk of failing to secure the allegiance of citizens. Put simply, political allegiance and social bonds must, for these conservatives, appeal to the heart as well as the head. In practice, this means that the best possible set of laws and political institutions, even if they were perfectly designed in accordance with the best possible rational plan, would not work in the real world with people as they are. Contrary to idealist conceptions of justice and political order, human beings act on the basis of communal loyalty, custom, and selfish interests in addition to abstract principles of right. A set of laws that has any hope of maintaining peace and order must take the entire range of human motivations into account.
With the rise of modern philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries there was a growing desire to explain more elements of human life in terms of reason alone without having to rely on other sources such as tradition, authority, or faith. This approach was adopted by political theorists who proposed theories of morality and political justice that were based on universally valid principles of reason. Rational principles of justice are, in theory, understandable and acceptable to anyone willing and able to exercise their private faculty of reason. This political approach assumes that there is one set of universally valid principles of justice, and that any state that fails to put these into practice is acting unjustly and, more importantly, violating its citizens’ rights.
Classical conservatism suggests that this approach does not pay sufficient attention to the risk of instability that arises whenever one’s political arrangements are measured against an idealistic vision of justice. According to the classical conservative, no political system will ever live up to such a lofty vision, and the attempt to make it do so is liable to do more harm than good. Michael Oakeshott analyzed political rationalism from the classical conservative perspective in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Oakeshott, 1991).
Another way to put this is that classical conservatism has a more negative or cynical conception of human nature than other political ideologies like liberalism or socialism. The progressive pursuit of more just social arrangements in line with a set of rational principles – liberal, socialist, or otherwise – is a dead end, according to classical conservatives, not only because the principles themselves are wrong, but because the limitations of human nature will prevent their realization in human history.
Two important points follow from this. First, this outlook emphasizes prudence over perfection. Prudence refers to the recognition of the limitations of what is possible. This is not to say that there is no concern with justice; it simply puts a greater emphasis than other ideologies on the dangers of redesigning society after a systematic blueprint. Indeed, one prominent conservative writer has even suggested that conservative politics has no proper “end in view” towards which all politics should strive, other than the continuance of social life (Scruton, 1980, p. 23). The social relationship, and the communal bonds that sustain it, has a life of its own and is therefore its own goal. It is for this reason that some classical conservatives prefer to speak of conservatism as a disposition or attitude rather than as an ideology.
Second, there is no single political system that will work in all times and places. Because there is no universally applicable blueprint for the perfect political system, every society ought to be governed according to principles that naturally and organically arise out of its own history, culture, and traditions. The danger of imposing a foreign political system on a society, as proponents of democracy promotion overseas have discovered, is that eliciting broad social support for its rules and institutions is overwhelmingly difficult when the ideas themselves are foreign. It is for this reason that conservatism prefers a closer fit between society and government, even if the resulting system may fall short of rational standards of justice. This hearkens back to the conservative’s preference for social order over the risk of instability.
In practice, classical conservatives see traditional customs and political institutions as the best available guarantor of peace and stability. They are wary of political programs that threaten to replace existing institutions with entirely new ones, as Edmund Burke saw with the French Revolution and as United Empire Loyalists saw with the American Revolution. The founders of Canadian confederation were motivated by these classical conservative values. They struggled for Canadian self-government without getting rid of the parliamentary and constitutional traditions that had taken root in British North America. Their desire to pattern Canada’s House of Commons and Senate after Britain’s House of Commons and House of Lords, while remaining loyal to the Crown, are excellent examples of the classical conservative themes discussed above. In fact, Canada’s classical conservative – or high Tory – heritage is one important factor in accounting for the difference between Canadian and American conservatism. This has been referred to as the ‘Tory touch’ thesis (Horowitz, 1966).
Even though conservatism has evolved in recent decades, remnants of classical conservatism can still be found today. For example, contemporary conservatives often warn against the dangers of social engineering, by which they mean attempts by the state to alter the shape of society in accordance with a rational plan. Similarly, some defenses of the traditional family are based on classical conservative premises, such as the need to maintain the family as an important social institution. The raising and educating of children has traditionally taken place in the family unit, and hence most attempts to modify it are viewed with suspicion by many conservatives. As we turn to modern conservatism, it is important to remember that despite many changes, and even some outright reversals, in what is now considered as conservatism, the legacy of classical conservatism has not been completely eradicated.