“Conservative” has become a meaningless term


Discuss and analyze:

Burkeian conservatism is an honorable tradition and a coherent political theory. However, “conservative” as used in the current political context denotes nothing but an idiosyncratic bundle of disconnected prejudices, the specifics of which vary with each person claiming the label. As such the word has become meaningless, and much besmirched. The label has been claimed by everyone from Arlen Specter to David Duke and Richard Nixon, and in its current sense they all have a legitimate claim to it. 

Hayek and Milton Friedman knew what they were about when they declined the label.


So the Admiral Stockdale question: “Who am I, why am I here?”

“Libertarian” is a meaningful term but it has its on problematic connotations (“hangs with kooks”), although these seem to be diminishing. It’s also very broad, encompassing everyone from anarcho-capitalists to people who claim the same awkward label that I do, “supports limited government.”

Someone recently challenged the usefulness of that, saying “everyone supports limited government.” They did not understand the term. “Limited government” is a noun, not a noun-with-adjective; it denotes a system like the one created by our founders, with government’s role restricted to explicitly delineated powers and duties – and no more.


BTW, one reason “conservative” may be so vulnerable to abuse is that it is “relativistic” – it only has meaning in reference to something else. Notwithstanding the shortomings of “libertarian,” it actually does mean something all by itself, independent of any other political theory.


5 Responses to ““Conservative” has become a meaningless term”

  1. wctaxpayer Says:

    Who needs to take philosophy when they can come here. Brilliant!

  2. Bill Says:

    Wah…the same can be said for the term “liberal.” Too bad Fox wants to promote the Birthers and the “keep the gumbmint out of my Medicare” and the bunker diggers as the true conservatives.

    Your enemies are in your own ranks.

  3. Matt Says:

    This conflict goes to George Will’s observation that to a very large extent we are a nation (particularly the middle class and Republican Party i.e. “conservatives”) of ideological limited government free marketeers, who are simultaneously practical Marxist, protectionist, fans of big government benefits. We can/will not recognize that the few benefits which are valued are inseparable from the excesses condemned. Pandora’s Box delivers Yellowstone Park , farm supports, and gramma’s social security check but also ethanol programs, NEH, and auto and bank company bailouts. The courage to slam it completely shut is lacking.

    The title Libertarian is also being co-opted by the left, beyond just their hyper privacy/national security issues, (privacy which curiously doesn’t extend to my 1040), to as well being a nihilistic, non-judgmental cultural philosophy. In this world we end up with Libertarianism meaning, liberty from any undesirable consequences of human behavior.

    To describe the left, I think the term Statist, meaning the expectation for the solutions to the human condition to be flowing down from an Elitist State works well. But what does that make us?

  4. jmchugh4u Says:

    Matt: “But what does that make us?”

    Libertarians, of the limited government stripe in my case. The left’s claim to the term has no resonance. Unlike “conservative” the term “libertarian” actaully means something: A preference for minimal or no government coercion. That’s not what lefties support.

    You correctly characterize the left as statists – increasingly they are “soft fascists” – and so they have no legitimate claim to “libertarian.” As you point out, when they illegitimately claim the label they base it on a preference for minimal or no social pressure. Uh-huh – as soon as the Human Being, Mk. I is replaced by their New Socialist Man version.

    Meanwhile, if you don’t like the social pressure of a particular group, leave it.

  5. Jack McHugh Says:

    From a post on a site called “Men’s News Daily”:

    ‘It is common for these terms (liberal and conservative) to be used as synonyms for “left” and “right” and for those terms to be automatically associated with the Democratic and Republican parties. No matter how far the two parties shift along the political spectrum together, or where they go, this common semantic error leaves the impression that our current politics are still rooted in the Constitutional definition of our republic. Politicians and their “mainstream” media constantly conjure the illusion that “moderate” politics results from compromise between the two parties.

    ‘If you can control the language, you can control the people. And the people, too often, accept the use of language offered to them without considering whether it lies. If you think it doesn’t matter, consider the young voters; who go to the polls without the benefit of a decent civics education, historical perspective, or instructive life experience. Have you called Hillary and Barack “liberals” and voiced your disdain for “liberalism”? According to The Random House Dictionary, you have said that you oppose individual freedom and that Hillary and Barack support it. No wonder so many of our naïve youth call “conservatives” Nazis and fervently support the far left!’


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