Though nearly 40% of the United States identifies as politically “conservative,” America’s political experience tell us that this is a gross oversimplification of the diverse ideologies that comprise “conservatism.” American conservatism, in the words of Russell Kirk, is actually:

…the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order… the conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.

Strong social conservatism, neoconservatism, paleoconservatism, libertarian-conservatism, and other branches of conservatism flourish in American society. Even if they disagree on hot-button issues, there remains a common bond between them, perhaps as described in Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles” or the list of convictions found in William Buckley’s National Review mission statement.

For a student of government, this leaves us with a very important question: What makes the voter and candidate politically conservative?

Political conservatives often accuse other conservatives (or true non-conservatives) of being “RINOs” and “fake conservatives.” But since American conservatism is flexible enough to incorporate multiple viewpoints within its organizing principles, we need to define the organizing principles of American political conservatism. Conservatives must commit to five basic principles that, though occasionally at odds with one another, provide a general framework for political understanding. The five principles:

  1. Protect & Maximize Individual Rights
  2. Ensure a Limited Government
  3. Uphold the Rule of Law
  4. Commitment to Federalism and the Separation of Powers
  5. Maintain Free & Open Markets (Economic & Social)

These principles, often expressed in constitutions around the world, must be defended in fact and not just theory. Each protects the rights and freedoms of individuals, reinforcing the fact that rights are inherent, not given by constructed governments. Frankly, each principle deserves (and has received) volumes of study, but here are a few comments on how American conservatives should approach these principles.

Individual Rights

First and foremost, society has a duty to protecting the fundamental individual rights of its members. In American politics, this means permitting individuals to pursue their interests and enjoy freedoms that do not infringe on the rights of others. Speech is a famous example: Americans can make whatever political speech they want as long as it does not incite “imminent lawless action.” In other words, you can’t “shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Thomas Jefferson notes in the Declaration of Independence that Americans have fundamental right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Many of these fundamental rights are recognized in the first eight amendments to the Constitution, and the Ninth Amendment importantly recognizes that other inherent rights not listed. Newer Constitutional amendments and legislative efforts have further listed fundamental rights.

Conservatives must dedicate themselves to defending these rights from government infringement. Political speech, gun ownership, private property, due process, and many other rights ought to protected as much as the Constitution permits. This attitude ought not to change by the issue. Conservatives rightly defending gun ownership should not flip-flop on “social issues.” The right of individuals to act–go to church, work, marry, smoke, and the like–should not be treaded on lightly. Individual responsibility is paramount, as individuals must be able to make decisions for themselves in life. The government may have to infringe individual rights to protect the rights of others (for instance, drinking and driving), but it should refrain trying to “moralize” law, whether it is gambling, marriage, or guns. Conservatives must be the defenders of individual rights.

Limited Government

In the same spirit as individual rights, conservatives must commit to a limited government. In the American context specifically, this means a commitment to constitutionally-assigned government responsibilities. The scope of government must be narrow for two reasons. First, a narrower scope maximizes individual rights and prevents government from dominating its own people. Second, a government with an overly expansive scope will become too unwieldy and inefficient (as the final principle will demonstrate). The purpose of central government is not to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives; rather, it is to establish justice and maximize individual potential, in the words of the Preamble:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Conservatives can truly defend the principle of limited government by keeping government’s focus and size narrow. A focus on education, infrastructure, justice, defense, and the overall economy is preferable to a government that concerns itself with what soda one drinks or what media one consumes. Government should avoid concerning itself with personal choices that do not harm others. Government should generally spend within its means, so massive debt does not have generational effects and people are able to use the money that they earned for their own purposes. In short, government ought to be as minimally invasive as possible by focusing on constitutionally mandated issues that have far-reaching effects on society.

The Rule of Law

One particularly concise definition of the rule of law is the following: “That individuals, persons and government shall submit to, obey and be regulated by law, and not arbitrary action by an individual or a group of individuals.”

Conservatives should ensure that all members of society are held accountable under the law.  It is paramount that laws are clear and just, that persons and property are protected, that the judicial process is fair, and that competent individuals administer justice.  The rule of law protects the individual rights necessary for human development and to maintain a free society. Law must be created and enforced justly, not arbitrarily. Additionally, order must be maintained, so society can continue to function properly. People who cause personal injury or death, property destruction, and other harmful actions not taken in self-defense must be stopped, no matter their supposed justification. Conservatives should support the maintenance of the rule of law through a strong justice system, competent police forces, and an external military to protect America from foreign threats.

Federalism & the Separation of Powers

Conservatives–at all levels–must show a commitment to constitutional federalism. The Constitution specifies the sole responsibilities of the central government, shared powers, and delegates remaining power to the states and to the people. Conservatives should actively defend the role of each level of government, while remembering the principles of limited government. In matters that state and central government share power, the principle of subsidiarity should apply. Maintaining the federal balance is essential to preventing the central government from growing too large and unwieldy as well as states from going rogue and violating fundamental rights.

A commitment to the separation of powers means that conservatives must preserve the integrity and independence on the three branches of government. Executives should not be judges, judges should not legislate, and legislators ought not to execute the laws they create. For conservatives, protecting the separation of powers is vital to upholding the principle of limited government.

Maintaining Free & Open Markets

Preserving free and open markets, economic or otherwise, is a key conservative principle derived from individual rights. Free markets allow the freedoms of association and participation in society. People should be allowed to associate with one another, whether for business, political, religious, or other reasons. The free flow of ideas is essential to constant societal improvement and innovation in all fields. Further, freely associating with others is a natural extension of individual rights, as John Stuart Mill explains in his famous work On Liberty. For conservatives, I hardly need to explain how the “invisible hand” of the free market can allocate resources efficiently, and how free markets have created enormous wealth for our nation (see here and here for some free market background).

While it may be impossible to keep markets completely free, conservatives should commit to keeping them as free as possible to allow the mutually beneficial cooperation and exchanges. Conservatives should seek to make entry into economic markets easy, and only regulate those things necessary for the health and safety of market participants, for controlling coercive or unfair behavior, and for addressing externalities that affect those outside a particular contract. As I acknowledged earlier, the free market cannot be fully defended in one paragraph. However, conservatives must be friends of the free market.

Room for Debate, Not Tyranny

Obviously, these are broad guidelines that both leave plenty of room for debate and include room for many schools of thought. They serve to aim the conservative focus to issues that government should actually be dealing with. The existence of a rule of law principle suggests government ought to be concerned with illegal immigration problems, instead of the sizes of sodas or the morals of literature. By emphasizing these principles, conservatives will hopefully focus themselves on those issues that impact society most deeply instead of those passing and insignificant topics that can all to easily consume politics.

American conservatives have all too frequently been drawn into the trap of making every single belief relevant to government affairs. That’s both politically unwise and fundamentally in error. One should not use government as a tool to enforce some moral order; instead, one should use an open society to make judgments about particular behavior. By emphasizing these five principles, conservatives will be able to position themselves as the future statesmen and leaders that America needs in the coming years.