One of the major differences between classical conservatism and modern conservatives is a difference in perspective concerning human rights. While Classical Conservatives like their modern counterparts cherish and support natural and civil rights, their understanding of them is far more different than those who adhere to the classical liberal (or Lockean) understanding of natural rights. John Locke’s view of natural rights was that humans have them on the virtue of their species and the only restraint on them is that one cannot use them to inflict physical harm upon another individual. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke condemns this understanding of rights as being one that is too abstract. He argues that if liberty was such an abstract concept, then it can be used to justify horrendous actions in the name of fighting for or defending liberty -- which is what ultimately happened in France a few years later during the Reign of Terror.
So then how do rights originate then according to Burke? Well later on in Reflections, he argues that whenever there is a law, there exists rights to act within that law or in other words, rights are auxiliaries to laws. But theses laws don’t refer to arbitrary acts of government legislation, they refer to Christian moral laws, and the values and customs mentioned several times throughout this essay. Another question Burke considered regarding rights was not only their consistency with the morals and values of a just civilization, but also how such rights would benefit the common good of society. It was also using this standard that Burke argued rights can be limited on an individual to individual basis. For example, he opposed allowing the homeless to vote in Parliamentary elections in the House of Commons because he felt that since they didn’t participate in society at large, they are more likely to vote for their own wants at the expense of the pressing issues facing society. A more modern example of this in the US would be how the mentally unfit, felons, and domestic abusers are not allowed to own guns as they pose a threat to the safety of those around them.
Russell Kirk’s views on natural rights are explored in his 1957 book The American Cause. Here he argues like Burke that natural rights arise from the Christian moral law and from rights that would benefit society as well as their non abstract nature. The first area arises from ones partnership with God meaning the freedoms they have given their human ability within the constraints of God’s laws. The other area is how such rights would benefit society and here he directly quotes Burke in saying, “Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit.”. To put it plain and simple, Burke and Kirk argue that natural rights arose from the morals and values that have upheld society as well as in how they benefit society and that it is by these principles that they are also limited.
Another area in which classical and modern conservatives are similar but different, is economics. While both support free market principles, modern conservatives like classical liberals tend to support a laissez faire economy where as this mindset is condemned by both Burke and Kirk. When discussing Burke and economics, it is important to under that by the time he died, Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith was only 21 years old so capitalism was only really beginning to be tried out. However, many of the underlying principles of capitalism such as the right to own property and the belief that one can improve their own social status by utilizing their resources and ingenuity had long been ingrained in western culture and also its important to know that Burke did live long enough to have an opinion on the start of the Industrial Revolution. With this all in mind, let’s analyze Burke’s economic views. When Parliament attempted to set minimum wage laws in the agricultural sector, Burke condemned this as he felt prices were best set by the balance of consumption and production(the supply and demand equilibrium) and that this philosophy had been working just fine and that Parliament would be disrupting an efficient economic order. 150 years later when Kirk starting writing, capitalism had grown to be an essential part of the western world so his views were much more flushed out in his 1963 essay The Meaning of Capitalism. Here he praises how the private ownership and competitiveness of the free market have enabled wealth and property to be more widespread and how it has led to a very high standard of living. So while both Burke and Kirk support the philosophical tenets and principles of the free market, as mentioned earlier they condemned the laissez faire mindset. In that same essay, Kirk condemns the mindset of many Americans of finding happiness through wealth and capital for he felt that it would lead to a materialist society and would lead people to abandon religion and the orders of civilization which would lead to the decadence of society. Burke’s ax to grind was with how many industrialists at the start of the Industrial Revolution were very profit centered to a point where they ignored the environmental consequences and the well being of their workers. In essence, the economy Classical Conservatism envisions is one where it’s based on free market principles but is regulated and adheres to the morals and values of society just as the culture and government should.
A final point commonly associated with Conservatism is federalism. While Burke never really advocated for federalism, he did argue that by empowering societal groups of the smallest denominator like, local churches, families, schools aka “the little platoons of society”, one helps to improve society as a whole which is similar in spirit to federalism. Kirk on the other hand did define federalism as a key tenet of conservatism. In his 8th Point of Conservatism, argues that society is comprised of multiple small groups and that decisions should be made by those mostly affected by them. So a family would make family decisions, businesses would make business decisions, local governments would make local decisions and national government would make decisions regarding national issues.
To summarize, when it comes to culture, the classical conservative adheres to and promotes Christianity as the moral fabric to society and to the customs and traditions of western civilization as the vehicle that promotes order and prosperity in society. In regards to societal progress, the conservative welcomes change as a means to progressing and helping society grow but at the same time believes change should only be implemented if it doesn’t contradict the foundations of society and if such change would be proven to improve society. It also believes that such change should be implemented slowly as to help prevent any societal unrest it could cause. As it relates to human rights, the classical conservative believes rights both originate from and are limited by the aforementioned moral and philosophical foundations of a just civilization and that rights are also granted and limited by how such a right would benefit the common good. From an economic standpoint, the classical conservative adheres to the basic principles of free market economics but condemns the materialistic and laissez faire mindset that has dominated modern free market economics on the right and believes that the same morals and values that govern society culturally and civically also govern the economy. In addition to all of this, classical conservatism teaches that decisions should be made for the most part by those most affected by them directly such as a family making family decisions or a local government making local decisions vs a national government making decisions at even the smallest levels of society. To sum up more precisely, classical conservatism is the promotion and adherence to the institutions, morals, and philosophies that have enabled the West to grow and thrive over the centuries.