In his book of essays, Alarms and Discursions, G. K. Chesterton includes an amusing essay called "The Futurists." Futurism, which is pretty much forgotten nowadays, was an Italian artistic and literary movement founded around 1910 that glorified machinery, speed, violence, etc. It appears to have had some elements in common with Italian Fascism. But be that as it may, does it have any connection with conservatism?
Not in terms of ideas, certainly, but I think that with regard to its use of labels it does. Let me introduce what seems to be this similarity between conservatives and futurists by quoting from Chesterton's final remarks in his essay.
A brave man ought to ask for what he wants, not for what he expects to get. A brave man who wants Atheism in the future calls himself an Atheist; a brave man who wants Socialism, a Socialist; a brave man who wants Catholicism, a Catholic.
What does this have to do with conservatives and conservatism?
I admit to having been puzzled for many years over the term conservative and its obvious attraction to so many. Would it not make more sense, so it seemed to me, if one wanted to conserve capitalism, that he would call himself a capitalist; if the U.S. Constitution, a constitutionalist; if something else, then that thing? Conservatism, however, seemed to suffer from a vagueness in that it lacked a necessary direct object: conserve what? Of course, this is equally true of those who call themselves progressives, for they need to supply a similar object to signify what it is they think they are progressing toward.
The lack of such an object after the word 'conservative' has brought forth much sloppy thinking and many odd political alliances. People who really don't agree on much else agree on one thing—that they are conservatives—and as such, apparently share common ground, when in fact it is hard to see how they do.
Today and in recent years people who disagree on the place of the market in an economy, on the justice and wisdom of America's ongoing foreign wars, on the value of the American Lockean political tradition, and even on abortion or same-sex "marriage," happily all call themselves conservatives, and sometimes even manage to coexist within the same groups or movements. Although the media presents a kind of standard image of what a conservative is, a little acquaintance with those who label themselves by that term will show that one's self-proclamation as 'conservative' doesn't necessarily reveal much about his ideas.
Now I suppose one could argue that all these people and groups share one thing in common, a common cast of mind, a desire to preserve what seems to them to be good. Well, I suppose so did Communists at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We get nowhere, it seems to me, if we start classifying political positions on the basis of psychology. Doubtless at times psychology may explain why someone or other has embraced a particular political movement, but it does nothing to explain the tenets of that political movement. Moreover, some proponents of capitalism positively celebrate the destructive, anti-traditional nature of market economics, an attitude that seems hard to square with any notion of conservation or preservation, unless one can talk about conserving continual change.
Probably since the beginning of the post-World War II American conservative movement, conservatives haven't really wanted to conserve; they have wanted to, as they saw it, restore certain things they thought had been lost in the American polity or in Western civilization. Today this seems even clearer, since, say, pro-gun activists want not merely to preserve the status quo and prevent any further legal restrictions on carrying guns to be enacted, but they want to restore gun rights that they think have been lost.
Some of those who conventionally are considered conservatives have well understood the unhelpfulness of the term. Milton Friedman, for example, in his Capitalism and Freedom, noted that liberalism is the "rightful and proper label" of "the political and economic viewpoint elaborated in this book"; likewise Friedrich von Hayek, who penned an essay entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative." They both understood that there are different political positions, different ideologies, and that it makes much more sense to label each as accurately as possible rather than bunch them together under the umbrella of 'conservative,' a label that, as Friedman and Hayek in particular well knew, hardly fit with their hypercapitalist point of view.
I am well aware that the term 'conservative' exercises an enormous attraction for many, and I hardly expect most people to cease to use it on the basis of my argument here. So as a compromise may I suggest the following: that anyone who calls himself or his views conservative, from now on ought to place a direct object after that term and proclaim to the world what it is that he is interested in conserving? For "a brave man who wants Atheism in the future calls himself an Atheist; a brave man who wants Socialism, a Socialist; a brave man who wants Catholicism, a Catholic." Let people who call themselves conservative be clear about what it is they want to conserve.
Then perhaps we can not only understand each other better but our own thinking will become clearer, and brave men can fight for what they really believe in.