A Last Stab at Conservatism
Before abandoning the discussion of the "true meaning" of conservatism, I'd like to look at Tim Gratz's contention that the values for which American revolutionaries fought were "conservative values" and that it is therefore possible for Edmund Burke (among many others) to claim to be, simultaneously "conservatives" and "revolutionaries."
I disagree. I do not think that the American War of Independence was a "revolution" and I do not think it was fought for "conservative values."
The leaders of the American cause were plutocrats - either southern plantation (and slave) owners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson or members of the northern bourgeoisie (John Adams and Alexander Hamilton). The were not systematic proponents of civil liberties nor of democracy as their commitment to slavery and their denian of the vote to propertyless adult males attest. American society was not seriously altered by the so-called revolution; its main pertinent effect was the replacement of a British system of mercantile capitalism with a domestic form of proto-industrial capitalism in the north and free market agricultural capitalism in the south. In short, the American "revolution" was about what Marx and Engels called "that single, unconscionable freedom--Free Trade"! Everything else was hokum.
As for conservatism, I think the are three ways in which the terms can be plausibly understood.
The first is as a synonym for "reactionary" or "nostalgic" and it applies to people who wish to go back to some prior and preferred set of social arrangements. This accounts for such superficially silly notions as "conservative" communists in Russia who long for the alleged stability of Stalinism. While common enough in ordinary language, I believe this application is fundamentally flawed.
The second indicates a commitment to the status quo. Like the first, there is no necessary commitment to any particular "values" other than to the prevailing beliefs and practices extant in any given society. By these lights, conservatives are sceptical of change. So, again, in the late 1980s, it would be possible to call label Russians "conservative" who opposed Gorbachev's "glasnost" and, likewise, Americans in the 1780s who were "loyalists." I believe this application is fundamentally flawed as well.
The third associates conservatism with a set of "values" that are indentifiable and consistent. They include the privileging of tradition over innovation, religion over science and technology, social order over individual liberty, "prejudice" (in Burke's sense of the term) over rationalism, cooperation over competition, community harmony over individual rights, state authority over "free enterprise," moral obligation over individual freedom and so on. Those who believe otherwise and are committed to mainly to the second item in each of these polar opposites can be tentatively called liberals.
Now, like all ideal types, there are exceptions and contradictions. Ideas change. I would therefore put liberals into two different camps. One can be called "right-wing," 18th century liberalism which, among other things, restricted the benefits of liberty to property and had no interest in equality among citizens but only in freeing up capital. Right-wing liberalism (complicated in the United States by association with religious - largely Protestant - fundamentalism) can conveniently be called "neoliberalism" or in the USA (again because of its association with "family values" and its opposition to biological "evolution") "neoconservatism.
Its primary opponent in North America, at least, is "left-wing" liberalism, a 20th century phenomenon, often associated with the social and economic reforms of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and certain cultural changes of more recent vintage. On the essentials (individual freedom, the primacy of market economics and the commitment to technological "progress"), there is very little in dispute between - say Bill & Hillary Clinton on the one hand and George H. W. Bush & George W. Bush on the other. The former may be more inclined (at least rhetorically) generous to the poor, less openly aggressive internationally and more likely to talk about equal rights and fairness; however, all of them recoil from such obvious social interventions as universal, publically funded health care at home and anti-imperialism abroad. They may, as it were, attend different churches, but they worship the same god.
By saying that the Clintons and the Bushes (and the Democrats and Republicans) are all liberals in no way diminishes the depth of their disagreements nor the passion with which they defend their positions. It merely means that their differences are about shades of political opinion and not about fundamental differences of political philosophy. They are about pragmatics not principles.
Perhaps it would help to highlight two of Tim Gratz's statements in order to show what I think is an internal contradiction in his understanding of conservatism. On the one hand, he says that it is a basic tenet of conservatism to be sceptical of human nature and, to some substantial degree, to believe that humanity is basically evil (a position that can be attributed either to a religious notion of "original sin" or a sociobiolgical belief that our species is ruled by a genetic predisposition to aggression, territoriality and violence). One way or another, according to the Book of Genesis or Thomas Hobbes, we are by nature a nasty and brutish bunch. On the other hand, he claims that conservatism is committed to individual liberty and is generally unwilling to yield up personal rights and freedoms to the state. In short, by this account of conservatism, we are immoral thugs and the best society is one that allows us to behave freely in the absence (or minimization) of control by the authorities.
Sorry, but this view of conservatism is (in the common use of the term) "schizophrenic"! The matter cannot be had both ways. If we are evil, we need to be controlled; if we are to be allowed freedom, we are not evil.
Authentic conservatives are no strong supporters of capitalism and may (as Adam Smith certainly did) give enthusiastic endorsement to public education and the regulation of corporations (which he denounced as perversions of the free market economy!). Authentic conservatives treasure social harmony and set great store by the principle of noblesse oblige. They give short shrift to civil liberties but seek to compensate for this by insisting that wealth and privilege place obligations on the upper orders of society to care for and to share with the deserving poor as a matter of public duty and as a pragmatic defence against agitation and disorder. True enough, Edmund Burke sometimes sounded like a conservative (especially in his book about France) but his instincts were those of a cautious, right-wing liberal. If he contradicted himself, he was not alone, for the great liberal icon Thomas Jefferson not only wrote that "all men are created equal" but also owned slaves (a contradicted nicely finessed by having the US Constitution accept slaves as 60% human - cf., Edward Dumbauld, The Constitution of the United States [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964], pp. 203-204). Despite such exigencies and contingencies, it should not be impossible to construct an inventory of "values" to distinguish conservatism, liberalism and socialism as a prelude to further refining definitions and taking into account variations on several themes including "reactionary" and "libertarian" ideologies.