Conservatism may be defined several ways. One of my history textbooks quoted someone as saying “a conservative is someone who accepts the liberal policies of the previous generation.” In other words, a conservative is someone who accepts his father’s cell phone instead of his own smart phone, but would say “going back two generations to the days of land lines is too extreme.” Or, in the case of the Amish, the clock may be rewound further to great-great-grandpa’s thresher but not back to greater-great-grandpa’s sickle. By this definition, conservatism picks up the history book and says, “all was right with the world in 1897 and we’re sticking to it.”
This definition of conservatism as hailing the founding fathers but drawing the line at monarchy, is not what I’m talking about. Rather, conservatism has to do with hidden questions.
A hidden question is so obvious that people forget to ask it. For instance, the great discussion about licentiousness and legalism is often phrased in a way that asks “is it permissible for Christians to disobey Christ?” But the greater question is, “are human beings permitted to disobey at all?” Meaning, as Bob Dylan famously put it, you may be serving the Devil or the Lord, but you gotta’ serve somebody. Disobedience is merely selecting a different authority to obey.
The ability to see the hidden questions tends to make one conservative, because the safer answer generally seems right. So, my definition is as follows: A conservative is someone who tends to accept safe answers to hidden questions.
Perhaps by this definition, a liberal is someone who accepts the obvious answer to surface questions. But I think Chesterton is right again on this one. The conservative argument really would be sweeping and unanswerable except for the tendency of new things to need constant reform to stay new.