According to Funk and Wagnall, conservative means;
1. Inclined to preserve the existing order of things; opposed to change. 2. Moderate; cautious: a conservative estimate.
1. Characterized by or inclining toward opinions or policies favoring progress or reform as in politics or religion. 2. Not intolerant or prejudiced; broad-minded. 3. Characterized by generosity or lavishness in giving. 4. Given or yielded freely or in large quantity; ample. 5. Not literal or strict: a liberal interpretation of the law. 6. Suitable for persons of broad cultural interests: liberal arts.
Classically, i.e., according to popular wit, a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. More recently, friends of mine added some comments;
A conservative is in favor of limited government, low taxes, and deregulation of business, which will increase the tax base, strengthen the economy, and generate additional taxes.
A liberal is one in favor of raising taxes for programs covering anything from road building to direct welfare cash giveaways, all of such getting money to people quickly.
a conservative favors low taxes, less government, no restraint on business, and stiff penalties for breaking laws
A liberal wants high taxes, large government, regulated business, and easy penalties for breaking laws.
I would like to argue that while the practice can sometimes be complicated, the basic theory is simple. To be conservative, pay your bills and mind your own business. To be liberal, don't pay your bills and mind everyone else's business.
I'll start with taxes, as they involve bills and seem the sensitive point for many. Consulting F&W again;
1. A compulsory contribution levied upon persons, property, or business for the support of government.
Being for or against taxes alone makes sense only as one is for or against government. Taxes, alone, carry no philosophical weight. They must be considered in relation to a budget before they can be evaluated.
Conservative taxation, therefore, prepares a set budget for a particular year and raises enough taxes to pay for it. If one year's expenses wind up generating a deficit, they get added to the next year's budget until the deficit is paid off.
I realize that this may not be popular with some people. After their 12 years of gouging taxes, inflating budgets, and staging press conferences, it must be embarrassing to realize that both Ronald Reagan and George Bush and their supporters are hard-core, card-carrying liberals. The single issue of the presidential election of 1984---and 1988, and 1992, is the American national debt. When Walter Mondale stood up on television during a 1984 national debate and said "Hello, America, I'm going to raise your taxes.", I cheered. I'm not in favor of higher taxes, I'm in favor of lower debt. To say that the government owes money is a matter of accounting semantics. As a citizen, meaning, owner, that is my money that is out there, and I don't like it.
To cover the virtues of minding one's own business, another issue which seems to be popular is immigration. A popular theory is that the first people to arrive and make lives for themselves are the only people who have a say over whoever else can come in. According to this theory, the United States is not and never has been a Christian nation, or even a white one. As they first sighted their respective chunks of North American, or nearby, coastline, Eric the Viking, St. Brendan the Irish monk, and Christopher Columbus the lost Italian mercenary should have been turned around or otherwise sunk like a rock, leaving the western hemisphere to its first arrived, Asiatic origin, inhabitants.
The current right wing liberal argument, as earlier favored by would-be politician Pat Buchanan, among others, is that the United States is indeed a white Christian nation, always has been, always will be, and must be kept that way. Obviously, the original "has been" doesn't work. As for a later try, the United States of America is the result of the constitutional convention of 1789. Said resulting constitution states that there is a separation of church and state, hence the United States as an entity is agnostic. As for assorted forms of immigration, following the original Native Americans, New York had the Dutch, Florida and Louisiana got the Spanish and French, the Carolina's, as I recall, got a lot of Scots, and there were a lot of Blacks scattered across the south. Americans are not "pure" anything, except American, and never will be.
Over time, the general philosophy developed that America is "the new world", welcoming of immigrants who will come to make new lives, etc. etc. The formal version of this can be seen in New York harbor, courtesy of a poet named Emma Lazarus. At no time has this general philosophy read "give us your (white, preferably not) poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breath free . . ."
A classic definition of a social climbing snob is one who achieves a solely self-valued elevation who then snubs anyone just below. To object to further immigration just because someone is yellow or brown or black---and above all, recent--- makes no sense whatsoever. A genuine, honest conservative realizes and accepts that as his people came in, others must also, and that the single objection to the arrival of those yearning to breathe free is the analogy that a fifty person room cannot hold fifty-two people. I'm not a population expert, but I'm not convinced we have even forty-nine.
To cover both minding your own business and paying the bills, there is the matter of various forms of welfare, covering anything from food stamps to education to health care. Overall, such programs are forms of safety nets. The right wing liberal, i.e. extremist, reaction has always been "If they're poor, it's their problem. I'm only here for my own interests. I deserve it all, give it to me, now!" In turn, the left wing liberal, i.e. equally extremist, reaction has been "If I don't have something someone else does, I'm oppressed. I'm only here for my own interests. I deserve it all, give it to me, now!"
The conservative realizes that it's a big social universe, yes, but it is a limited one. The conservative realizes that there are people who would like to improve their situations, but can't, as an example, through lack of money for schooling of some sort, or even schooling of some sort. These problems can be proven and solved for those genuinely in need. Including the variations in need, and recognizing that there must be a support for such, who is to say that if, in turn, the safety nets are torn out for pillage, and those who truly need them fall, the rest of us will not follow?
Aside from the left wing liberal's arguement that entitlements cannot be questioned, the counterargument of the thinking right wing liberal is that those who need a net like it that way, that they won't change, that this sort of thing "just encourages more". What both ultimately have in mind is best embodied in G.B. Shaw's "undeserving poor". As Alfred Doolittle puts it in Pygmalion;
. . . I'm one of the undeserving poor . . . If there's anything going, . . . it's always the same story: "you're undeserving; so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. . . . I ain't pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that's the truth . . .
Right wing or left, what the liberal would like all of us to forget is the widow. Undeserving is a modifier of the word poor. Only the liberal claims undeserving is a substitute for the word poor.
Shaw, born in Ireland in 1856, living in England from his teens, arguably began as a Victorian. Of the true nature of conservatism, another Victorian, Benjamin Disraeli, argued the same as I. While his arguments may have had as much political pragmatism as anything else, an assistant, John Gorst, outlined them in a letter in 1907. I add [as such] only to move across the Atlantic. The facts are unchanged;
The principle of Tory [Conservative] democracy is that all government exists solely for the good of the governed; that Church and King, Lords and Commons [the branches of government], and all other public institutions are to be maintained so far, and so far only, as they promote the happiness and welfare of the common people; that all who are entrusted with any public function are trustees, not for their own class, but for the nation at large; and that the mass of the people may be trusted so to use electoral power, which should be freely conceded to them, as to support those who are promoting their interests. It is democratic because the welfare of the people is its supreme end; it is Tory [Conservative] because the institutions of the country are the means by which the end is to be attained.
Remember the widow.
Mind your own business.
Pay your bills.