Vladimir Putin, Russia?s president, has declared the liberal idea ?obsolete.? It will not surprise you to learn that we disagree. Not just because he told the Financial Times that liberalism was all about immigration, multiculturalism and gender politics ? a travesty ? but also because he picked the wrong target. The idea most under threat in the West is conservatism. And you do not have to be a conservative to find that deeply troubling.
In two-party systems, like the United States and (broadly) Britain, the right is in power, but only by jettisoning the values that used to define it. In countries with many parties the center-right is being eroded, as in Germany and Spain, or eviscerated, as in France and Italy. And in other places, like Hungary, with a shorter democratic tradition, the right has gone straight to populism without even trying conservatism.
Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as a disposition. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it best: ?To be conservative?is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant.? Like classical liberalism, conservatism is a child of the Enlightenment. Liberals say that social order emerges spontaneously from individuals acting freely, but conservatives believe social order comes first, creating the conditions for freedom. It looks to the authority of family, church, tradition and local associations to control change, and slow it down. You sweep away institutions at your peril. Yet just such a demolition is happening to conservatism itself ? and it is coming from the right.