Literally, the doctrine of conserving the status quo because it is the status quo – hence the bestowing of this appellation on such seemingly unlikely bedfellows as Ronald Reagan and hardline Communists in China.
More commonly, the term applies to those who defend capitalism on religious/ altruistic grounds – i.e. they say it promotes the general welfare ahead of individual self-enrichment in accordance with godly ethics – and confine their advocacy of freedom to the economic realm. Conservatives typically favour the criminalising of drugs, prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, abortion, etc. Laws that still exist in some parts of the United States against oral sex are favoured by conservatives who happily defend the free market in economics, and are completely oblivious to the inconsistency. Margaret Thatcher did much to free up the British economy while introducing repressive censorship laws.
In the battle for freedom, conservatives at best provide a breathing space, a slowing of the momentum of the statist advance, to the extent that they de-regulate economies and revitalise government’s legitimate defence function – at worst, they are positive impediments, since their bottom line is still that one’s life belongs to God and/or society, and they are in that sense indistinguishable from freedom’s enemies.
Conservatives too, as Ayn Rand pointed out, have a disposition towards compromise that delivers more to freedom's enemies than they could otherwise hope to expect from their own efforts alone..
This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here. Tomorrow, 'Democracy.'
Libertarians are not conservatives – they are radicals for freedom.