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Conservatism has not meant the same thing at all times in the history of the United States. As times change, the definition of conservatism changes as well. For example, the modern conservative desire for a strong military did not exist in the Gilded Age. Neither did the current conservative concern about the declining importance of Christianity in our country. However, there are at least two important ideas that are common to the conservatism of today and the Gilded Age.
One idea that conservatism always stands for is a respect for tradition. Conservatives believe that it is typically best to do things the way they have always been done. Traditional ways, they say, are proven to work and should not be discarded lightly. A second thing that conservatism always stands for in the United States is limited government regulation of the economy. Conservatives believe that market forces are the best way to determine what is good and bad for the economy. Laws passed by politicians, they say, simply get in the way and make the economy less efficient. These two main pillars of conservatism were present in the Gilded Age and they are present today.
There are many good consequences of this philosophy. When we discard societal and cultural values that have been in place for a long time, some bad things will clearly happen. For example, American society has moved away from the idea that marriage is very important and that sex and family life should be linked to that institution. This has led to a situation where too many children are being born out of wedlock and many are suffering from decreased opportunities for success as a result. When we leave the economy alone to run itself, prosperity can certainly ensue. Capitalism and market forces are clearly superior to government fiat as a way to run an economy.
However, conservatism is not (in my view) a perfect system. There are negative consequences to this philosophy as well. When we try to stick with tradition, we overlook the fact that traditions can simply be wrong. Even most conservatives agree that segregation and racial discrimination were traditions that were bad. Traditions where wives were forced to be subservient to their husbands are, in my view, harmful and should be done away with. We cannot blindly follow tradition because tradition is not infallible. Similarly, the market is not infallible. Without government regulation of the economy, we get things like air and water pollution. We get the sorts of terrible working and living conditions that people experienced in the Gilded Age. It is bad to ignore tradition and to have the government interfere too much in the economy, but it is also bad to cling slavishly to tradition and to keep the economy completely free of government intervention.
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