Conservatism is a mostly American political philosophy that promotes traditional values and stands athwart rapid social change. In Britain its nearest variant might be Toryism, which also emphasizes cultural tradition and aspects of state instrumentalities. François-René de Chateaubriand in 1819 supposedly coined the term after the upheaval of the French Revolution, when some yearned for the stability of the ancien regime.
Irish politician Edmund Burke (who was not in favor of the French Revolution) is sometimes credited with providing much of what passes for the philosophy of conservatism. Conservatism has been described by Wikipedia as "not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself."
In the 20th century, conservatism, with its emphasis on a strong executive branch, official enforcement of law and order and even a quasi-endorsement of statist manifest destiny, has become a popular political movement around the world. One could make the argument that it is in some sense a variant of "fascism" – Fascism Lite – because of its celebration of patriotism, militarism (especially in America) and an often-uneasy conflation of state activism and quasi-free market economics.
English conservatism (Toryism) has as one of its attributes support of the monarchy, though the later Glorious Revolution (1688) vests authority in the three pillars: The Crown, Lords and Commons. Richard Hooker is another British name that arises when one investigates the antecedents of conservatism. There is, however, considerable controversy as to whether either Hooker or Burke (or the Scottish philosopher David Hume, for that matter) can truly be claimed by conservatives. One is left ultimately with an amorphous philosophy that is resistant to change and endorses the status quo without a great deal of calibration as to what that status quo actually represents.
In Britain, for instance, the Tory party fell out of favor as the royalist Whigs became more popular. It was rechristened the Conservative Party in the 1830s. Its power base rested confusedly on an alliance between British aristocracy and free market entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution. Burke's perspectives, for instance, combined various viewpoints. Most contradictorily he espoused Adam Smith and the necessity for private property as a wealth generator but believed as well in the primacy of cultural tradition.
In practice this meant that he was more comfortable with placing the aristocracy ahead of the entrepreneur and the values of medieval royalty ahead of the Invisible Hand. The market had its place, but it needed to be tamed and regulated by the power of the Crown. It was tradition that Burke emphasized; social harmony derived from ancient communal traditions was to temper the animal spirits and relentless progress of market forces.
Conservatism is essentially backwards-looking; or certainly that is part of its process, especially as it evolved in Britain. The church and royal prerogatives were to stand as a bulwark against overt progress. Over time, this resulted in a split between the increasingly laissez faire entrepreneurial class and the traditional leaders of British society.
To compensate, British aristocracy began to emphasize working class paternalism and advanced the thesis that the state itself (under their control) could provide programs and monetary welfare that would raise the living standards of the poor. This solution stood in stark contrast to the evolving belief structure of the business class that tended to emphasize the market itself as the solution to problems of wealth inequality.
This schism remains today, with conservatives in both the United States and Britain willing to tolerate far more state involvement in economic affairs than laissez-faire "classical liberals" – libertarians in the States. The various factions have been further complicated by what has come to be known as a "neo-Conservative" overlay.
The so-called neo-conservative movement has been especially influential in the US. Neo-conservatives tend to believe in government economic activism and military power; a purer American subset of conservatism claims to oppose government involvement when it comes to the economy, though even this group tends to be militaristic and patriotic, a fundamental bias that can give rise to a vague undercurrent of manifest destiny and even jingoism.
We can see from this above description of conservatism that it is a fairly conflicted – or at least quite broad – movement with no real philosophical core, though proponents often try to claim certain socio-economic philosophers for their own. But at root, conservative reverence for "traditions" imply a role for the state in preserving such traditions and for conserving the power and potency of the larger nation-state itself. This attitude cannot easily be integrated into a larger free-market philosophy as the two cultural priorities – state power and market economics – are essentially irreconcilable.
Critics of conservatism generally see the movement as a kind of faux-political philosophy aimed at vitiating classical liberalism and libertarianism. The free-market sociopolitical philosophy on the rise throughout the West is not nearly so confused as conservatism. With its emphasis on the marketplace and its anti-military and pro-civil liberties perspective, it seems in many ways to be a far more cogent and congruent expression of a logical and practical worldview.
It is difficult, in fact, for some to avoid the conclusion that conservatism – like communism, socialism and fascism in the 20th century – is simply being floated as another "ism" by the current Anglo-American power elite, which continually uses money power to thwart the rise of genuine freedom movements. Conservatism, indefinable, conflicted and confused, has been promoted by this elite as a stalking horse to vitiate the rising tide of freedom-consciousness generated in the 21st century by the truth-telling power of the Internet.