02/28/2012 11:00 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

What Is a Conservative?

What is a conservative? The question has arisen as mercurial Republican voters search for that elusive presidential candidate who can make their conservative pulses quicken.

Nine opinion leaders from the political right recently shared their perspectives with TIME magazine, whose editors posed the question.

Ann Coulter opined that conservatives should steer clear of a "susceptibility to self-promoting charlatans more interested in getting a gig on Fox News than saving the country."

Well... it would be less surprising to hear Paris Hilton demanding that the media highlight wholesome female role models.

As always, Coulter was like a ball of cotton candy at the county fair: mildly amusing but adding little substance to the conversation. Coulter's extreme libertarianism, however, should not be confused with traditional conservatism, the ethic that teaches, "Every right is married to a duty, every freedom owes a corresponding responsibility," as conservative theorist Russell Kirk wrote.

What is a conservative? Kirk cogently answered the question nearly 60 years ago, in his seminal volume, The Conservative Mind. Kirk's definition might surprise those, on the left and on the right, who liken conservatism to a policy recipe: Mix three cups of tax cuts with three teaspoons of spending reductions. Drain out regulations. Spice with fiery slogans and serve to the body politic.

Not so, wrote Kirk, who scorned the condensation of "profound and intricate intellectual systems to a few pretentious phrases," and cautioned: "Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogmata."

Instead, conservatism is a way of looking at the world, a "disposition," as Pete Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center told TIME.

Conservatism believes in a transcendent moral order, however we differ in characterizing it.

Conservatism eschews utopian promises, knowing that the human race is imperfect. Beware of media and political figures bearing promises of heaven on earth, if only this or that policy prescription were adopted.

Conservatism stands for equality before our Creator and the law, but equality of condition, Kirk wrote, "means equality in servitude and boredom."

Conservatism looks to the tried and true -- "custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power."

Conservatism, however, supports change when necessary, as long as such change is prudent. Prudence, as conservative statesman and thinker Edmund Burke wrote, is "first in rank of the virtues, political and moral."

Conservatism frowns on self-indulgent materialism and demands responsible stewardship, for as Burke wrote, the present generation is obligated to pass on its inheritance to future generations. Margaret Thatcher told a 1988 Conservative Party conference: "No generation has a free hold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy, with a full repairing lease."

If TIME is still looking for an answer to its question, the editors might take a look at what Thatcher's friend and ally Ronald Reagan said in a 1984 speech: "What is a conservative after all, but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live."

Reagan's ideas about leadership, which were far more textured than either the left's or the right's caricatures of his ideas, shed helpful light on the question, What is a conservative? His would-be political successors ought to take a deeper look.