I've grown to like very much the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which stars Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce (see the attached portrait of the real Wilberforce). The film deals with Wilberforce's long crusade, and that of other like-minded individuals, to ban the slave trade in the British Empire during the latter part of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th. As I have watched it a number of times, I have naturally asked myself, as a political conservative, where I might have fallen on the question of African slavery had I been alive in that period. I like to think I would have been on Wilberforce's side, not only regarding slavery but also various other causes he championed, such as public education, humane treatment of animals, and the fostering of public and private virtue. It's easy, however, for a modern conservative to doubt himself: whereas the Republican Party -- the only plausible haven for conservatives these days -- was born in the 1850s as the American anti-slavery party, it has allowed itself to be portrayed in recent generations as being anti-civil rights, which explains why African-Americans now vote almost monolithically for the Democratic Party.
The resolution of conservative self-doubt lies, I think, in the sometimes-difficult distinction of those issues that truly entail basic human rights from those that do not, and in pointing out that not all social change constitutes social progress. I quote William F. Buckley, who once said that conservatives are "...stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." My own analogy is this: if one desires the pendulum of social justice to stop swinging, and to arrive at its optimal state in the least amount of time, one doesn't give it a shove in the opposite direction; rather, one arrests the pendulum's movement and guides it slowly to its center of gravity. That is, unless one has a vested political interest in keeping the pendulum swinging in order to agitate and thereby preserve a particular power base or set of constituencies -- which I view as the raison d'être of the present-day Democratic Party. In days gone by, people like William Wilberforce (himself an evangelical Christian) represented a religious, principled political Left; in contrast, few of today's "progressives" seem to burden themselves with either religion or principles -- except, perhaps, a "faith" that all change in the direction of collectivism is for the better and that nothing about western civilization is worth preserving.
Were conservatives on the wrong side of history with regard to many social-welfare issues? Given that programs such as Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, etc., are now considered sacrosanct and untouchable in the congressional budgeting process, the answer appears to be "yes." However, will history judge such things as on-demand abortion, long-term welfare and unemployment benefits, lax immigration enforcement, government-run health care, golden-goose-killing taxation rates on corporations and wealthy individuals -- not to mention reductio ad absurdum concepts like eugenics and euthanasia -- to have been good policy? To use another analogy suggested by a business professor of mine many years ago: Compare laissez-faire capitalism to a jungle and statist socialism to a zoo. A jungle is full of predators, depredations, and large-scale anarchy wherein only the strong survive; however, it also represents freedom at its fullest. A zoo, on the other hand, seeks to guarantee survival, order, and equity, but only at the cost of liberty, choice, variety, and mobility. I maintain that the struggle between conservatism and liberalism isn't really about whether we should make our society a jungle or a zoo, but, rather, what characteristics our "game preserve" -- a cross between the two -- should have.
Simply put, conservatives would prefer to have a system of government that allows at least some inequality of result in order (a) to preserve certain basic individual liberties, and (b) to promote industry, self-reliance, and some semblance of personal morality. On the other hand, "progressives" seem to regard most individual freedoms -- at least, the ones that their political enemies cherish most -- and self-determination to be secondary in importance to wealth redistnbution and equality of result among the masses. Admittedly, it's all a balancing act, but history is replete with examples of societies that erred too much on either the "jungle" side or the "zoo" side of the scale. However, the problem with zoos, as any zoological park director will say, is maintaining a level of funding sufficient to sustain operations -- and what happens if you have to rely on the "animals" themselves to labor to generate that funding, at the same time you're incurring tremendous debt in the cause of coddling them and rendering them indolent? Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, just about any current leader of an EU country, or even Jerry Brown....