Conservatism follows the meaning of its root in that it is a tendency to conserve things. Principles, institutions, religions, customs, folkways. It's the sensibility of a person who recognizes that if a thing exists, it probably exists for a reason. And as such, it doesn't make sense to toss it out simply because you don't understand the reason right away. Many of the organs of the human body have important functions that weren't understood at all until recently, but a natural conservatism led people to keep those organs and keep them healthy anyway, assuming they had a reason for existence.
And the same applies to social institutions that the young and inexperienced don't quite understand the reason for yet, like brushing teeth and learning to read and going to work when you don't want to and marriage and morals and ethics in general.
Nobody's better than G. K. Chesterton at pointing this out and explaining it.
Thanks to Eli Harman and Matt Bailey for passing this bit of wisdom on.
"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plin and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
"This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion." - G.K. Chesterton
Quibcag: Just for the sake of contrast, a quote of Vladimir Putin, who, at first glance, seems rather unChertertonian, but think about it for awhile. It's llustrated by Shirley Yeager of Strike Witches (ストライクウィッチーズ Sutoraiku Witchīzu) who is, as usual, moving forward and upward.