As this site makes clear (lots of good references and resources there), "conservatism" is not a blind adherence to the past.
Here, "conservative" is equivalent to "classical liberal", as opposed to the "modern liberal", who takes the opposite view on each of the basic principles.
The six basic conservative principles are:
1. Belief in natural lawInteresting sub-types are discussed in this formulation; for example, those who emphasize points 1 and 2 are social conservatives, whereas those more interested in points 2 and 5 tend to European-style "conservatism", favoring aristocracy.
2. Belief in established institutions
3. Preference for liberty over equality
4. Suspicion of power—and of human nature
5. Belief in exceptionalism
6. Belief in the individual
The first of these principles, the belief in natural law, means simply that conservatives believe in a higher order of things. Good and evil, justice and injustice, rights and responsibilities are not subjective concepts to conservatives. Human beings do not make the laws of morality, nor are rights conferred upon us by governments but rather by a higher power.
[These are the "inalienable rights" that cannot be taken away by any government, no matter how large the majority --RDS]
What conservatives agree upon is that these natural laws exist independently of human beings, and that we are subject to them even more so than written (or "positive") law. The majority of conservatives believe that these natural laws originate with God, whereas a minority believes they exist Platonically, which is to say above God and man.
The fourth principle that defines conservatives is their suspicion of power and their hatred of big government.
And yet, what separates conservatives from anarchists is their reluctant concession that government is a necessary evil, as without it the good are often at the mercy of the evil.
The fifth and sixth beliefs of conservatives are closely related. Conservatives believe in exceptionalism because they do not believe in perfect equality. Conservatives realize that some people inevitably have superior abilities, intelligence, and talents, and they believe that those people have a fundamental right to use and profit from their natural gifts.
While it has become commonplace to regard the exceptional among us as "winners in the lottery of life" who are lifted up by the tired shoulders of average citizens, conservatives believe quite the opposite. Conservatives believe that exceptional people exist to lift us up, to improve our lives, and to give us hope.
This is distinguished from modern liberalism, which holds the following six core opposite core beliefs:
1. Belief in positive lawToo much to summarize here, just explore that site!
2. Faith in progress
3. Preference for equality over liberty
4. Belief in the benevolence of government and individuals
5. Belief in the perfectibility of human beings
6. Belief in the community