Thanks for all the comments and suggestions on my last post. I figured I would get started with a couple of online explanations, and then move on to some heavier reading.
So to start, I looked up "conservatism" in Wikipedia. Worth a read, check it out. It's rather long, but here's my nutshell interpretation:
According to the Wikipedia explanation, to be conservative is to think that we shouldn't go changing things, because the way they've always been is best. This might include our patriotic traditions, our morals, our business practices, etc.; the traditions that have been handed down to us are "a source of wisdom that goes beyond what can be demonstrated" [Conservatism.com FAQ]. Put more succinctly:
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I can dig that!
Of course, if it IS broke, you SHOULD fix it; to be conservative doesn't mean you have to like the negatives (poverty, disease, etc.). The heart of the question is:
1. What's actually broken? Presumably, liberals think more stuff is broken than conservatives do.
2. How do you fix it? Even reasonable people can disagree on which solution is best.
For the first question (what's broken?), take gay marriage. A conservative might say that things are correct as they are - gay marriages are outlawed, because it's morally wrong. A liberal might say that morality in this area is a personal choice, and that things as they stand now are unjust for gay couples, so they should be changed.
For the second (how do you fix it?), take drug addiction (which everybody agrees is bad). A conservative might say things are working well - addiction is due to a failing of morals on the part of the addict, so they should be arrested, fined, and jailed (as they are today). A liberal might say the fix is to change things - legalize and regulate drugs so you can detect and prevent addictions (as a health problem instead of a crime), and focus your law enforcement efforts on only those who try to get drugs illegally for profit.
(I recognize that the way I phrased those examples shows my bias as a liberal - I'm sure they could be slanted differently by a conservative.)
The vast difference seems to be a willingness on the part of liberals to believe that intentional changes to social institutions can have a positive impact on mass human behavior, whereas conservatives are reticent to do this for fear of unintended consequences.
Am I on the right track here?