Here's a bit from a post by Brad DeLong that is well worth reading:
Jacob Levy thinks he has a problem: he cannot present conservatism attractively in his classes because there are no attractive modern conservatives:There's more, go read the whole post.Jacob T. Levy: Tyler Cowen... makes the insightful point that "none [of the 20th century American conservatives] have held up particularly well, mostly because they underestimated the robustness of the modern world and regarded depravity as more of a problem than it has turned out to be."I say cut the Gordian knot. THERE ARE NO ATTRACTIVE MODERN CONSERVATIVES BECAUSE CONSERVATISM SIMPLY IS NOT ATTRACTIVE. DEAL WITH IT!!
It's a real problem--one I've often talked with people about in a teaching context, because there's no modern work to teach alongside Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia that really gets at what's interesting about Burkean or social conservatism.... The problem isn't... that the conservative temperament isn't easily reduced to programmatic philosophical works.... One of the problems is that history keeps right on going--and so any book plucked from the past that was concerned with yelling "stop!" tends to date badly to any modern reader who does not think he's already living in hell-in-a-handbasket. This is a particular problem because of race in America--no mid-20th c work is going to endure as a real, read-not-just-namechecked, classic of political thought that talks about how everything will go to hell if the South isn't allowed to remain the South.... Oakeshott has his own version of these problems; doesn't "Rationalism in Politics" end up feeling faintly ridiculous by the time he's talking about women's suffrage?...
I don't see any great answers in the comment thread yet. I guess I might say Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, and Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, but the former isn't really distinctively conservative enough and I'm not sure the latter is a classic.
You can see this most clearly if you take a close look at Edmund Burke. Edmund Burke does not believe that Tradition is to be Respected. He believes that good traditions are to be respected. When Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France makes the argument that Britons should respect the organic political tradition of English liberty that has been inherited from the past, he whispers under his breath that the only reason we should respect the Wisdom of the Ancestors is that in this particular case Burke thinks that the Ancestors--not his personal ancestors, note--were wise.
Whenever Burke thought that the inherited political traditions were not wise, the fact that they were the inherited Wisdom of the Ancestors cut no ice with him at all. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that they would conquer, torture, and rob wogs whenever and wherever they were strong enough to do so. That tradition cut no ice with Edmund Burke when he was trying to prosecute Warren Hastings. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that all power flowed to Westminster. That tradition cut no ice with Burke when he was arguing for conciliation with and a devolution of power to the American colonists. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that Ireland was to be plundered and looted for the benefit of upwardly-mobile English peers-to-be. That tradition, too, cut no ice with Burke.
In the "good old days" America had the "peculiar instititon" in the South. Do the conservatives of today pine for the good old days when you could sell people into slavery, put them on the auction block, publicly flog them at will, treat them as "property", and kill them if they tried to flee this "peculiar institition"? I find conservatives to be unserious because they can't give any rational argument why they want to "save" some institutions and give up others. Why give women the right to vote? Things went tickety-boo for hundreds of years with women denied the vote. What happened to that wonderful old "institution"?
Today's social conservatives with their pining for a theological state with Puritan-style penal laws is a real throwback to the past. Pathetic.