What Is Conservatism?

ReaganThumbby N. A. Halkides
StubbornThings’ own CC Writer recently asked this question, and it deserves an answer. I think, though, that we should restrict our inquiry to modern American Conservatism rather than writing a book-length disquisition going back to the time of Edmund Burke, especially since such books have already been written, so that is how the term “Conservatism” will be used here. In fact, we must shortchange even the evolution of modern Conservatism with the advent of the true “Neoconservatives” in the 1950’s to concentrate on the contemporary situation. The word “Conservatism” suggests that something is to be conserved, and our problem then reduces to identifying what there has been in America worth conserving, and the general political program that follows logically from this identification, and which I believe Conservatives have attempted to follow.

What distinguished America historically from all other countries, even its mother country, Britain, and its “sisters” Canada and Australia, was the idea that free government rested on compact; this is the ideological forefather of Jefferson’s “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” in the Declaration of Independence. The social compact between the individual and his fellows, is that he agrees to give up the complete and total autonomy he had in a state of nature, and to obey society’s laws, in return for which society grants him the protection of those laws; that is, society’s laws must be made for the express purpose of protecting his individual rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It will be noted that government which constrained his liberty, or stole and redistributed his property, would be in violation of that compact, and some means would have to be found to prevent this from occurring since there is a natural, if deplorable, human tendency to try to rule one’s fellows.[pullquote]And much more is demanded of a self-governing people than of a flock of sheep tended by government; only a moral people could be entrusted with the responsibility of governing themselves. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[/pullquote]

This ideal found expression in the Federal Constitution: to ensure that government did not use its power to enslave rather than protect the individual, it was to be limited, and officials constrained by law. There are limits, legal boundaries, to government power. Up until that time, even in the freest nation, Great Britain, the Parliament was in theory supreme, although the British judges would refuse to recognize acts of Parliament which trespassed upon what was termed Natural Justice, i.e. the natural rights of Englishmen. Clearly, an unlimited government by definition can do whatever it pleases, and the citizen is bound to obey its directives however tyrannical they may be.

Needless to say, the petty tyrants among humanity wasted no time in attacking and undermining the new Constitution which stood in the way of their quest for power. The complete history of this process is beyond the scope of the present article, but all of us should be familiar with the history of Progressivism, which renamed itself Liberalism in an attempt to disguise its illiberality, and which now, having discredited even that term, has revived its original moniker. Progressives believe in unlimited government, and it was to counter their growing influence that the modern American Conservative movement originally came into being. The first pillar of Conservatism, then, is a return to limited government, or a restoration of the Republic.

The idea of a limited government did not spring up ex nihilo, it was rather the product of the Enlightenment, the philosophy of the seventeenth century which also expressed itself, among other ways, in the churches of New England. These churches were, like the Colonial polities, also formed by compact or covenant between individuals who preceded the existence of the newly-created whole, thus the importance of the individual and the idea of a compact between men was reinforced by religion. Significantly, there was no “wall of separation” between church and state, and the new nation was held together as much by ecclesiastical bonds as political ones. And much more is demanded of a self-governing people than of a flock of sheep tended by government; only a moral people could be entrusted with the responsibility of governing themselves. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[pullquote]What happens when democracy is set free of moral restraints is utterly predictable – mob rule – and we see it happening today in Europe as its entire culture crumbles, and among our own Progressives here in America, who whenever they are victorious in an election believe they also have a license to work their will without the least concession to the rights of others.[/pullquote]

None of this is meant to justify a theocracy, that perennial bogey-man supposedly just around the corner if Conservatives ever get control of the Federal Government, or to support the sort of “blue laws” that impose sectarian beliefs on civil society – the First Amendment, though it was not written to banish religion from the public square certainly was intended to prevent Congress from establishing an official church. But it does mean that a self-governing people must be a self-restraining one as well, held back by moral restraints that, if not emplaced by religious teachings must be the product of a thoroughgoing system of ethics, something that does not exist as a practical matter at the present time. What happens when democracy is set free of moral restraints is utterly predictable – mob rule – and we see it happening today in Europe as its entire culture crumbles, and among our own Progressives here in America, who whenever they are victorious in an election believe they also have a license to work their will without the least concession to the rights of others.

The second great pillar of Conservatism, then, is traditional morality, and in practice mostly Judeo-Christian morality, because of the recognition that a free society cannot survive without it – a free government cannot be maintained. And it is here that we begin to see quarrels develop between distinct groups, each of whom is nominally anti-Progressive (i.e. anti-statist). Libertarians tend to be hostile to religion, sharing many of the assumptions of the Progressive Left. Objectivists reject religion as being based on faith rather than reason, and even some small-government Conservatives are not comfortable with their “Socially Conservative” (as they are often known) brethren, but space does not allow us to get too deeply into these matters here. It should be noted, however, that our country was built by religious men, and that most certainly includes the Founding Fathers. Those needlessly on guard against the prospect of a religious tyranny that almost no one wants – I think it fair to say the most extreme Social Conservatives desire no more than to censor pornography, an understandable though insupportable position – should recognize that it is not “theocracy” to enact a moral precept such as “Thou shalt not kill” into the civil law simply because it is familiar to us as one of the Ten Commandments, provided the precept itself be sound and rationally justifiable.

The Church is but one of the non-governmental organizations that support our free, or formerly free, society. There are several others, of which perhaps the most important is the family. In the family once again Conservatives, and particularly Social Conservatives, find an institution worth conserving against the attacks launched by the Progressive Left – indeed, the fact that the family is under attack by those who wish the only institution in the citizen’s life be government is proof that Conservatives are right to defend it. We might also note that small-government Conservatives should recognize both the innate value of the family and that of Social Conservatives as natural allies against overweening government. This natural alliance has been strained in recent years by certain Libertarian tendencies, in particular the failure to see the importance of marriage and the family or the legitimate reasons why Western society until very recently has always defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Without getting entangled in the same-sex “marriage” issue here, the point I am trying to make is that those Libertarians and Libertarian-leaning small-government Conservatives are making a huge mistake, ideologically and tactically, in viewing Social Conservatives as a mere annoyance to be gotten rid of so they themselves can alone strive against the Big-government Left (using what arguments isn’t clear) without being “encumbered” by moral considerations or the considerable voting power Social Conservatives wield. To succeed against the terrifying power of the Democratic Party, strengthened these past few decades by the growth of government and uneducated third-world immigrants, a Conservative Coalition must form, and Social Conservatives will have to be a part of it.[pullquote]…the fact that the family is under attack by those who wish the only institution in the citizen’s life be government is proof that Conservatives are right to defend it.[/pullquote]

Let us imagine that somehow we have succeeded in conserving what is and has been great about America. What then should a Conservative foreign policy look like? Because unlike Progressives, Conservatives recognize that men cannot be converted into angels by a hefty dose of Progressive indoctrination, they know that a free state must be defended by men with guns. A strong defense is clearly indicated since weakness is always provocative to a potential aggressor, and for the most part Conservatives have agreed among themselves that the U.S. needs a strong military, second to none.

As to foreign relations generally, I believe there has been less agreement. Nationalism, i.e. the promotion of American interests, seems uncontroversial and would therefore have to be the center of a Conservative foreign policy. I would go a little further and say the Conservatives have generally been internationalist as well in the sense that there has been a recognition that America must play a leading role on the world stage. The disagreements have started when we get to questions of where, when, and how to intervene militarily, and those are difficult questions indeed. Korea, Vietnam, and the two Gulf wars are still controversial today. Iran looms large upon the horizon. I can only conclude that foreign policy is an area in which conservatives need to engage in a lot of internal debate and discussion, but for now I would hope that Conservatives could unite around the nationalist and internationalist elements I have cited as the third pillar of Conservatism. Does it need to be stated again that if Libertarians and even some Conservatives disagree, this is insufficient cause for them to deny their support to the broader Conservative movement?

We come now to what is perhaps the most thorny issue of all: abortion. It occupies a central place in American political life not so much because it is typical or representative of the broader struggle of freedom versus socialism that is now occurring, but because it arouses so much passion on both sides, and because the Supreme Court, by erroneously attempting to settle the matter through judicial fiat, removed the question from the political arena where it belonged, leaving no one satisfied. Without intending to imply that a principled case could not be made for abortion “rights,” in one respect I would assert that the abortion controversy is representative of the broader political struggle; namely, we see within it Conservatism’s conviction that every individual human life is important and deserving of protection, and the Left’s utter disregard for those same human lives.

What to do, then? We cannot adopt the platform of the Democratic Left – abortion on demand – yet we must avoid driving away potential supporters who might think a Conservative anti-abortion stance too extreme, even if the error is theirs, not ours. I can only suggest that at the Federal level, our position be that abortion is a matter properly left to the states, which is unquestionably sound constitutional doctrine. At the state level, we cannot run away from our responsibility to protect infant lives even if it does cost us a few votes. But we can avoid sounding extreme, that is, we can take a position far to the right of the Democrats and still be close to where the median American voter is – probably, a ban on partial-birth abortion and restrictions on elective abortions with exceptions where the life or health of the mother is at stake. A broad support for infant life, and a general antagonism toward abortion, has always been a pillar of modern American Conservatism (the fourth, by my reckoning), and I do not see how we can abandon it now.

In summary, then, I would suggest that American Conservatism is dedicated to the preservation of those governmental and non-governmental institutions which have proven their worth over time, and that it rests upon these four pillars: (1) a belief in limited government and the necessity of considerably reducing the size of the current Leviathan; (2) a belief in traditional morality and the worth of every individual life; (3) a foreign-policy that is nationalist in recognizing American interests and internationalist in recognizing our place among the nations of the world coupled to a commitment to a strong national defense; (4) the sanctity of life, including babies still in the womb.

I would go even a little further, and state that those who abjure any of these pillars aren’t really Conservative at all, although they might like to call themselves such. So-called “paleoconservatives” come to mind; they and others like them bear the same relationship to Conservatives that RINOs do to the Republican Party – call them CINOs, but don’t be distracted by them. Let us hope that we can pull together under the common Conservative banner, agreeing on these or another set of fundamental principles, and save America – for there is no one else who can. • (3187 views)

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21 Responses to What Is Conservatism?

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    That seems pretty reasonable overall, though you will find some people who consider themselves conservative who don’t agree with all of them, particularly some of the details. I could easily imagine some dispute over how far to take traditional morality (which clear is faba calculo’s cause), or where the balance is between nationalism and internationalism in foreign policy.

  2. Kung Fu Zu says:

    To even hint that a principled case can be made that Mantle was better than Williams, but at the same time, imply that not an inch can be granted on homosexual rights boggles my imagination.

    To even hint that a principled case case can be made that the sun comes up in the East, but at the same time, imply that not an inch can be granted on homosexual rights boggles my imagination.

    To even hint that a principled case can be made for hot fudge sundaes over banana splits, but at the same time, imply that not an inch can be granted on homosexual rights boggles my imagination.

    To even hint that a principled case can be made that martinis should be made with Vodka instead of Gin, but at the same time, imply that not an inch can be granted on homosexual rights boggles my imagination.

    To even hint that a principled case can be made for giblet gravy over cranberry jam, but at the same time,imply that not an inch can be granted on homosexual rights boggles my imagination.

    To even hint that a principled case can be made for Sushi over Dim Sum, but at the same time, imply that not an inch can be granted on homosexual rights boggles my imagination.

    If you would like I could go on with these absurdities for a long long time. Perhaps others would like to give it a try.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      No sarcasm tag required! I think Faba has finally flipped his lid. I’ve removed a couple of his tired and ridiculous posts for the reason of obvious trollification. Unless Faba would like to continue to author those rather good book or movie reviews, I suggest he go join Jonah Goldgerg who has finally lost all semblance of reality. In his latest article he knocks the Tea Party and denies the liberal/statist wing of the Republican Party.


      Ouch! KFZ, let me assure you of my personal staunch opposition to abortion. I stated only that a pro-abortion position could theoretically be staked out: it would proceed from the premise that an unborn baby is not human and therefore not entitled to the protection of the laws. I most emphatically do not agree with that premise, and I would refuse to advocate it even as an exercise in debating skill (e.g. a college debating society). I do not think such a position can survive the kind of attack which I myself will gladly join you in mounting upon it, but it is theoretically possible – indeed, this is the position of Ayn Rand and (I believe) most of her Objectivist disciples. Do you think all of them are completely unprincipled, evil people as our Progressive foes most certainly are? How about Rudy Giuliani? Not a titanic intellect, but I think a decent man.

      You will please credit me for having raised the pro-life position up to the status of one of the four enumerated pillars of Conservatism and stating “I do not see how we can abandon it now”. As a practical matter, I believe we should ally with pro-abortion but small-government Republicans, provided that they understand we and not they will be in the driver’s seat, and that the Republican position must remain firmly anti-abortion. I view them as erring sisters to be converted, not devil’s consorts to be abominated.

      Also, I don’t view gay “marriage” as a rights issue, believing that to be smoke and mirrors used to obscure the true intention to destroy real marriage. As important as I consider it to be to try to save marriage, I would in fact trade gay marriage tomorrow for a ban on abortion if I could get that deal. In short, I view you as a friend and brother in the cause we share; please don’t mistake me for one of our common enemies. We can’t afford to turn against each other in the critical days ahead.
      — Nik

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Nik, he was responding to the increasingly obnoxious Faba, not you. I deleted his inane post in the interest of promoting conservatism instead of warmed-over Leftism. Sorry for the confusion. I assure you that Mr. Kung has not gone crazy although he may have become the Jedi of sarcasm. 🙂


          I get it now, Brad – thanks. There were a couple of clues as to what had happened, but I glossed over them too quickly.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I don’t mind a difference of opinion. But Faba seems to me to be fundamentally dishonest, at least concerning political topics. He is as hard to capture on any particular topic or position as a puff of smoke.

            This isn’t going to become National Review. Nor am I going to become a little Napoleon behind the keyboard deciding who lives or dies. But I’ve been aware of Faba’s game for some time now and was just hoping it would smooth out a bit. It hasn’t.

      • Kung Fu Zu says:


        My post was not aimed at you. It was aimed at a vacuous post by Faba in response to your article. Brad deleted his post in the meantime.

        It went something like, “That anyone could even mention the thought of possibly accepting abortion, but at the same time, imply that not an inch can be granted on homosexual rights, boggles my imagination.”

        Frankly, I got sick of the fact that Faba is a monomaniac on the topic of homosexuality. It is pretty clear that he views most everything through the homosexual rights lens.

        It is clear that reasoned discussion does not work with Faba, so I decided to have a little fun.

        As to you article, I am in basic agreement with it. I particularly agree that conservatives my accept certain political realities, at least, acknowledge them, when trying to win elections.

        • faba calculo says:

          I suppose the moment eventually comes when even I must accept that what I wrote went over the edge of what is right or acceptable. Obviously, I see the issue of conservatism as an ideology of individualism vs. as an ideology of traditional morality differently than do most people here. Given that the comment to which I was responding appeared to give more credence to abortion as being compatible with conservatism than gay marriage, I probably should have let this be one of those times when I wrote out my response in advance and then cooled off and come back later to see if it was still something I wanted to post, rather than shooting from the hip. Though I do not withdraw my claim that small-government conservatives act in contradiction to that belief with their opposition to gay marriage, I went badly overboard in my approach. My apologies all around for having done so.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I’ve long found it interesting that Rand was pro-abortion even though she considered being “pro-life” in other respects a key aspect of her philosophy. I suspect it resulted from her militant atheism, which led to a reflexive rejection of religious morality.

        • faba calculo says:

          Very likely. I still remember reading her explanation of why objectivism was incompatible with belief in God, given that it had to come to its beliefs via reason and not faith. Which always made me wonder, what if someone HAD come to their belief in God via reason.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            This wouldn’t have mattered to Rand, since she argued that people should make their own judgments, but also that any who disagreed with her obviously were not completely rational. But (as I pointed out in a previous article, there IS the potential for a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ derived from reason, and the Christian religion has in fact accepted reason as a basis for argument at least since Thomas Aquinas. Hence Father Brown’s observation to Flambeau in “The Blue Cross” (when Flambeau, was still a thief) on why his masquerade as a priest had failed: “You attacked reason. That’s always bad theology.”

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I still remember reading her explanation of why objectivism was incompatible with belief in God, given that it had to come to its beliefs via reason and not faith.

            My reading of Rand led me to believe that, as Sterling Hayden said in “Dr. Strangelove” about another subject, that religion would “steal our precious bodily fluids.”

            Objectivists have made a fetish out of “self-esteem.” They remind me of the “Prosperity” wing of the Christian Church that, somewhat like Scientologists, view man’s achievement among men to be the most important feat of mankind.

            And if there is no larger plan or context to life, then as Dennis Prager notes about the honest atheist, Woody Allen:

            In a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, Woody Allen, an honest atheist, made this point in his inimitable way. Allen told the interviewer that, being a big sports fan, and especially a New York Knicks fan, he is often asked whether it’s important if the Knicks beat the Celtics. His answer is, “Well, it’s just as important as human existence.” If there is no God, Allen is right.

            Conservatives are typically slandered as being cold and uncaring by the only measure of “cold” or “uncaring” that has any relevance to socialists and those who unthinkingly support that poisonous system. But the very nature of conservatism, particularly Christian conservatives, is to see each and every human being as special with gifts (and duties) that, through living out a free life, can be realized (including being held to good standards of conduct). This is not possible in a Leftist/socialist state where everyone becomes de facto meat-on-the-hoof for the central planners and holding to standards of personal conduct is equated with “hating” because, after all, everyone is a victim.

            The opposite instinct to “non-judgmentalism” and relevatism is the Objectivism or uber-Libertarian instinct wherein any kind of religion or government is thought to be stealing one’s precious bodily fluids. In such a scheme there is ever and only man’s achievement. Man is to be the measure of all things and his own will is the only thing that can possibly matter. In an age torn asunder by the Left, by rampant propaganda and misinformation, and by the insidious adolescent poison of popular culture, it’s understandable that people might move to the extreme ends. Their hearts and minds remain untempered by anything nobler.

            But we don’t need to do that. This is why this site is now, and forever will be, hostile to Paulbots who simply are an expression of the Left’s naive juvenilism, but in another direction. The proper attitude of human beings cannot be realized until one’s metal has been tempered by the realities of life. And then we are faced with a choice to either blink or to accept and integrate those realities in a noble and wise way beyond the plains of mere “reason.”


          I’m actually going to take this up in another article, but I believe the reasons may have been personal – Rand had a strong sex drive and I believe this led her to cross the line from advocating that sex be enjoyed without guilt, which I regard as a good thing, to insisting that sex be enjoyed without consequences, which I regard as disastrous folly.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    As I’ve told Nik (and Nik has revealed his first name online himself), I built this place with him in mind. LadyK and I often joke about being separated at birth because we think alike. The same could be said of Nahalkides. But in this case, I gladly admit he thinks better than I do.

    Articles such as this (and not just this one…many of you have written outstanding ones as well) are further justification for the creation of this site. In fact, I hope Nik and some others will submit these articles to American Thinker as well so that they can have a larger audience, although American Thinker is a bit anal and wants to have these types of articles first. Even so, the cause is liberty, overthrowing the Left, and reestablishing America, as founded. It’s not the glorification of my ego. So no one will be thought of as disloyal should they want to branch out. My intention for this site was to help launch a new and invigorated conservative intelligentsia to help replace the tired and inauthentic Jonah Goldbergish one we have now.

    But don’t get me wrong. If it’s possible for a straight conservative to be “tickled pink,” I am by this article by Nik. This kind of stuff is just what I had in mind. And I hope he continues to crank them out as he sees fit and that this site can be a catalyst for Americanism as opposed to the various goofy and mixed-up shades of Leftism/liberalism that we are finding all over the culture now, including inside of libertarianism and many of those who call themselves “conservatives” but who either don’t know what that means or simply are hiding under labels for whatever reason.

    Sorry to be so pontificating (well, not really…that’s just me), but I just wanted to say my piece.


      Thanks very much for the kind words, Brad. As a matter of fact, I’ve never submitted to The American Thinker, primarily because I’m not too familiar with it, although I have been published by Frontpage Magazine. I may submit this or other articles over there, but I promise I won’t desert you while you’re working so hard to make StubbornFacts a success.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        David Horowitz and Jamie Glazov rock. I have great admiration for those two fellows. I think it’s cool that you got published there and I’m sure it was well deserved.

  4. Kurt NY says:

    Nahalkides comes near the root of conservatism when he notes that “unlike Progressives, Conservatives recognize that men cannot be converted into angels.” To be conservative is to realize that all humans, including ourselves, are fallible and human nature does not change. That, per Lord Action, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That power wielded even by angels will eventually be abused, that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

    Yet state power is necessary for a variety of necessary societal purposes. So how to allow for valid exercise of power while preventing excess? Into which comes the concept of countervailing power, checks and balances. All power must be checked, human agency must be restricted within certain bounds to prevent abuse and evil.

    It is ironic that the conservative approach to this is to favor human freedom, to leave choice as unrestricted as possible, while progressives, who believe that humans can be perfected, rationality can be detached and perfect, and power wielded by those of good intentions will not be abused often take a more prescriptive approach, of greater regulation.

    But in maximizing human freedom is where the best check to power can be found. If the millions of individuals are free to act as they will, no one individual would possess sufficient power to oppress others and the myriad actions of the many would outweigh the dysfunction of the few. In which the role of religion as related by Nahalkides comes to the fore, as yet another moderating influence on human behavior.

    As for foreign policy, that is properly seen as an extension of our domestic priorities. Conservative foreign policy seeks to protect the freedoms and prosperity of our citizenry. As an extension of the idealism of Abraham Lincoln, we have seen our interests overseas in an unpredatory light, as in we see our interests served by also seeing to it that other states’ interests are not necessarily shortchanged – it is not a zero sum game. But that worthy appreciation has been corrupted by a Wilsonian idealism, wherein some view us as obligated to go out in the world to do good works as opposed to honor John Adams’ observation that we do not go searching the world for dragons to slay.

  5. Glenn Fairman Glenn Fairman says:

    This is such a large fish to fry, and the author has done a yeoman’s job in his piece. One thing that should be amplified is that Conservatism is not a systematic philosophy but a movement or even a temperament. Contained within its soul is a veneration for the ancient ways, but not an ancestor worship. Also, its conception of a fixed human nature (something that even Locke frowned upon). There must be some reason that animates the desire for limited government and this is the Judeo-Christian understanding that power and the fallen soul are not conducive to human freedom.

    As an aside, suppose in the abortion compromise we replace the term abortion with chattel slavery and conclude that states should have had the right to affirm or negate this loathsome peculiar institution. Does not Natural Right inform us that one man should not be used as an instrumentality for another without his consent? And even if our little ones are voiceless and cannot affirm their rights against the dark intent of expediency, should not a noble people contend for the weak and innocent? Or does ultimately relative consensus and not principle drive our moral horizon?

    BTW, my old Professor Charles Kesler has penned a great work where he weaves Obama and the 3 waves of liberalism together in a treatment of American history and our understanding of conservatism’s ideals. “I am the Change.” It is quite brilliant.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Edward Radzinsky points out in his biography of Tsar Alexander II that one of the Tsarevich’s tutors described revolution as a destructive attempt to go from Monday straight to Wednesday. He also pointed out that it is equally harmful to try to go from Monday back to Sunday (which is a good definition of reaction). Thus, the stance of the conservative (particularly the conservative reformer) is to move forward very cautiously.

      • Glenn Fairman Glenn Fairman says:

        Yes, Tim. Thus, Burke’s dictum that change, although necessary within regimes, should lie in the incremental rate and why our Founders through design crafted a document that was intended to be glacially conservative. That it has lost its soul as a polity and has waxed democratic in form is to our detriment. Aristotle’s Republic (polity) was the political middle term that added stability between the wealthy and poor extremes, and our devolution to the rule of the latter is evidence of how far we have run afoul of our political virtues.

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