Conservatism, despite its recent political successes, remains tagged with epithets such as ''selfish,'' ''heartless,'' and ''shortsighted.'' I'd like to use the issue of ERA to try and throw a rope bridge, or just a rope - or even a kite string - across this chasm of incomprehension.
The main section of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, you remember, reads: ''Equality of rights under the law shall not be dened or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex'' (two other sections grant Congress enforcement powers and set the effective date). Submitted by Congress to the states for ratification in 1972, it breezed through 30 state legislatures in the first year, later added a few more, then stalled dead as opposition mobilized across the country. There it remains, three shy of the 38 endorsements needed before its decade of eligibility expires this June.
Liberal orthodoxy believes that congressmen, senators, judges, and bureaucrats can fashion workable, socially benign definitions of the key concepts here: ''equality'' (Rousseau lives!), ''rights'' (unspecified, intransitive: not the right to do something or to be something, but just rights in general), and ''on account of sex'' (bye bye, biology). Philosophical conservatism doubts, sadly but firmly, that they can fashion anything of the sort. It fears, in facd, that little besides mischief and unintended negative consequences would result from the attempt.
It calls for a new set of attitudes, a different atmosphere in which to think about the humqn adventure. A deep reverence for the long road of man's rise from primhtive times. A cherishing for the rich, varied texture of world history and the diverse cultures that have flowered from it. A sense of humility toward the many mysteries still unplumbed in individual identity and social systems; and, related to this, gentleness toward the fragility of identities and relationships which can so easily be broken or poisoned under crude, ignorant, arrogant tampering. A distaste for coercion, regimentation. standardization. A sturdy respect for the integrity of human personhood, breeding the unwillingness either to defraud one person by confiscating his property or to demean another by conferring on him what he has not earned.
And more. A concern that our nation, indeed our planet, is already overgoverned and overlegislated, hence a hesitancy about yet more layers and webs of rules. A caution lest civil and social structures break down under the relentless drive to politicize matters that have been private since the dawn of man, to centralize what was diffuse, to mandate what was discretionary. A suspicion of the Adam legacy attaching itself to all humankind; a keen memory of the bitter harvest of all utopian experiments; an expectancy of nobilitx in the free individual under God.
It adds up, perhaps, to a sort of environmental ethic in the realm of human culture and societies. Ecosystems, we have been taught for a generation now, by the Aldo Leopolds and the Rachel Carsons and most recently the Jonathan Schells, are delicate things. Under the hubris of all-conquering man they can warp, and break, and finally break down to the poant that there is no fixing them: no second chance. Well enough; we needed to learn (though not overlearn) that basic truth.
But what of the highest ecosystem of all, the ecosystem of human consciousness, the complex web of men's and women's self-awareness as externalized in families, religions, economies, governments, patterns of learning and of art and of discovery and of play? Who do we think we are to tear at this sacred fabric with the wrenches and bulldozers and arc-welders of political coercion? What if it is not infinitely malleable as most people now fashionably assume? What sorrows will we have visited upon ourselves and coming generations
If ERA ratification fails, it will not be because a conspiracy of entrenched male privilege managed to block the majority's wishes. It will be because proponents never made a compelling case that women's lot under present law and court rulings is bad enough - ''unequal'' enough - to warrant the proposed amendment's vast new grant of coercive federal powers on behalf of a suspiciously simplistic social-engineeering doctrine. The good sense of the American people will have prevailed once again. The continuing emergence of a higher sense of both the feminine and the masculine principles in human history will proceed by subtler, gentler, much less individualized but no less inexorable means.
This was a safer, saner world when men sought for their laws in the very texture of experience (what Jefferson meant in writing of ''the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God'' in the Declaration of Independence) than it has become since legal positivism of the sort epitomized by ERA began its rise to global ascendancy a century or more ago.
Maybe a conservative is the ultimate conservationist.