Saturday, June 10, 2017

Russell Kirk's Ten Principles of Conservatism

I just stumbled across a reference to Russell Kirk's list of "conservative principles," written in 1993, and given my fondness for manifestos I decided to look them up. Each is explained more fully in this essay, based on the book chapter in which they originally appeared.

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. "That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent."

Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. "It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire."

Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. "Conservatives . . . believe in rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often."

Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. "Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries."

Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. "They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems."

Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. "Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created."

Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. "Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all."

Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.

Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. "Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order. A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty."

Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. "The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world."

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This is an interesting list. I have always been struck by the importance conservatives attach to the first, the existence of a permanent moral order. I have read dozens of times that if there is no such permanent, probably divide order, no morality is possible and anarchy is inevitable. But even if you grant that point in theory (which I don't), I am more impressed by the problem of figuring out what that moral order is. Based on what conservatives have said over the past few centuries, the divine order used to permit slavery but then it stopped; it used to permit wife beating but then it stopped; it used to permit wars of conquest and empires but then it stopped. How useful is such a mutable concept?

So that leaves us with the second and third points, keeping old ways of doing things because we know they work. I agree with this, to some extent; for example I think that the expansion of the welfare state since World War II has led to a huge decline in severe poverty, so we should obviously keep doing it.

This gets me to my main beef with contemporary American conservatism: that it sometimes has nothing to do with what has worked in the past. There is nothing old, tested or prudent about hi-tech global capitalism, or in particular about the way Wall Street does business in the 21st century. So why do conservatives resist almost any attempt to rein in unchecked capitalism? I don't get it.

And what was prudent about George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, his authorization of torture, or his doctrine of preventive warfare? All of these were supported by most American conservatives, even though they violate just about all of the Kirk's principles. Which leads me to think that Kirk has omitted something important from his list.

My candidate for that missing something would be suspicion of other people, especially people from outside one's own social group. Psychological studies consistently show that liberals trust strangers more than conservatives do, and I think much of Kirk's intellectual rhetoric is a cover for this. You could see Bush's whole post-9-11 foreign policy as a desperate attempt to wrest control of our nation's fate from outsiders who threatened it, and to reach a state in which our power was so great that we did not have to trust anyone.

The conservative devotion to private property is related to this lack of trust; if you can't rely on others, you have to build up your own resources so you can take care of things yourself. If you share all you have with the group they'll probably just waste it anyway.

The principle of variety is a complete red herring. All parties support it when their power is limited but forget about it when they have the chance to impose their own vision on everyone. Viz., the politics of gay marriage in the US, which changed so quickly that we all got to watch liberals crying for states' rights while the conservatives tried to impose their vision on everyone via the Defense of Marriage Act, and then a few years later the Supreme Court struck that down and imposed the liberal vision on the whole country while Republicans pleaded for localism. I cannot remember a single case when the party with a clear national majority was interested in letting the states try the other party's approach.

I find the seventh principle particularly interesting; I agree that freedom and property are "closely linked." But whereas Kirk was thinking mainly about the threat of communism, I think private property unchecked by government is an equally dangerous threat to freedom; a whole lot of damage has been done in the world by corporations with too much money for local communities to exert any control over them. I think experience shows that societies that don't allow quite a lot of it either crumble or turn Stalinist, so I support private property. But I think it should be kept within prudent limits.

I agree most profoundly with Kirk when he emphasizes balance and tension. Yes, freedom and authority are always in tension, and governing well means finding the right balance. That some sort of victory by one's own political side would solve all the world's problems is a persistent belief, but it is a fantasy. Extremism never works. Only compromise works; only balance works. The goals of political movements should never be totalistic; neither the Revolution nor the Reaction will end our troubles. The goal should always be to maintain the balance, while pulling it a little in the direction you prefer.

4 comments:

Shadow Flutter said...

"So why do conservatives resist almost any attempt to rein in unchecked capitalism?"

Probably because of rule #2. Capitalism has been around for a while, long enough to be considered tried and true, and hi-tech globalism is probably seen as just another manifestation of the underlying principle. Some of these rules are stronger than others, but like the ethical dilemma, all rules, even rules in a manifesto, come in conflict with one another at times. What then? You either accept this inherent weakness of the system (all systems) and move forward the best you can, or you pretend the problem doesn't exist and stonewall and scream and yell a lot.

David said...

I think your difficulties--as in why do conservatives support unchecked capitalism--stem from the fact that Kirk's manifesto is less a description of a phenomenon--conservatism as it exists--and more a prescriptive call for the kind of conservatism he wishes was important in practical politics, but realizes is not.

Kirk is labeled a traditionalist conservative by Wikipedia. Traditionalist conservatism, like its sibling paleoconservatism, often stands in conscious opposition to the "conservatism" of practical American politics--if you will, the conservatism of the Republican party. Actually, traditionalist conservatives and paleocons were, many of them, quite vocal in their hostility to Bush's foreign policy. Overall, these highly intellectualized types of conservatism have very little to do with actual Republican party politics. Both are deeply rooted in a 19th-century rejection of capitalist modernity. One might get close to the tension here if one tries to guess what are Pat Buchanan's real thoughts about the American Protestant "prosperity gospel."

One should no more judge contemporary Republican party politics on the basis of a traditionalist conservative's manifesto, than one should judge Democratic party politics on the basis of the Port Huron statement.

In general, I would say that one can love manifestos, but one should also recognize that their relationship to modern mass politics is tenuous at best. One doesn't win elections by valuing issues like intellectual consistency.

John said...

So what is the relationship between Republican Party politics and intellectual conservatism? I think there is one, however tenuous. I think that the beliefs people hold deeply do matter. If Republican policies don't come from intellectual conservatism, where do they come from? From some basic set of emotional reactions, viz., being disgusted by the lazy, dirty poor, and moved by saluting the flag? If so, how do those emotions get translated into policies that sometimes seem so opposed to principles like Kirk's?

I think that Shadow Flutter is onto something in the comment about capitalism; modern global finance presents a problem in that it is genuinely new and dangerous, but on the other hand conservatives have long opposed government interference in the old sort of capitalism, so neither interference nor non-interference seems like a good idea. Thus you get some conservatives (like George Will) advocating that we simply break up banks that get too big, as a less intrusive option to regulating them.

David said...

Well, my own feeling is, first, beliefs tend to be irrational, and intellectual propositions exist to rationalize these things.

Second, people are willing to compromise some part of their beliefs to pursue the things they think are most important; this includes but is not limited choosing among the lesser of various evils.

Third, I think one needs to return to thinking about a very deep and rather mysterious sense of tribal affiliation. Wavy Gravy and Pat Buchanan are, arguably both nostalgic for rural localism and opposed to too much big government, big corporatism, cosmopolitan urbanism of the Manhattanite sort, and foreign adventurism. But, you know, one is left-wing and one is right-wing, and we all know this, and we're not going to see them forming a political party together anytime soon. Why is this? The question is to figure out what's behind that intuition of difference that we're all really aware of.

Some of it has to do with attitudes toward race, ethnicity, and foreigners. But I'm not sure that's all it is.