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One of the things I like most about Ricochet is that, while we spend a lot of time debating topical issues of the day (SSM, anyone?), we also spend a fair amount of time addressing questions of principle:
“What are the tenets of conservatism?”
“What does it mean to be a libertarian?”
“What are the defining characteristics of the RINO.”
I thinkwe all know that there are a variety of strands of conservatism (the three most prominent being the fiscal conservative strand, the libertarian strand, and the religious conservative/social conservative strand). None of these stand in glorious isolation; indeed, many principles are common to all of them (though, of course, there are significant differences). I like to believe I’m a freedom-loving religious conservative with a strong streak of fiscal conservatism.
Russell Kirk—through books like The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order, the role he played in the early days of National Review (the picture is Kirk with William F. Buckley, Jr.), and through scores of articles—was one of the best, most prominent spokesmen for the traditional religious strand of conservative thought.
Kirk famously argued that “the body of opinion termed conservatism” is “neither a religion nor an ideology.’ Thus, it “possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata.”
But that did not mean conservatism is only a vague, content-free inclination. In The Conservative Mind (originally published in 1953) Kirk described what he called six canons of conservative thought. Four decades later, he expanded those ideas into “ten principles of conservatism,” which were based on his 1993 book The Politics of Prudence.
Kirk adapted his short essay—”The Ten Principles of Conservatism”— from the book. It is available on the website of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal here. It’s not a long read, and well worth the time.
I felt it might be worthwhile to introduce these principles to the members of Ricochet (or remind those who are already familiar with them). After I quote each of the 10 principles, I provide some explanatory quotes by Kirk, and occasionally my own editorial comments (in brackets).
“First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.” Kirk says, “That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.” While Kirk approached this issue from his fervent Christian beliefs, it is clear that it is not necessary that a person be religious to embrace the idea of a natural and enduring moral order. For example, the absolute truths examined and defended by C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man may be accepted without embracing religious faith (though I suspect the existence of religious belief makes it much easier to do so). Likewise, the “natural law” philosophy so ably articulated by Hadley Arkes in First Things and other books is entirely explicable in the absence of religion. Kirk said that “[a] society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society . . . .”
“Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.” Kirk explains that it is “old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation . . . .” A belief in custom and tradition, however, does not imply that conservatives are reactionaries. No conservative looks fondly back on slavery or the Jim Crow era. Conservatives know that change, properly made, is critical in any society. But conservatives do reject the massive utopian changes represented by the French and Russian Revolutions, and by the modern progressive movement that has hijacked liberalism. Conservatives thus reject the massive social changes for which the left incessantly clamors: utopia is merely a dream—it will never be a reality in human society, and all attempts to impose utopia will become an ugly mess, whose casualties are real human beings.
“Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.” Kirk: “[C]onservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage . . . .” Private property, for example. Why? Because conservatives “sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time.” In other words, conservatives are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the prescriptive truths developed by our wise ancestors over centuries. It is pure conceit to believe that only the current generation has wisdom, and that it possesses either the knowledge or moral authority to overturn the foolishness of the past. Kirk: “It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. The individual is foolish, but the species is wise . . . .” Overturning the natural, historical order rapidly and thoughtlessly will produce far more human misery than utopian paradise.
“Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.” Thus, conservatives believe in thoughtful analysis based on valid empirical data. Kirk: “Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity.” Because human society is complex, conservatives act only “after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences.” Liberals, on the other hand, tend to “dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away.” [See, for example, Obamacare].
“Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.” Conservatives are often accused of being mindless conformists. This is wrong. Conservatives “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.” [Witness the mindless conformity we are seeing on college campuses, or, in contrast, the great variety of people and ideas expressed here on Ricochet]. Further, conservatives reject the idea of absolute equality: “[f]or the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality.” At the same time, conservatives believe men are equal before the law and, if they are religious, equal before God. Kirk: “[A]ll other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation.” Finally, all attempts to destroy the current social order completely will presently be replaced by a “tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs who will create new forms of inequality.”
“Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.” Mankind suffers “irremediably from certain grave faults,” and because men are imperfect, it follows that “no perfect social order ever can be created.” We must strive, through the practice of prudence, to make human society better; but conservatives also know that all “we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk.” On the other hand, “[t]he ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.”
“Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.” Kirk espoused two key principles: First, when we “[s]eparate property from private possession, . . . Leviathan [big government] becomes master of all.” Second, it is upon “the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth.”
“Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.” Conservatives do not embrace mindless individualism. “Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily.” These local, voluntary associations are the “little platoons” described by Burke and de Tocqueville that create genuine and effective local institutions that are a key ingredient of a free society. “[S]o long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community.” Danger arises when these organizations are absorbed or usurped by “central authority.”
“Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.” On the one side, Kirk saw great danger in the overweening state (despotism), which occurs when “an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check.” Despotism can be “monarchical or aristocratic or democratic.” [Think, for example, of the small cadre of bureaucrats at the EPA, operating under executive orders, working diligently to create regulations that will destroy the coal industry.] On the other side, “[w] hen every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy.” Thus, there must be reasonable checks on individual action [and herein lies one of the dividing lines between the libertarian and the traditional conservative] just as there are checks on government power. “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.” Once again, Kirk rejects the claims that the “conservative is opposed to social improvement.” But Kirk also asserts that conservatives doubt “whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress . . . at work in the world.” Kirk accepts Coleridge’s idea that “any healthy society is influenced by two forces . . . called Permanence and . . . Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.” [This idea links directly back to the Aristotelian idea of a “golden mean.”] The most difficult aspect of any society is the process by which one “endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. . . The conservative . . . favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.”
So, Ricochetti, what do you think? I’m certain there are many other ways of articulating the fundamental principles of conservative thought. Nonetheless, just as I have been guided by Russell Kirk’s analysis in The Conservative Mind, I believe he has capably articulated the fundamental reasons I call myself a conservative.
What has he missed? What nails has he hit perfectly on the head?Published in