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Saturday, January 1, 1994

A Reviewer’s Notebook: The Politics Of Power

Readers Will Delight in Kirk's Storytelling Power

The Greeks had a word for it: “Nothing in excess.” Centuries later, Edmund Burke used the word prudence. He believed in a conciliatory approach to Britain’s relations with America on the one hand and Ireland on the other. Thus it could be seen that Russell Kirk has had good literary forebears for his book, The Politics of Power (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Bryn Mawr, Pa., 304 pp., $19.95 cloth; $8.95 paperback).

Kirk has a genuine passion for order: He has orderly listings of ten conservative principles, ten conservative events, and ten conservative books. It would have offended his sense of order to have had to settle for nine or eleven books, or six or twelve events.

Kirk is against the Behemoth State in any form whatever. It forces centralization in decision-making. Variety disappears. As a disciple of the Swiss-German economist Wilhelm Roepke, Kirk is an enemy of the “cult of the colossal.” Roepke says we must find our way back to the humane scale in both economics and politics.

A Michigander, Russell Kirk is well acquainted with the gigantism of the automobile industry. Henry Ford thought that his Model T would restore the humane scale. It would allow a worker to go to work in the morning and return home to raise soybeans or whatever in the afternoon.

But the Model T failed in its mission.

The great set piece of Kirk’s book turns out to be what happened in Detroit, Kirk’s hometown before he moved to Piety Hill in a rural area. He grew up near the railroad tracks leading out of Detroit. All his life he has had to go in and out of the automobile city. The decline of the automobile business had its reflex: the city, struggling with joblessness, became a mugging center with murders common every corner. Only the foolhardy dared to go out.

Kirk has a scunner on the word “ideology.” To become an ideologue is to him, equivalent to making a pact with the devil. It may be admitted that ideology is not a pretty word. But most people use it loosely, as an object of search. To have settled with a philosophy, putting ideas together in a bundle does not mean that one can never change one’s mind.

Luckily, Kirk is a prime storyteller. He recreates the atmosphere of Tennessee agrarianism with a beautiful character portrait of Donald Davidson, who refused to go through New York City on his way to his summer home in Vermont. His picture of Detroit in decay is hereby recommended to Jack Kemp, the man who wants to bring business to the inner city.

One can forget the semantics of Kirk’s approach while delighting in his storytelling power. So read him for this and the searing section on Detroit’s collapse. Don’t worry about the book’s title.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.