October 19th was the 100th birthday of the late Russell Kirk, often referred to as the father of American conservatism. A historian, political theorist, and novelist, Kirk was a perspicacious and indefatigable defender of traditional Western values: law and order, private property, and Christian morality. Though he was not particularly fond of libertarians like me (he disparagingly referred to libertarians as “chirping sectaries”), there is much a libertarian can admire—and even learn—from Kirk.
Against the Chessboard Society
Following in the tradition of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk eschewed the popular conceit that society is merely a collection of individuals that can be arranged in almost any manner. On the contrary, as Kirk wrote in his magnum opus The Conservative Mind, society is a “spiritual unity, an eternal partnership” of persons with a shared history and common cultural traditions. These “permanent things” bind people together in ways no rationalistic construction ever could.
For this reason, we ought to avoid “tinkering with the structure of society.” Our customs and institutions were formed out of the experiences of our ancestors and thus bear the advantages of generational insight. “The individual is foolish,” wrote Kirk, “but the species is wise.” When a man “lacks either time or knowledge to arrive at a decision predicated upon pure reason,” he can fall back on “the answer with which intuition and ancestral consensus of opinion” have supplied him. Prudence, therefore, dictates that a society honor its traditions lest it engages in reckless and destructive experimentation.
A similar argument was made by F.A. Hayek in his book The Constitution of Liberty. There are certain beliefs and modes of conduct, said Hayek, that the individual may abide by to his and society’s profit even without demonstrable proof that such beliefs are true or his conduct beneficial. This, of course, does not entail that a man ought to blindly follow all of his society’s traditions but only that he holds them in humble reverence, refusing to abrogate them unless faced with incontrovertible evidence that they are unjust and that he will not be causing more harm by doing away with them. We must temper our traditions with expediency, argued Kirk, but never become so arrogant as to wholly disregard them.
This line of thinking is reminiscent of Adam Smith’s critique of the “chess-board society.” In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith reproved the “man of system” who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.” Attempts to force citizens to conform to the contrived schemes of government ideologues will indubitably result in disorder. As Kirk wrote, we must confront those “who have come to look upon society... as a homogenous mass of identical individuals whose happiness may be obtained by direction from above.”
Aristocracy in Political Life
One of the most important and most controversial traditions Kirk defends is the role of aristocracy in political life. Against the widely accepted egalitarianism of American culture, Kirk disdained the tumultuous politics of democracy, maintaining that political authority is best left in the hands of an educated elite. As he approvingly quotes J.F. Stephen, “I think wise and good men ought to rule those who are foolish and bad.” At first glance, Kirk seems to be advocating a frankly patriarchal system whereby the strong and intelligent exert their power to the detriment of the poor and ignorant. But his argument is more nuanced than this simplistic observation gives him credit for.
Asserting that societal order is the primary end of government, Kirk, following Edmund Burke and John Adams, believed that only those brought up in wealth and higher learning had the aptitude to govern honorably and efficaciously. “Leadership by men of ability, birth, and wealth,” wrote Kirk, “is one of the most natural, and most beneficial, aspects of civilized life.” Such leaders are in the best position to fulfill government’s rightful duties; this is enough to justify their rule.
This type of thinking stands in stark contrast to most of post-Enlightenment political philosophy, filled as it is with thinkers who, emphasizing an absolute equality among men, reasoned that all have by nature the right to participate in their government. Universal suffrage, open elections, and a general decline in the power of elites were declared inherently good.
To Kirk, however, to partake in the political process was “not an immutable right, but rather a privilege to be extended or contracted according to the intelligence and integrity of a population.” The extension of the vote to the masses is not, therefore, a matter of right but of expedience. If and only if a group can be entrusted with political power may it be acceptable to allow them some.
Nor is it possible, as some imagine, to totally eradicate aristocratic rule. Some, simply by virtue of their talents, will exercise more influence than their fellow citizens. Aristocracy cannot be eradicated because it is a natural phenomenon. Even a nation’s culture is moved by the force of aristocrats. “The culture of the crowd,” Kirk writes, “is dependent in the long run upon the culture of the man of genius and the culture of the educated classes.”
But this simple observation hardly means that we should bow to the unrestrained control of a few elites. Though he had little respect for the “crowd,” Kirk absolutely despised “squalid oligarchs.” He was not so naive as to believe that the mere imposition of aristocratic rule was enough to build a free society. Kirk acknowledged that there “have been ages in which the aristocracy...has usurped the whole governance of life,” trampling the rights of the common man beneath them. But this is not always the case. Indeed, the early American Republic was ruled almost entirely by “natural aristocrats.” For Kirk, the existence of an aristocratic class to which all could rise was not necessarily antithetical to freedom; on the contrary, a society governed by aristocrats inculcated with traditional values could preserve liberty far better than the tumultuous politics of democracy.
From this brief survey, we can see that Kirk’s conservatism was above all a prudent one. It is not necessary to agree with all of his philosophical positions, historical analyses, or policy prescriptions in order to appreciate his fervent defense of our previously cherished customs—customs that are indispensable to the survival of liberty. Wholly unconcerned with building convoluted intellectual edifices, his goal was not to recreate philosophy from the ground up but simply to demonstrate that the increasingly neglected traditions of Western civilization were worthy of preservation. To that end, I believe he succeeded.