In an effort to understand conservatism, I started reading Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Kirk, via his influential book, is considered the Father of the conservative resurgence that occurred in America and Britain starting in the late 1960’s and reaching its pinnacle in the 1980’s with the Reagan administration in the U.S. and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. I was raised conservative and first became aware of politics when conservatism was at its apex, but my experiences in the world and a more nuanced study of recent (and ancient) history forced me to question some of my conservative heritage. After reading the introduction and first chapter, it is official…I have been declared a radical by the self-stated non-dogmatic conservatives.
Although Kirk states early in the book that there is no dogma of conservatism, stating that “conservatives inherit from Burke (Edmund Burke) a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time,” he proceeds to give six canons of conservative thought:
1. “Belief in a trancendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.” And “true politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.” This I believe also. The problem is that most conservatives don’t (neither do most liberals). They ignore the idea of natural law as such (it being manifested and demonstrated in the natural consequences that follow actions), replacing that natural law with whatever they believe has been handed down from God (for the conservatives) or handed down from the philosophers of the day (for the liberals). This positive (meaning creating legislation and tradition) distortion of natural law allows for the maintainance of the status quo as such instead of having to actually demonstrate that this supposed “natural law” is actually natural and fundamentally true. Conservatism assumes that what is ancient is natural.
2. “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.” What conservatives do you know that have an “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence”? Unless I am drastically misunderstanding what Kirk is saying, it seems that we must respect (or at least tolerate) differences of opinion, culture, thought, practice, religion. Which political bent is more tolerant of differences? Admittedly, liberalism at its extreme (authoritarian socialism/communism) is very much about uniformity, equality of things, and pragmatism (the ends justifying the means). However, today’s conservatism is very much about uniformity of opinion (just ask Rush or Hannity: anyone who disagrees with them is a “wacko-liberal) and pragmatism (taking away civil liberties is justified as a means to achieve an end of catching terrorists).
3. “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes.” What? Just because classes exist (and have always existed) they are a requirement for civilized society? Sounds like someone who wants to preserve a class structure for the benefits it gives certain classes. Is it natural for human beings to segregate themselves into master/slave, owner/employee, wealthy/impoverished? Sure, as long as humans believes that human nature is fundamentally desirous to oppress others (an assumption I disagree with, although we are taught to operate that way by everything we see around us). Enoch’s city and the earliest Christians had all things in common and “were of one heart and one mind.” This doesn’t sound like a classed society.
4. “Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.” Again, this is based on the assumption that property is part of natural law, when in reality, private property is a creation of a government. Who creates that government and legislates private property? Those who have the might to take and hold stuff. Tolstoy, in his novel Resurrection, makes a sort of cameo appearance as an old man, perceived as crazed and states the following in response to a question about what to do with those who break the law (this applies directly to the concept of property also):
“The law!” he repeated contemptuously. “First he robbed everybody, taking for himself all the land and all the wealth that belonged to the people–converted it all to his own use–killed all those who resisted him, and then wrote laws forbidding men to rob and kill. He should have made the laws first.”
5. “Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.” Prescription here is likely close to this definition:
In law, prescribing for title; the claim of title to a thing by virtue of immemorial use and enjoyment; or the right to a thing derived from such use. Prescription differs from custom, which is a local usage. Prescription is a personal usage,usage annexed to the person. Nothing but incorporeal hereditaments can be claimed by prescription.
Again, conservatism promotes a reliance upon things that hold authority because they have always been done that way, not because they are right, but because they are ancient. Any questioning of these “prescriptions” leads to decay of society for conservatives. Kirk further states: “Customs, convention, and old prescription are checks both on man’s anarchic impulse (is that a true impulse, or just one invented by those who want to preserve the current state of affairs?) and upon the innovator’s lust for power.” My question is: what are the checks on the oppressive customs, conventions, and prescriptions of the past? Which holds more power (and is thus more dangerous for abuse), the old entrenched oppressive idea or the new, innovative, outside-the-box idea?
6. “Recognition that change may not be salutory reform: hasty innovation may be devouring conflagration rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.” This is correct in its essence, but not in its assumptions. Revolution embodied by violent upheaval often, if not always, causes more problems (at least initially) than it solves. However, if we are stuck in the conservative rut, how are we to see the things that need to be changed until they are forced into our vision with the threat of revolution?
Kirk then procedes to give (in his words) “in a hastily generalizing fashion,” the ways “radicalism…has tended to attack the prescriptive arrangement of society” due to belief in the following:
1. “The perfectibility of man and the illimitable progress of society: meliorism. Radicals believe that education (gasp), positive legislation (oh, no), and alteration of environment (say it isn’t so!) can produce men like gods; they deny that humanity has a natural proclivity towards violence and sin.”
This statement was the final straw for me! Brand me a radical because I believe that human beings are fundamentally good; are taught to be violent (yes, we are weak and we sin); and can, via education, good laws, and a powerfully good environment, (and the fundamental Atonement of Jesus Christ) become better, even perfect.
2. “Contempt for tradition. Reason, impulse, and materialistic determinism are severally preferred as guides to social welfare, trustier than the wisdom of our ancestors.” I don’t have contempt for tradition. Tradition is powerful and often times good. However, I don’t worship tradition. Conservatives do. If that unwillingness to bow down to the idol of tradition makes me a radical, brand me so. I agree with Kirk that “reason, impulse, and materialistic determinism” have little to offer us “as guides to social welfare,” and it is likely that these specific non-conservative ideas are less trusty “that the wisdom of our ancestors.” However, worship of tradition generates an immediate suspicion of anyone or anything that wants to “re-think” or “re-interpret” these traditional values or assumptions.
3. “Political levelling. Order and privilege are condemned; total democracy, as direct as practicable, is the professed radical ideal.” Although I don’t think that complete and total democracy is the answer (most of the things we legislate at any level don’t really need to be legislated), the current situation where money controls the political situation is just as dangerous, and instead of the masses controlling the political situation, the few, the proud, the extremely wealth, do. I trust Joe American to make better decisions for the general welfare with less corruption and self-interest than I trust career politicians, put into place by and mantained in their incumbancy by a monied elite. Thus I am definitely in favor of a more level political playing field. Thus I am a radical by Kirk’s definition. Additionally, privilege absolutely must be condemned. Lincoln, Truman, Obama are examples of politicians who have not been privileged. Roosevelts, Kennedys, Johnson, Reagan, Bushes, Rohdam Clinton are examples of privileged politicians.
4. “Economic levelling. The ancient rights of property, especially property in land are suspect to almost all radicals; and collectivistic reformers hack at the institution of private property root and branch.” Again, because I am suspect of the so-called “ancient rights” of property, I am a radical. I am guilty as charged. I think those ancient rights are invented rights, not natural inalienable rights. However, I am not a collectivist in the sense used in the conservative non-dogma. I do not believe that government should own the means of production. I don’t believe that groups of people should make economic decisions for others. These are the fundamental premises of collectivism. I believe that individuals should make their own economic decisions, working in cooperation with others to stregthen economic prosperity.
In conclusion, I used to believe that I was conservative because 1) I believe in God as a powerful, involved being in my life; 2) I believe that the family is the fundamental unit of society and that society is strongest and at its best when children are raised in a traditional nuclear family; 3) that economic freedom (not capitalism) is the best way to generate prosperity for all, not just wealth for the few, be they all people in a society or all countries in the world. None of these is identified as a fundamental tenant of conservatism. Thus, it is official. I am a radical.
Conservatism is currently connected with Christianity and with American politics. In my next post I will argue that neither Christianity or the origin of American politics is conservative in origin, but are much more in line with the “radicalism” that is criticized by Kirk and by modern day conservatives.