Sunday, October 8, 2023

Returning to Kirkean Principles

We need, as a nation, to return to Kirkean principles. 

I recently read a book that is, shamefully, obscure, even in conservative intellectual circles: Russell Kirk's The American Cause. Published in 1957, this short read (only 137 pages) provides readers with a powerful and pithy defense of American culture. Kirk very astutely observed that many of our fellow countrymen -  though well-meaning and, undoubtedly, patriotic - lacked the ability to properly articulate what it was exactly that they loved about the American way of life. Short of platitudes and hollow shibboleths (i.e. freedom, liberty, natural rights, etc...), many of us fall short in defining the distinct nature of this great country. 

In comes Kirk...

The America that Kirk describes is not simply an "experiment" or a collective of people with abstract rights, but a uniquely awesome inheritance. The conservatism of Kirk puts enormous emphasis on our shared history (Yoram Hazony calls this "historical empiricism"). When we look back at history - late 18th and early 20th century European history, in particular - what we find are a series of imprudent, Godless revolutions that, ultimately, failed in remarkable fashion. The Jacobin revolution in late 18th century France is, by far and away, the most cited by conservative intellectuals like Kirk. Edmund Burke's magnum opus, Reflections on the Revolution in France, is the most important book to read on this subject matter. Burke, better than anyone else, explained why the Jacobins were as profoundly and unmistakably wrong as they were in their reckless tactics and fundamentally short-sighted goals: freedom from everything, including their past inheritances. 

This leads me to an important point: Freedom is a word that is far too liberally flung around without any consideration for its greater meaning. What is it exactly that we ought to be free from or of? Should we be free of societal obligations? No. How about free from social etiquette? Absolutely not. Or perhaps free from our inherited Western traditions? Hell no. While Kirk of course thought that freedom from a totalist state and economic freedom were noble goals, he did not argue that freedom, in  and of itself, was a good that ought to be achieved.  Freedom, in its most absolute sense, connotes a kind of dystopian, anarchistic libertarianism. And Kirk did not think fondly of libertarianism, nor with its compatibility with conservatism. 

Kirk noted that our Founders thought "Unrestrained dangerous as unrestrained power." 

This from Kirk's must-read 1981 essay, Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries:

What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.

Kirk, in that same essay, stated that "a libertarian conservative is as rare a bird as a Jewish Nazi." I wrote about this in much greater detail in the Russell Kirk Center's University Bookman. You can find that here.  

In sum, Kirk is defending an inherited Christian country whose Founders emphasized Communitarianism, subsidiarity, and ordered liberty. It is a little, easy-to-read book that you can revisit again and again. It should probably be regarded as a fundamental text in American civics courses. We still teach that, right?


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