Sunday, July 26, 2009

Philosopher : Kirk

Since Russell Kirk glossed the philosophers that he read, and since I don’t have the time to wrote “Kirk said that Burke said…” every time I say something about a philosopher, (e.g. “Burke said…”) assume that I’m referring to Kirk’s gloss. I’ll use quotes where Kirk directly quotes a primary source, and when I go outside of Kirk’s text to some primary source, I’ll let you know with a bluebook style (more or less) quote.

So we will start with Edmund Burke. Burke was a conservative British philosopher who lived around the time that the framers of our Constitution lived. It was a heady time – Marie Antoinette lost hers, Paine thought that was just great. Rousseau, who is often thought of as a libertarian but who was in fact a romanticist, thought the French and American revolutions were just great – except for the fact that governments quickly ensued in the wake of both revolutions. And the Whig Burke – a reformer but no liberal – sat in England, aghast.

But before we can even talk about Burke, how are we to talk about this man? How can we talk about any conservative? After all, conservatives in our day range from Jesse Helms, to Whittaker Chambers, to Bill Buckley, to George Bush, to Bill Kristol, to John McCain, to Chuck Grassley, to Paul Weyrich, to Jonah Goldberg, to Andrew Sullivan, to Omnibus Bill, to my next door neighbor who thinks one ought to go to church, be a good neighbor, and vote pro-life.

What are the limits of our encampment? How do we know that Burke is one of us, or that we are akin with him? Where does conservatism start and end? Of course we don’t want to generalize too much here. Generalization and simplification, sloganeering really, is the realm of the radical. We aren’t interested in top-down theorizing; we are interested in viewing things for what they are. So what is a conservative?

According to Kirk, six things comprise the more or less essential elements of the conservative world view. (Kirk, The Conservative Mind, Seventh Ed. (Revised); Regnery, 2001) (henceforth “Kirk”). They include:

1. “Belief in a transcendant order that rules society and conscience.” It can be God, or natural law, or some other external source. But among the first things, this is the first thing. We believe there are some things that aren’t subject to negotiation; facts and perhaps rules that we cannot change, but which change us. If you think some things are always wrong, no matter what, and some things are always right, no matter what, this is a belief in a transcendent order. Many of our political and social problems, therefore, are questions of right and wrong, better and worse as judged on some timeless, external scale. If you look at some societal disaster and think “that’s just wrong,” then congratulations, you are on the road to being a conservative.

2. “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarian and utilitarian aims of most utopian systems; Conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society.” If it doesn’t bother you that your neighbor just sold his startup for $21 million, or that the neighbor on the other side of you shops with coupons because money is tight, you may be a conservative. Borrowing further from Jeff Foxworthy, if it doesn’t bother you that some kids get A’s in school, while some kids (in good schools) flunk out, or that in your state you can’t marry a 14 year old while in West Virginia you can; or that you can own lotsa guns in Texas, but not in Massachusetts – well then friend, you are more conservative on this point than I am.

The point is a conservative doesn’t think everybody has to be equal in all aspects of life. If it doesn’t bug you too much that some people are relatively poor, and others rich; some talented and some dullards; some in the bleachers and others in the box seats, well then you may be a conservative. We’ll have none of that “people versus the powerful” crap around here, thank you.

3. “Conviction that a civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society. . . if natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality before God, and in the courts of law are recognized by Conservatives; but equality of condition, they
think, means equality in servitude and boredom.”

This is a hard one to get your mind around because we all talk about “equality” as if it was a state of being we needed to reach, rather than a standard of how to treat people. But it might help to think about equality in economic terms, of talents and abilities and profits. If there is no inequality of condition in society, then there is nothing to strive for. You can’t get rich, nor can the hounds of poverty, now nipping at your heels, run you down and feast on your bones. Why try harder? Why not chill out, have a drink, do nothing. In fact, why not have lots of drinks, use the stamping machine at work to make some shitty cars that don’t work, and have another drink.

Pretty soon, you get Russia.

Rather than total equality of condition, doesn’t it make more sense to allow and reward inequality – inequality of intelligence, of effort, of perseverence, and luck? I’m not talking about bigotry here; nor was Kirk. I’m talking about starting from the understanding that while we are equal before the law, all men are definitely not created equal. If Bill Gates knows how to make a better operating system – or if the boys at Red Hat do – should they be allowed to run with it and become super wealthy, or ought we to give a chance to less talented engineers and businessmen? Equality of opportunity is about as far as a conservative ought to go; ensuring equality of outcome… why that’s positively a radical idea, and we’ll have none of it here.

4. “Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked; separate property from private possession and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic leveling, they maintain, is not economic progress.

This one is self-explanatory. Graduated, er, “progressive” federal income tax, anybody? From each according to his means…? “Private property is theft.” Ring any bells?

5. “Faith in prescription, and distrust of ‘sophisters, caluclators and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Customs, convention and old prescription are checks upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovators’ lust for power.”

If you are skeptical when somebody comes along and says that they have a new theory, and we ought to organize society based on this theory, well then you have conservative leanings. If you prefer hard and fast guidelines, bright line rules, over theory as a method of managing society, then you are trending conservative. And if you cringe when grubby protestors take to the streets and riot… well, you know what I’m getting at.

6. “Recognition that change may not be salutory reform; hasty innovation may be a 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.

Do you look before you leap? That’s conservative. Do you think politicians ought to look before you leap? Are you bemused that politicians who voted for Campaign Finance Reform and the PATRIOT Act are now ranting that they didn’t know what was in it? Well, they’re liberal; you’re conservative.

Now this isn’t to say that all conservatives have all these traits. Nor is it to say that some of these traits are incapable of being embodied in radicals. But it’s a good starting point. To recap, a conservative:

1. Believes that right and wrong are determined by external, timeless standards.
2. Believes in equality of opportunity; but is skeptical of efforts to mandate equality of outcome.
3. Accepts of a natural meritocracy, the precondition of which is inequalities in abilities between men.
4. Advocates strong respect for private property rights, and is skeptical of efforts to economically level society.
5. Thinks that society isn’t best arranged around theories, but is best arranged around rules, customs and laws handed down to the present day.
6. Sticks with tried and true rules and axioms, unless there is some reason to change. Change for its own sake is never warranted…

Well, that’s the basic definition of a conservative.

Where do you fit in, or vary from the profile, and why?