"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Russell Kirk and a conservatism of continuity

Mark C. Henrie has posted an analysis of Kirk's approach to conservatism, available over at ISI's First Principles website.  As Henrie notes, Kirk's conservatism was non-ideological and that makes it difficult to categorize, particularly in light of Kirk's rather difficult baroque style of composition.  However, within Kirk's writings is a developed idea of conservatism -- not an ideology but an intuition about the Permanent Things and about how those Permanent Things are known and lived out.  Henrie's overview of Kirk's approach to conservatism helps to understand Kirk's approach to the ideas that animated his work.  For those interested in reading Kirk himself and his take on American civilization, I would recommend the following by the Sage of Mecosta:
  • Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution. 
  • The Roots of American Order
  • The American Cause
One of the key parts of Kirk's approach to conservatism is the principle of continuity. It is this principle of continuity that leads American conservatism to incorporate significant elements from the classical liberal tradition As Patrick J. Deneen writes over at Front Porch Republic in his post Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?from the time of the Founding forward much of American conservatism has been rooted in liberalism.  After describing some of what he sees as basic tenets of American conservatism, Deneen explains: 
[E]very characteristic that I’ve listed is actually a species of liberalism. I don’t mean that they are liberal in the way that we typically use the word to describe people like Nancy Pelosi or Michael Dukakis; rather, I mean liberal in its classical conception, that political philosophy that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with its deepest origins in the Social Contract theory of Thomas Hobbes, further refined by John Locke, amended by Adam Smith and Montesquieu, and put into effect by our Founders, especially in those two founding documents The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To be clear – there is a species of conservatism within this tradition, to be sure – about which I’ll say more – but at the outset it needs to be acknowledged that we are speaking here of the difference between conservative liberals and progressive liberals, and not typically non- or anti-liberal conservatives and liberals per se. 
The point is well taken.  Unlike European conservativism, which developed out of the altar and throne alliances that were the principal political fruit of the Reformation, American conservatism largely developed within a cultural and political milieu that strongly emphasized individual natural rights as understood through the British Enlightenment, along with some critical thinkers like Montesquieu who reflected on the British political tradition. 

This helps us understand, for example, how someone as central to the modern American conservative tradition like Ronald Reagan could cite Thomas Paine so much (more than any other Founder, as historian John Patrick Diggins discusses in his biography of Reagan).  American conservatism is not a refutation of the liberal tradition as much as it is a strand within that tradition.  This is one of the things that makes American conservatives stand out from their Tory counterparts in Canada and the UK, and from their Christian Democratic counterparts in Germany and Italy.  

Deneen makes another point in his post, which is to identify a more traditional, non-liberal conservatism with the anti-federalist movement during the debate over the Constitution.  According to Deneen, it is the anti-federalists, with their aversion to centralized government and the mechanisms for national action located within the then-novel Constitution, who represent the conservative spirit in the early American context.  Modern American conservatives, Deneen contends, defend a Constitution that leads inexorably towards the kind of big-government activism that they claim to eschew.  As Deneen puts it at the close of his article:

It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America.
Deneen's thesis here is worthy of some considerable discussion. To properly understand the nature of conservatism during the founding period through today, one needs to grasp one of Kirk's key insights, namely that conservatism properly understood is non-ideological.  This understanding of conservatism, developed here in America by Kirk and in the UK by by British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, views conservatism as primarily concerned about preserving custom, tradition and usage in the face of unnecessary change.  It is about depending upon the tried and the true, upon the consensus of community culture, upon the established patterns of family, religion and voluntary associations.  

In this view, while conservatism has certain common principles and practices, it evidences pluralism as well, differing from country to country, from time to time, from place to place.  Italian conservatism, Chinese conservatism, Argentinian conservatism, Yankee conservatism not only vary greatly, they should vary greatly.  As both Kirk and Oakeshott consistently wrote, there is no single conservative ideology upon which to build a political program. It is diverse. Conservatism can be thought of more as a disposition than a doctrine, more of a way of approaching the world than a specific agenda that is uniform across time and space.  And that is part of its strength and appeal, not a weakness to be overcome by ideological purity. 

From that perspective, Kirk approached the Constitution as a fundamentally conservative document, as an attempt to preserve the best elements of the English legal and political tradition, adapted to the culture and context of America, as possible, while allowing for the prudential and necessary increase in the powers of the federal government that were necessary to preserve the nation from the disaster that was brewing under our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. 

As for the anti-federalists as conservatives, Kirk himself did not think of them as such. Kirk mostly viewed the anti-federalists as representatives of radicalism within American public life.  They were ideological thinkers, caught in abstraction, unable to understand that the science of statesmanship was the study, as Burke noted, of necessary change.  Politics cannot remain unchanging; just as change is the pattern of biological life, reform is part of the life of the body politic.  However reform should only be undertaken when necessary, not simply because revolutions, as Jefferson once said, help to "clear the atmosphere."  


For Kirk, the conservatives of the early American Republic were the Federalists, particularly John Adams, and the Tertium Quids led by John Randolph of Roanoake.  He wrote at length about both men in his masterwork about the conservative intellectual tradition, The Conservative Mind. Adams and Randolph embodied the kind of cautious statesmanship, attached to principle but not to ideology, concerned with preserving order, justice, hearth and home  that exemplifies, in Kirk's view, the conservative approach to politics.  Such an approach is concerned with continuity more than ideology, with the coherence of a civilization in support of the Permanent Things rather than the imposition of a pure agenda on the communities and individuals that make up a nation. 

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Such an approach is concerned with continuity more than ideology, with the coherence of a civilization in support of the Permanent Things rather than the imposition of a pure agenda on the communities and individuals who make up a nation.

Thank you. Since he makes my eyes glaze over, taking the most roundabout way to get to the obvious, I'm glad you read Kirk so we don't have to.

Both conservative liberals and progressive liberals are communitarian, the former socially, the latter economically/materialistically. Libertarianism is useful to each--for the lib-libs socially, to the conservatives economically.

But a true libertarianism must yield a society not only with no shared values but all values except "liberty" abolished, people dying in the streets of hunger and disease as they will, and barbarians at the gates ready to pick over whatever's left.

I remain a conservative liberal instead of a lib-lib because I believe society, not government, holds primacy. Whether under Robespierre or Napoleon, the French remained French.