I just stumbled across a reference to Russell Kirk's list of "conservative principles," written in 1993, and given my fondness for manifestos I decided to look them up. Each is explained more fully in this essay, based on the book chapter in which they originally appeared.
First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. "That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent."
Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. "It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire."
Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. "Conservatives . . . believe in rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often."
Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. "Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries."
Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. "They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems."
Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. "Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created."
Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. "Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all."
Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. "Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order. A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty."
Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. "The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world."
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This is an interesting list. I have always been struck by the importance conservatives attach to the first, the existence of a permanent moral order. I have read dozens of times that if there is no such permanent, probably divide order, no morality is possible and anarchy is inevitable. But even if you grant that point in theory (which I don't), I am more impressed by the problem of figuring out what that moral order is. Based on what conservatives have said over the past few centuries, the divine order used to permit slavery but then it stopped; it used to permit wife beating but then it stopped; it used to permit wars of conquest and empires but then it stopped. How useful is such a mutable concept?
So that leaves us with the second and third points, keeping old ways of doing things because we know they work. I agree with this, to some extent; for example I think that the expansion of the welfare state since World War II has led to a huge decline in severe poverty, so we should obviously keep doing it.
This gets me to my main beef with contemporary American conservatism: that it sometimes has nothing to do with what has worked in the past. There is nothing old, tested or prudent about hi-tech global capitalism, or in particular about the way Wall Street does business in the 21st century. So why do conservatives resist almost any attempt to rein in unchecked capitalism? I don't get it.
And what was prudent about George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, his authorization of torture, or his doctrine of preventive warfare? All of these were supported by most American conservatives, even though they violate just about all of the Kirk's principles. Which leads me to think that Kirk has omitted something important from his list.
My candidate for that missing something would be suspicion of other people, especially people from outside one's own social group. Psychological studies consistently show that liberals trust strangers more than conservatives do, and I think much of Kirk's intellectual rhetoric is a cover for this. You could see Bush's whole post-9-11 foreign policy as a desperate attempt to wrest control of our nation's fate from outsiders who threatened it, and to reach a state in which our power was so great that we did not have to trust anyone.
The conservative devotion to private property is related to this lack of trust; if you can't rely on others, you have to build up your own resources so you can take care of things yourself. If you share all you have with the group they'll probably just waste it anyway.
The principle of variety is a complete red herring. All parties support it when their power is limited but forget about it when they have the chance to impose their own vision on everyone. Viz., the politics of gay marriage in the US, which changed so quickly that we all got to watch liberals crying for states' rights while the conservatives tried to impose their vision on everyone via the Defense of Marriage Act, and then a few years later the Supreme Court struck that down and imposed the liberal vision on the whole country while Republicans pleaded for localism. I cannot remember a single case when the party with a clear national majority was interested in letting the states try the other party's approach.
I find the seventh principle particularly interesting; I agree that freedom and property are "closely linked." But whereas Kirk was thinking mainly about the threat of communism, I think private property unchecked by government is an equally dangerous threat to freedom; a whole lot of damage has been done in the world by corporations with too much money for local communities to exert any control over them. I think experience shows that societies that don't allow quite a lot of it either crumble or turn Stalinist, so I support private property. But I think it should be kept within prudent limits.
I agree most profoundly with Kirk when he emphasizes balance and tension. Yes, freedom and authority are always in tension, and governing well means finding the right balance. That some sort of victory by one's own political side would solve all the world's problems is a persistent belief, but it is a fantasy. Extremism never works. Only compromise works; only balance works. The goals of political movements should never be totalistic; neither the Revolution nor the Reaction will end our troubles. The goal should always be to maintain the balance, while pulling it a little in the direction you prefer.