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August 19, 2004

Russell Kirk: Once Over Lightly

One of the leading lights of Conservative thought is a gent by the name of Russell Kirk. Considering that I studied Computer Science and not a Political Science, it is not surprising that I've not heard of him before today. How then could I be a true Conservative? The same way any scientist who observes correctly the effect of air pressure on object even if he never heard of Bernoulli. Independent discovery still has a place in this world, however I would have preferred that somebody had hipped me to this cat many years ago. It would have been more Conservative, wouldn't it?

The first thing I'd like to note about Kirk comes from this excerpt of an Amazon reviewer's on his book The Conservative Mind:

One repeated note throughout this book is that markets and economic forces are disruptive and need to be tamed. Alternative sources of human values, other than what they command in a wide-open economy, must be preserved. The market, left unchecked, has the potential to overrun settled ways of life, to undermine religious faith, and to coarsen standards of behaviour. While this is not Kirk's only point, it is the one that seems most conspicuous today.

Now the first person I heard say anything like this was in fact Cornel West. I agreed with him then and agree with him now. Human value does not come from Markets. Indeed unregulated markets can be and probably generally are destructive of human value. I say markets need to be regulated by sustainability, which will require a revolution in accounting, and by strong declarations and defenses of human rights and civil rights. This, my friends, is the very basis of my gripe against Libertarians, whom I consider irresponsible and leaning towards anarchy. Libertarianis is certainly understandable as an ethos in the context today's complex and often over-regimented society, however it doesnt' stand on its own.

Now onto the famous Six Canons:

1. The principle of moral order -- a belief in a transcendent moral order to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.

I tend to believe that this is absolutely true, but I think that people get bogged down in the matters of discovery. Which is to say that atheists have a hard time accepting that Theists have recieved any revelation, and this somehow unhinges their moral credibility. The hell with it, say it's all 'self-evident' and hash it out. Ultimately people will discover that murder is wrong. I believe their is a cognitive theorist who suggests that our emotions are hooked to our minds and bodies in such a way that we are inately capable of knowing (because it makes us feel bad) what is right and wrong vis a vis the low end of Maslow's Pyramid. There is a reason that the sight of blood or of human skeletons is revolting and scary - we are innately moral. The religious way to describe this is that God made that so. Fine. Transcendence is transcendence.

2. The principle of social continuity -- Conservatives prefer the devil they know to the devil they dont know.

This is a no brainer. Of course it's true. I don't even see how this is debateable.

3. The principle of prescription -- A reliance on the wisdom of our ancestors.

Well, now the value of this really depends on how broad a faction of ancestors one is willing to claim, no? But the basic principle stands. Human knowledge evolves slowly. Just as we physically evolve slowly. What is valuable doesn't change, so heed your grandmama.

4. The principle of prudence -- Public measures should be judged by their long-term consequences.

Really, what more needs to be said here, other than what I keep saying about Bush blowing the budget makes him more my enemy than my friend. But you already know this. Conservatives like me are all about the Long Now.

5. The principle of variety -- A healthy inequality is necessary for civilization.

This could mean any number of things, but presuming that it says something specifically in defense of a Class System (as contrasted to a Caste System), then I tend to agree. Throw in a little Peter Principle, a little meritocracy and open markets and I think it works just fine. People need to do what they are good at doing, and they need to be rewarded appropriately. Somewhere, some man needs to get a passionate night of lovemaking for not stealing a truck, but he's in another class than I.

6. The principle of imperfectability -- Since man is imperfect, no perfect social order can be created.

Abso-frickin-lutely. So now I suppose I need to check out this Jeremy Bentham character and see exactly which of his screws were loose. There's a task for another day. I've blogged quite enough today.

Posted by mbowen at August 19, 2004 02:54 PM

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Tracked on August 20, 2004 02:56 PM


Since you are complaining that nobody told you before hand, let me give you my $.02 cents.

The two most widely respected books on conservative thought are the one you just mentioned, The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk, and Witness, By Whittaker Chambers. I wrote about this just yesterday on my website,


Posted by: Alfonso Trujillo at August 19, 2004 06:27 PM


the religious (Biblical) explanation for fear of the sight of skeletons/blood isn't "we're moral", it's an innate knowledge that the body and the spirit were never intended to be separated (by death), and this separation is a consequence of sin having been introduced into the world by mankind. Said separation IS horrible in that context... a departure from God's order in Eden, self-inflicted by man upon man.. a horror to contemplate and to look upon..

interesting stuff here, thanks..

Posted by: Dave Perkins at August 20, 2004 01:00 AM

boy, i go away for a few daze and you post up a storm. i should've started here first in my replies (go in reverse, order, memer. duh.), but, wot the hell, i'll mention minarchism here, too. There are degrees of Libertarianism, just as there are extreme degrees of Conservatism and Communism. It's a question of figuring out which is the best place to start from and work out the exceptions from there.

Now for the Canon

1) I don't believe we are born moral, like, as something hard-wired in our brains, but we can certainly learn and/or create a moral code. i mean, if it's something which can be extrapolated from a simple empathy with others' pain (grounded in experiencing pain ourselves), it's not too big a jump.

2) so do liberals, i think. it's a question of how tightly do you grip this principle. it's to acknowledge that there are exceptions and having the faith/strength to try to improve circumstances when the old devil isn't giving you the deal you'd hoped for.

i think there is this unfortunate meme out there that liberals are out for change, any change, just for changes' sake. i suspect if you look at it soberly, one will find liberals and conservatives hold more basic values in common than different.

3) see #2. just recognize (just as you did one day wrt your parents) that the ancestors didn't know everything. with knowledge some values might require a "readjustment" (e.g. christian man's relationship with the bible/god as science suceeds with a mechanistic model of the universe)

4)true. but not prudence at the expense of sometimes trying something new in an effort to advance, to bloody well improve.

5) "This could mean any number of things..."
damned straight, and that's wot makes it a little creepy. but i like your particular interpretation. ambition and opportunity for all and the peter principle acts as the natural limiting factor. fair enuff.

6) doesn't mean we shouldn't try. when challenged (in the 70s, most famously), the detroit auto industry was able to come up with cars that did offer way better mileage and lower emissions, etc. despite initial protestations. where there's a will...

Generally, i don't really have a problem with any of this. My only concern is that this kind of stuff tends to get swallowed whole and gets stuck in the craw and mindset of True Believers. if there's a way to use these principles with the wisdom of knowing when to put them aside, that, my friend, would make for a perfect society. trouble is, not everyone plays along, and all it takes is one sumbitch. what is the best route to go once you recognize that you live in a multi-value society?

Posted by: memer at August 21, 2004 05:08 PM

The best route to go in a multi-value society is to figure out how to best keep your soldiers and cops happy.

Posted by: Cobb at August 21, 2004 05:49 PM