October 19 marked the centennial birthday of one the most consequential scholars and writers of the 20th century: Russell Kirk. Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot was, along with FA Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Ludwig Von Mises’ Human Action, and the works of Ayn Rand, presented as a serious intellectual challenge, which turned into a political challenge.
The Conservative Mind showed that conservatism has a true political and intellectual pedigree dating back centuries and was not, as one prominent leftist writer of the times put it, “a series of irritable mental gestures.”
Kirk’s conservatism placed great emphasis on tradition and prudence in government. He thus opposed social engineering schemes that used state power. Kirk’s conservatism rested on a defense of the “permanent things”— family, communities, a constitutional order that strictly limited federal power, and private property.
Kirk’s defense of private property and “mediating institutions” such as families, religious organizations, and communities against government planners should have made him an ally of libertarians. Kirk also broke with the conservative movement (which took its name from Kirk’s book) — and sides with libertarians, in opposition to the neoconservative project of spreading democracy by force throughout the world.
However, he was quite hostile to libertarianism. Kirk attacked libertarians as ideologues who would tear down all social institutions in the name of our abstract ideology. Of course, this is absurd—the only institution we would tear down is the state and many libertarians wish to “smash the state” in order to protect Kirk’s beloved “permanent things.”
Kirk’s disdain for ideology was, as Lew Rockwell once pointed out, a rejection of systematic thought which often led to the embracing of tradition for tradition’s sake. It could also transform conservatism into a series of poses and gestures. The rejection of “ideology” of many traditional conservatives is one reason they were unable to resist the takeover of their movement by the systematic thinkers who came to be known as neoconservatives.
Kirk’s conservatism was not concerned with politics. As Kirk told the editor of Policy Review in the 80s:
For conservatives, the first necessity lies beyond politics. It is the regaining of a spiritual and moral object in life, the lack of which is the cause of most of the troubles that afflict mankind nowadays. Without a recognized end in existence, we are flung into what Burke called the ‘antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.
I understand where Kirk is coming from but the fact is that we cannot regain a “spiritual and moral object in life” unless we are free. And regaining our freedom requires action to overcome those wishing to increase state power and make the politicians give us back our liberties. In this I am following the example of Murray Rothbard, who wrote that “I see no other conceivable strategy for the achievement of liberty than political action.”
Still, libertarians could learn a lot from Kirk about the immorals of tradition and the permanent things in preserving Liberty.
Read Jack Hunter on Why the right needs Russell Kirk here.
Read neoconservative Matthew Continetti’s tribute to Kirk here.