What Is Conservatism?

The essence of conservatism, according to the iconic Russell Kirk, is found in six “canons” of conservatism (summarized here):

(1) Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience…. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems… (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…. Society longs for leadership…. (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress…. (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite…. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical….

My own view of conservatism, as it is understood in America, has gone through a transformation. Once upon a time, I thought of it as a trichotomy:

True-Blue Traditionalist: This type simply loves and revels in family, community, club, church, alma mater, and the idea of America — which includes American government, with all its faults. If government enacts truly popular policies, those policies are (by and large) legitimate in the eyes of a true-blue. Thus a true-blue may be a Democrat or a Republican, though almost certainly not a libertarian.

Libertarian of the Classical Liberal School: This type may (or may not) love and revel in most of the institutions revered by a true-blue traditionalist, but takes a different line when it comes to government. Voluntary institutions are good, but government tends to undermine them. Government’s proper role is to protect the citizenry and the citizenry’s voluntary institutions, not to dictate the terms and conditions of their existence. The classical liberal favors government only when it observes its proper role, and not for its own sake.

Rightist: The rightist differs from the true-blue traditionalist and classical liberal in three key respects. First, he is hostile toward those persons and voluntary institutions that are not in the “American tradition” of white, northern Europeanism. Second, his disdain for things outside the “American tradition” is so great that he is likely to be either an “America firster” or a reincarnation of Curtis “bomb them back to the stone age” LeMay. Third, he is willing to use the power of government to enforce the observance of those values that he favors, and to do other things that he sees as necessary.

I would now call the “true blue” a left-statist or right-statist, depending on the direction of his preferences for government action (e.g., anti-defense or pro-defense); the “classical liberal,” a minarchist, most likely a right-minarchist; and the “rightist,” a totalitarian-right-statist. My new political lexicon lacks the word “conservative,” which has too many meanings to be meaningful.

But I do find in minarchism, especially right-minarchism, much of what Kirk finds in conservatism. What do I mean by right-minarchism? To quote myself:

To a minarchist … rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing conceptions of rights and how the cost of protecting those rights should be shared….

Minarchists … are fierce defenders of property rights. Minarchists hold that we own what we earn (or what is given to us, freely, by others who have earned it). The right to property is a negative right, in that the enjoyment and use of that which is ours need not deny anyone else the right to enjoy and use that which is theirs. (Acts of enjoyment and use, however, must not infringe on the negative rights of others.) The denial of property rights (in whole or in part) is theft, whether committed by a private party or government. (The “public use” clause of the Fifth Amendment is applied legitimately only when government must take property, with “just compensation” in order to execute one of the few legitimate functions of government.)…

There can be more to minarchy than the protection of negative rights. In the view of some minarchists [right-minarchists], government legitimately serves the broader (but related) purpose of protecting civil society. Other minarchists [left-minarchists] have no use for what they see as the strictures of civil society; they wish only to be left alone. In their introverted myopia they fail to see that the liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for government to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism)….

More specifically, right-minarchists (R-M)

reject the non-aggression principle with respect to national defense. They do so not because they favor aggression but because the principle, in its standard interpretation, is a non-action principle. It would not allow a preemptive attack on an antagonistic state that is armed, capable of striking us at any time, and known to be contemplating a strike. R-M, in other words, tend toward hawkishness when it comes to national defense.

R-M also tend toward a hawkish stance on crime. For example, some R-M have no sympathy for journalists who protect anonymous sources where those sources obtain their information by breaking the law. Other R-M reject the idea that the press should be allowed to print whatever information it may obtain about America’s defense forces, plans, and operation. R-M understand that liberty and the prosperity it brings are unattainable in a lawless, defenseless society.

R-M are unsympathetic to “political correctness,” arguing that government must not do anything to quell impolite speech or to compensate blacks, women, etc., for the past behavior of those who discriminated against them, because to do so penalizes persons now living who are innocent of discrimination. But more than that, R-M would give individuals and businesses broad latitude in their affairs, penalizing only acts traditionally understood as harmful (e.g., murder, rape, and theft).

R-M see “rights” like abortion and homosexual “marriage” as government-imposed social innovations with potentially harmful consequences for civil society. If social custom, as embodied in legislative acts, rejects such things as abortion and homosexual “marriage,” it does so because those things undermine the fabric of society — the bonds of mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual restraint that enable a people to live and work together in peace.

Finally,

[t]here are R-M (like me) … who are … worried … by the extent to which the franchise has been broadened. This has nothing to do with gender or race … and much to do with keeping government on the straight-and-narrow. A good way to do that is to restrict the franchise to those persons who have acquired sufficient maturity, and who have a vested interest in the protection of property rights (which are central to economic well-being)….

Having said all that, I redact Kirk’s six “canons” to conform to my “canons” of right-minarchism:

(1) Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience…. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems… (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…. Society longs for leadership…. (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress…. (5) Faith in prescription [traditional mores] and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite…. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical….

Religion isn’t necessary to right-minarchism, though neither is it ruled out. Basic religious precepts (as in the Ten Commandments) form the moral foundation of civil society, which depends not so much on orders and classes as it does on order (as opposed to lawlessness) and respect for the persons and property of others. There is little else on which to differ with Kirk.

Therefore, in my taxonomy of politics, Kirk’s conservatism is located in right-minarchism — which is a distinct branch of libertarianism. Right-minarchism rejects the nihilism and strident anti-religionism which are rampant in strains of libertarianism, namely, anarchism and left-minarchism. Anarchists and left-minarchists believe, foolishly, that liberty is to be found in the rejection of order and social norms. Liberty would be the first victim of the brave new disorder that they wish for.

So, here’s to right-minarchism, the nexus of true conservatism and true libertarianism.

Related posts:
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Where Conservatism and (Sensible) Libertarianism Come Together
Common Ground for Conservatives and Libertarians?
The Nexus of Conservatism and Libertariansim

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