Conservatism as Right-Minarchism

W. Winston Elliott III delivers an apt appreciation of Russell Kirk and conservatism:

[Kirk’s The Conservative Mind] does not supply its readers with a “conservative ideology”: for the conservative abhors all forms of ideology. An abstract rigorous set of political dogmata: that is ideology, a “political religion,” promising the Terrestrial Paradise to the faithful; and ordinarily that paradise is to be taken by storm. Such a priori designs for perfecting human nature and society are anathema to the conservative, who knows them for the tools and the weapons of coffeehouse fanatics.

For the conservative, custom, convention, constitution, and prescription are the sources of a tolerable civil social order. Men not being angels, a terrestrial paradise cannot be contrived by metaphysical enthusiasts; yet an earthly hell can be arranged readily enough by ideologues of one stamp or another. Precisely that has come to pass in a great part of the world, during the twentieth century.

Edward Feser puts it this way:

Tradition, being nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience, itself provides the surest guide to determining the most rational course of action. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?) (“Hayek and Tradition“)

As for conservative governance, I turn to Michael Oakeshott:

To some people, ‘government’ appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favourite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favourite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire….

Now, the disposition to be conservative in respect of politics reflects a quite different view of the activity of governing. The man of this disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down….

It is not, then, mere stupid prejudice that disposes a conservative to take this view of the activity of governing; nor are any highfalutin metaphysical beliefs necessary to provoke it or make it intelligible. It is connected merely with the observation that where activity is bent upon enterprise the indispensable counterpart is another order of activity, bent upon restraint, which is unavoidably corrupted (indeed, altogether abrogated) when the power assigned to it is used for advancing favourite projects. An ‘umpire’ who at the same time is one of the players is no umpire; ‘rules’ about which we are not disposed to be conservative are not rules but incitements to disorder; the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.

Political conservatism is, then, not at all unintelligible in a people disposed to be adventurous and enterprising, a people in love with change and apt to rationalise their affections in terms of ‘progress’…. Indeed, a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without irecting enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight…. (“On Being Conservative,” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition., pp. 431-5)

Now, returning to Kirk, I redact his six “canons” of conservatism 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.

*     *     *

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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