Thoughts on Russell Kirk’s “Tenets of Conservativism”

In his introduction to The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk lays out six tenets of conservativism and five tenets of radical liberalism. In this blog I lay out my formal opinions on each of these eleven tenets.Image

Kirk’s work is thoughtful, scholarly, and worthy of serious contemplation. I encourage you to formalize your own stance on his tenets – absolutely do not reject or accept them wholesale because they bear the label “conservative.”

For Kirk, conservativism entails:

1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at base, are religious and moral problems. True politics is the art of apprehending and applying Justice, which ought to prevail in a community of souls.

I agree.

Like Kirk, I argue that society and conscience, as well as the economy, operate within the parameters of a natural law. The concept of natural law may be unfamiliar to some and require definition. I recommend chapter one of Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty for an excellent introduction. 

Natural law philosophy contains descriptive as well as prescriptive elements. It defines what man does and suggests what he ought to do. It describes his limits and prescribes the proper behavior for fulfilling his unique character. It outlines what is possible and impossible in the arena of human happiness; by doing so it directs us toward the conduct that properly achieves those ends within the constraints dictated by our nature. I describe here the constrained vision of man as articulated in Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions

Opinions differ on how we come to know natural law. Some believe natural law is a precise set of doctrines revealed by God to prophets through divine communion. Others argue it is a heuristic intuition guided by right reasoning. Some believe it is a set of self-evident truths available to anyone who meditates upon his own nature. Others argue natural laws are empirically derived limits discovered by observing the effect of certain behaviors on man’s happiness. 

While it is difficult to formalize an apodictic account of natural law and how we come to know it, it is easy to see the difficulty in arguing that it does not exist. Rarely does anyone argue that man can act any way he pleases and achieve positive results. Since this is obviously true, it stands to reason that some behaviors are universally preferable, and that society is best established on these behaviors – on the natural law of man.

Certain patterns of behavior attain most closely to man’s real happiness; certain standards of conduct are “best” or at least “better;” particular economic organizations are more or less efficient; certain human problems will appear perennially given the limitations inherent in man’s circumstantial existence. My position, as well as Kirk’s, can be understood as moral realism: the philosophy that certain moral facts exist.

Liberal-minded people are suspicious of natural law and moral realism; they fear that these philosophies smuggle in authoritarianism and theocratic rule. If we concede that one way is best, a liberal might reason, then we justify homogenizing people under a single ideology. If we admit a universal natural law ethic, we risk suppressing the diversity of expression and opinion that flourish under more liberal values.

But by believing in a transcendent order of natural law, we don’t imply justice in coercing uniformity. Coercion is unnecessary – the natural law itself rewards those who align with it and punishes those who stray. I argue that the natural law is liberal in nature – it requires freedom and variety as a precondition for determining which behaviors are best.The natural law supports a plurality of ethics and allows for variations. 

I hesitate to agree with Kirk that political problems are moral and religious problems. Political problems could arise from intellectual errors or naive intentions. I have not considered every case so I’m not ready to concede to this claim.

Kirk is correct that some political problems are moral and religious: As Whittaker Chambers notes in Witness, the crisis of communism is a crisis of faith. When politics replace religion as a form of secular devotion and salvation, we see what Kirk describes. But error in our politics can occur for many other reasons, too.

I resist the language of justice with a capital “J” prevailing in a community of souls. It sounds mystical and sentimental to me. I personally believe in “J”ustice and the soul, but I avoid appealing to them as Kirk does. I believe these concepts evoke sentimental feelings and undermine rationality, which I value more highly.

I believe that reason, not faith, should be the organizing principle behind politics.

The second hallmark of Kirk’s conservativism is:

2.  Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human experience, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.

I strongly share this affection. But contrary to Kirk, I have always understood this to be a liberal principle, not conservative. Where are we missing each other? 

In modern politics, liberal democrats criticize conservative republicans for being homogeneous in their interests. According to liberal democrats, conservative republicans are a monolith that represents the interests of white, heterosexual, upper-class, Protestant males. When in power, conservatives squash diversity and variety in the name of their own cultural and ethical superiority. Liberals claim to be the ones who promote diversity and support a plurality of values. It appears that Kirk’s tenet has switched hands.

But Kirk is reacting against the dangers of collectivism, which grew out of democracy and egalitarianism – both liberal values. Kirk correctly perceives the collectivist threats inherent in liberal democracy: direct democracy holds total power over its constituents and follows no standard of justice beyond majority rule. It necessarily suppresses individual rights for collective aims. Far from being just and humane, Kirk feared direct democracy would devolve into the tyranny of the masses.

Similarly, if the desire for equality – a liberal value – remained unchecked, all persons of distinction would begin to be razed. Excellence is undemocratic; some achieve it while others do not. The liberal drive for equality presents an enormous threat to diversity precisely because it brings down the top as a means of equalizing. 

Ultimately these collectivist philosophies become authoritarian and destroy the rights of the person in the name of the people. Kirk is right to worry that the direct democracy and egalitarianism of radical liberalism would destroy diversity and variety.

Unfortunately, in our modern politics, conservatives can be equally collectivist. Modern conservatives no longer oppose collectivism, but often seek conformity and unanimity for their own causes.

Conservatives and liberals are perfectly justified in hating one another for the same reasons – and as long as they both use political power to achieve their ends, they’ll both be right.

Kirk argues that conservatives entails:

3.  Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, and against the notion of a “classless society.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Equality in the judgement of God, and equality before the courts of law, are recognized by conservatives, but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

I agree mostly, but not necessarily as stated:

This passage could be read as a call to force people into orders and classes. If society requires classes, but classes do not exist, then we should create them. Since conservatives understand the need for classes, they may elevate themselves to the top and relegate to the bottom those they deem inferior. 

I do not support this reading.

To the modern liberal, orders and classes are coercive structures imposed by those with power on those without; they are artificial products of unequal power. Based on these assumptions, the liberal reasons that by removing the prevailing social class or rulers we would free the lower classes from unnecessary oppression. This is a call to revolution; once the upper class is removed, all that remains is a peaceful, classless society.

On the contrary, the conservative believe that orders and classes arise naturally as a product of natural differences in the aptitudes and abilities of men. Rather than being the result of an artificial power structure, hierarchical classes and orders arise naturally in a free society. Those with ability and aptitude create for themselves different conditions than those who are less inclined. Contrary to the liberal, the conservative sees the classless society as the artifice. 

Kirk says it perfectly when he says, “when natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum.” We see this played out in brilliantly in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm: as the animals overthrow their human master, the pigs quickly assume the role of leaders. It isn’t long before the pigs arrogate the very position the animals had originally fought to overthrow.

I argue that people should be free to develop the natural distinctions between them. There is no way to attain lasting egalitarianism as long as men are born with different capacities. I shudder at the thought of attempting to “correct” natural inequalities between men. How quickly it would result in the dystopian world of horror in which people are homogenized to make them equal – precisely the danger that tenet 2 warns of.

4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic leveling, they argue, is not economic progress.

Totally agree.

If you control a person’s property you control his life. Robert Nozick played out the relationship between property and freedom in his famous essay, “The Tale of the Slave:”  Suppose a master grants his slaves religious freedom, freedom of assembly and association, freedom to engage in leisure time, and every other civil liberty, BUT controls all of their property, confiscating and redistributing it as he sees fit. How free are they? Can they ever fully realize their other rights? 

In the liberal intellectual history American Dreamers, Michael Kazin notes that American slaves had no interest in redistribution once they controlled their own property. For a popular example from Hollywood, movies like Braveheart and Far and Away depict the desire of the poor and oppressed NOT for redistribution but for private ownership. Brilliant quotations include, “no man is free until he can control his own land,” and “land is a man’s own soul.”

I have never met a socialists or redisributionist who doesn’t contradict their philosophy with their  lifestyle. Private property is, in my opinion, the foundation of civilized society. See chapter 7, “The Last Metaphysical Right” in Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences for further discussion. 

4. Faith in prescription and a distrust in “sophists, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract design. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks placed upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.

This is worded in a way that makes me disagree at first, but there are parts of it I could find palatable. 

Conservatives can be paleophiles. I do not endorse a “faith in prescription” for its own sake, nor do I share any natural sympathy or nostalgia for our ancestors. In my opinion, they have been wrong as much as they have been right, or perhaps more often. Nor do I endorse “faith” in a mystical sense as an organizing principle for politics; I consider myself a person who values reason more highly.

There is value in culture, cultural capital, and cultural identity. I do not mean to treat these issues lightly.

But I do oppose those who would reconstruct society upon abstract design. Since I believe natural law dictates what is and is not possible, I do not subscribe to “sophists, calculators, and economists” who I believe they can contravene the natural law. But unlike Kirk, I believe that the natural law is discernible by reason, not made manifested by “faith in prescription.” 

Hayek makes the case in The Fatal Conceit that certain institutions such as private property and the market have developed over generations and have been assimilated into our folk knowledge, and that this folk knowledge is now a correct guide of our conduct. But Hayek claims that reason exposes the value of tradition and prescription; he does not adhere to them on principle (he wrote a great article called “Why I am not a Conservative” in which he makes this point).

If tenet 5 describes a sentiment similar to Hayek, then I accept it. If it advocates mystical faith and chronological snobbery as a guide to politics, then I disagree with it.

6.  Recognition that change may not be salutary reform. Hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation, but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman’s chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence.


I often criticize liberal culture on the same grounds – that the drive to do something compels them to do anything. To quote the Declaration of Independence, “ Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.

I am not opposed to trying to alleviate social problems, but I am critical of the notion that every problem can be solved by education, positive legislation, and new social institutions. Many of the policies created by liberals have produced results worse than the original problem (read Thomas Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed for 350 pages of examples.)

Again, since I think humans operate within a body of natural law, I am skeptical of change that promises too much. Obviously, liberals could blame conservatives for passively accepting needless and preventable suffering, but there is wisdom in the notion that a certain amount of problems will always exist.

I ultimately think that the purpose of the two political dispositions is to hold each other in balance– there are limits to our efforts but we won’t know them till we try them. I find myself ambivalent about these two sympathies and in need of specific cases.

I resist the appeal to Providence because I perceive it to be an appeal to mysticism, but I do subscribe to Natural Law as discernible by reason. I believe Natural Law reveals itself through our reason, and that tradition or a mystical sense of Providence are less perfect instruments of political knowledge.


So there you have it – my thoughts on Kirk’s tenets of conservativism. Interestingly enough, I agree in about the same proportion with his tenets of radicalism:

1.  The perfectibility of man and the illimitable progress of society: meliorism. Radicals believe that education, positive legislation, and alteration of environment can produce men like gods; they deny that man has a any natural proclivity toward violence and sin.

I believe that individual men can perfect themselves. I believe that through personal efforts, a man can approximate the Divine. Yogis and mystics have long taught a path of liberation, and it centers around perfecting a loving compassion toward all. But this is a personal quest; I do not believe it is an organizing principle for politics. No one forces enlightenment on a yogi; society does not perfect him. In fact, some of our best moral examples have appeared out of the world’s most despairing conditions. I do not think that society can organize in a way that changes people’s hearts – I believe this is a private journey for each person.

I would argue that if any political organization can facilitate the moral evolution of man, it would be to remove all political force from society, to encourage only voluntary interactions, and to protect citizens only from physical violence and theft. I don’t see this creating a perfect man or society; I simply see it as the optimal organization for men to choose their progress on a personal level. 

This is where I receive the hostility of both camps – unlike the conservative I believe that man is perfectible in this life, but unlike the liberal I don’t believe that this change is affected through positive social arrangements, but rather through loving personal interactions, self determination, and renunciation of worldly affairs i.e., the abdication of politics. In other words, the perfection of man is a religious project reaching us on an individual level, not a political project.

2.  Contempt for tradition: Reason, impulse, and materialistic determinism are severally preferred as a guide to social welfare, trustier than the wisdom of our ancestors. Formal religion is rejected and various ideologies are presented as substitutes.

I strongly share parts of this radical liberal sentiment. I believe that reason is a better guide to politics than tradition. But since I think it is most reasonable to reduce the scope of legislation to as close to nothing as possible, this tenet become for me a comment on lifestyle, not legislation. I personally think reason guides men’s actions better than tradition. Some may think the reverse. But I believe both lifestyles must be free to flourish, and I appeal to reason to argue that both lifestyles must be free from coercive legislation.

I reject impulse as a basis for politics, and I am hostile to the philosophy of material determinism. I am of the opinion that people create circumstances, no vice versa. No doubt that our material condition do affect us, but they do not determine us. Human perfection is not the result of perfect circumstances, it comes when men choose good over evil despite the circumstances.

I too am skeptical of formal religion. But I am equally skeptical of the alternative “secular religions” of communism, socialism, and collectivism. In these forms of politics, the concepts “God” and “Salvation” are replaced with “Society” and ” the Greater Good” respectively. I think the band Rush said it best when they sang “his mind is not for rent, to any God or government..”

2.  Political leveling. Order and privilege are condemned; total democracy, as direct as practicable, is the professed radical ideal. Allied with this spirit, generally, is a dislike of old parliamentary arrangements and an eagerness for centralization and consolidation.

This may be the area in which I am most radical.

I agree with this tenet – with some major caveats. I think everyone should have equal political power – none. The entire concept of political power is curious to me, that we get to decide what others can, cannot, or must do. I think that all political power is essential illegitimate insofar as it uses force to suppress free expression. I think politics should evolve away from the power to dictate what others do and become about the free exercise of your own abilities.

Perhaps I am radical in that I do think that this “non-political organization” will facilitate the perfection of man – when man cannot control others through the political process he will be thrust back upon himself and be forced to face himself as the source of his own happiness or unhappiness. Just as those who feel out of control compensate by controlling others, the political process obscures society’s need to control others. I would argue that only once we remove the apparatus of control will people reengage their own lives in a meaningful way, just as when a control freak has no one to control he finally has to confront his own feelings of insecurity. We must invalidate the belief that democracy legitimates control over others. Thus I believe in political leveling in the form of political obliteration.

I believe the democracy of the market is superior to political democracy. In political democracy, some win and others lose. The democracy of the market supports niches and caters to the broadest variety of needs and wants, unlike political democracy that forces uniformity on all at the bequest of some.

3.  Economic leveling. The ancient rights of property, especially property in land, are suspect to almost all radicals, and collectivist reformers hack at the institution of private property root and branch.  

This is one of the few tenets of either conservativism or radicalism that I disagree with entirely. I think economic leveling is a destructive idea that produces results contrary to its proclaimed purpose. If you took the wealth of America and disbursed it across all the poor countries of the world, you would succeed in consuming the the world’s greatest accumulation of capital. Very few would advocate that we do this on the grounds that it will make the rest of the world wealthy or equal in a lasting way. Nor do we advocate that America pay half or a third of its GDP to poor counties around the world. But apply this thinking to the microcosm of the US and people think it is a sound solution to poverty. The only way to permanently reduce poverty is to raise the ratio of capital per citizen, and this is accomplished through saving and investment, not redistribution.

Liberals often argue that economic leveling is necessary to create “solidarity.” I find this a strange argument since redistribution is one of the most contentious issues in politics and half the country opposes it. It would be easy to make a strong opposite case, that economic leveling will create less solidarity since resentment surrounding the topic is so strong.

Maybe it is radical to demand TOTAL equality, but it is progressive to demand MORE equality. Again I would argue that any redistribution comes at a cost – if resources are diverted away from savings and investment and toward consumption, the net result will be increased demand and decreased supply. Thus prices will rise and employment will stagnate, quite contrary to the promise of redistribution. What we want instead is to accumulate savings and to invest these savings into new capital and increased production, which lowers prices and creates jobs. Such is my argument anyway.

5.  As a fifth point, one might try to define a common radical view of the state’s function, but here the chasm of opinion between the chief schools of innovation is too deep for any satisfactory generalization.   

Naturally, I disagree with a robust State. I think the state has little or no legitimate function. I find myself perplexed that, as Micheal Kazin recalls, radical liberals consider themselves “anti-authoritarian.” I find this to be as confused as the claim that conservatives protect the variety and mystery of human life. As I see it, socialism, regulation, redistribution, etc are all highly authoritarian political regimes. I feel like libertarianism is the only true voice of anti-authoritarianism, and that liberals and conservatives are only in a battle to install their preferred brand of authoritarianism.


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