The grandfather, godfather, and icon of conservatism, Russell Kirk (1918–1994), although he wrote lengthy philosophical treatises on “the six canons of conservative thought” and “ten conservative principles,” has largely been forgotten and is rarely invoked by mainstream conservatives today.
Kirk was born on October 19, 1918 — a month before the armistice that ended World War I. That makes this month the 100th anniversary of his birth. Some conservatives, and especially those traditionalist individuals and organizations Kirk was involved with during his glory years that are still around, will no doubt this month be celebrating the centennial of his birth and revisiting his canons of conservatism. Although Kirk was no friend of libertarians, I think it would be fitting at this time to contrast his conservatism and misconceptions about libertarianism with real libertarianism and the canons of libertarianism.
Based at Kirk’s ancestral home of Mecosta, Michigan, the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal “aims to recover, conserve, and enliven those enduring norms and principles that Russell Kirk called the Permanent Things.” It is the work of the Kirk Center “to strengthen the Permanent Things, especially as they relate to America’s tradition of order, justice, and freedom.” According to the Kirk Center,
Russell Kirk authored thirty-two books on political theory, the history of ideas, education, cultural criticism, and supernatural tales. Both Time and Newsweek have described him as one of America’s leading thinkers, and the New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when it wrote that Kirk’s 1953 landmark book The Conservative Mind “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State College (now University), Kirk studied the politics of John Randolph of Roanoke for his master’s degree at Duke University. Kirk’s research on Randolph’s politics led him to discover the far more powerful thinker, Edmund Burke, whose principles would strongly influence his subsequent thought.
Following service in the army during World War II, Kirk became an instructor in the history of civilization at Michigan State. He took a leave of absence from teaching to research the history of the principal thinkers of England and America at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The resulting manuscript earned Kirk the highest arts degree, the doctor of letters, from the University of St. Andrews.
Henry Regnery published this lengthy work as The Conservative Mind in 1953. The book became one of the most widely reviewed and discussed studies of political ideas in America and catapulted Kirk to national prominence.
Because of the success of his book, Kirk was able to resign his teaching position to pursue a career as an independent writer and lecturer. In addition to his books, he contributed essays and reviews to “more than a hundred serious periodicals.” Kirk wrote a bi-monthly page on education, “From the Academy,” for National Review for twenty-five years, and a newspaper column, “To the Point,” through the Los Angeles Times Syndicate for thirteen years. He was the founding editor of the journals The University Bookman and Modern Age. When not in his library, “Kirk lectured at colleges and conferences around the country on political thought and practice, modern culture, educational theory, literary criticism and social themes.” He also debated some notable figures, became a distinguished scholar of the Heritage Foundation, and served as a “visiting professor at several universities in the disciplines of history, political thought, humane letters, and journalism.” Ronald Reagan conferred on Dr. Kirk the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989.
In the first edition of The Conservative Mind, Kirk listed and described “six canons of conservative thought” that he considered to be a summary of themes common to conservative thinkers:
- Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead.
- Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life.
- Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes.
- Persuasion that property and freedom are inexorably connected.
- Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.”
- Recognition that change and reform are not identical.
Those canons were revised and expanded in subsequent editions (the 7th edition was published in 1986). In The Conservative Mind, Kirk stated about conservatism,
Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma, and conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time.
The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of the spirit and character — with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.
In 1957, Kirk wrote The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism. In the first chapter, “The Essence of Conservatism,” he listed ten of “the chief principles which have characterized American conservative thought.”
In the introduction to his anthology The Portable Conservative Reader (Penguin, 1982), which includes essays, poetry, and fiction from writers that he identified as conservatives, Kirk offered a variation on his six canons, which he termed “first principles.” He concluded after explaining each one that his purpose “has been broad description, not fixed definition.” If one requires a single sentence, “Let it be said that for the conservative, politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the ideal.” He noted that his six principles must be understood as nothing more than “a rough catalog of the general assumptions of conservatives, and not as a tidy system of doctrines for governing a state.” He also stated about conservatism,
Although certain general principles held by most conservatives may be described, there exists wide variety in application of these ideas from age to age and country to country.
Conservatism offers no universal pattern of politics for adoption everywhere.
Conservatism amounts to the consensus of the leading conservative thinkers and actors over the past two centuries.
In a chapter in his 1993 book, The Politics of Prudence, Kirk returned again to ten principles, presenting “a summary of conservative assumptions differing somewhat” from the canons in his earlier books. In introducing his new “ten articles of belief,” he said that they “reflect the emphases of conservatives in America nowadays.”
In the opinion of Bradley J. Birzer, author of Russell Kirk: American Conservative, “In every speech and written work, Kirk left these canons or principles deliberately vague.”
Indeed, one of the problems with conservatism — especially Kirkian conservatism — is that it has no coherent or consistent definition or description. In “Ten Conservative Principles,” Kirk remarked, “The diversity of ways in which conservative views may find expression is itself proof that conservatism is no fixed ideology. What particular principles conservatives emphasize during any given time will vary with the circumstances and necessities of that era.”
Kirk and libertarianism
Although Kirk wasn’t too sure exactly what conservatism was, he was certain of “the inadequacies and extravagances of the various libertarian factions,” that libertarians should be “rejected because they are metaphysically mad,” and that libertarianism’s “failings” are “many and grave.” Kirk specifically addressed the subject of libertarianism first in a 1981 article in Modern Age titled, “Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries.” It was followed by a speech at the Heritage Foundation in April 1988, “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians,” which was reprinted in Kirk’s book The Politics of Prudence (1993).
According to Kirk,
The ruinous failing of the ideologues who call themselves libertarians is their fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle — that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence. The libertarians are oldfangled folk, in the sense that they live by certain abstractions of the nineteenth century. They carry to absurdity the doctrines of John Stuart Mill.
Since Mill, the libertarians have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Mill dreaded, and they dread today, obedience to the dictates of custom.
The perennial libertarian, like Satan, can bear no authority temporal or spiritual. He desires to be different, in morals as in politics. In a highly tolerant society like that of America today, such defiance of authority on principle may lead to perversity on principle, for lack of anything more startling to do; there is no great gulf fixed between libertarianism and libertinism.
The typical libertarian of our day delights in eccentricity including, often, sexual eccentricity.
The representative libertarian of this decade is humorless, intolerant, self-righteous, badly schooled, and dull.
Don’t I know self-proclaimed libertarians who are kindly old gentlemen, God-fearing, patriotic, chaste, well endowed with the goods of fortune? Yes, I do know such. They are the people who through misapprehension put up the cash for the fantastics. Such gentlemen call themselves “libertarians” merely because they believe in personal freedom, and do not understand to what extravagance they lend their names by subsidizing doctrinaire “libertarian” causes and publications.
The libertarian pursues his illusory way to Utopia.
Libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists) generally believe that human nature is good, though damaged by certain social institutions.
The libertarian thinks that this world is chiefly a stage for the swaggering ego.
Kirk’s grotesque caricature of libertarianism abounds in fallacies, mischaracterizations, generalizations, and falsehoods. He distorts the simplicity, consistency, and morality of libertarianism beyond measure.
Libertarianism is simply the philosophy that says that people should be free from individual, societal, or government interference to live their lives any way they desire, pursue their own happiness, accumulate wealth, assess their own risks, make their own choices, participate in any economic activity for their profit, engage in commerce with anyone who is willing to reciprocate, and spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit — all without license, permission, regulation, or interference from the state as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, their interactions are consensual, and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others.
The creed of libertarianism is nonaggression: freedom from aggression and violence against person and property as long as one respects the person and property of others. The nonconsensual initiation of aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, even when done by government. The nonaggression principle is designed to prohibit each one from infringing upon the liberty of any other. It is the core premise of the philosophy of libertarianism. Aggression is theft, fraud, the initiation of nonconsensual violence, or the threat of nonconsensual violence. Violence is justified only against violence. No violence may be used against a nonaggressor. Force is justified only in defense or retaliation. Force must be proportional, but is neither essential nor required. Violence is justified only in defense of one’s person or property or in retaliation in response to aggression against them.
Libertarianism has nothing to do with one’s lifestyle, tastes, vices, sexual practices, traditions, religion, social attitudes, or cultural norms. Libertarianism is not “rugged individualism,” “unrestrained freedom of speech,” “survival of the fittest,” “unfettered capitalism,” “every man for himself,” or “dog eat dog.” Libertarianism should not be identified with libertinism, greed, selfishness, hedonism, licentiousness, nihilism, relativism, pragmatism, egalitarianism, antinomianism, anarchy, materialism, pacifism, or utopianism. Libertarianism is neither naive about human nature nor inimical to organized religion; it neither disdains tradition nor rejects moral absolutes.
Libertarianism respects personal and financial privacy, free thought, freedom of conscience, free exchange, free markets, and private property. Libertarianism celebrates individual liberty, personal freedom, peaceful activity, voluntary interaction, laissez faire, free enterprise, free assembly, free association, free speech, and free expression — as long as they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others.
It’s not just conservatism that has its canons. In honor of the centennial of Kirk’s birth, here are six canons of libertarian thought that summarize themes central to libertarianism.
1. Taxation is theft. It doesn’t matter whether the government calls it an excise tax, a tariff, an estate tax, a gift tax, a payroll tax, a sales tax, or an income tax. It all amounts to a seizure of one’s assets by the government. As the libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard explained,
All other persons and groups in society (except for acknowledged and sporadic criminals such as thieves and bank robbers) obtain their income voluntarily: either by selling goods and services to the consuming public, or by voluntary gift (e.g., membership in a club or association, bequest, or inheritance). Only the State obtains its revenue by coercion, by threatening dire penalties should the income not be forthcoming.
It would be an instructive exercise for the skeptical reader to try to frame a definition of taxation which does not also include theft. Like the robber, the State demands money at the equivalent of gunpoint; if the taxpayer refuses to pay, his assets are seized by force, and if he should resist such depredation, he will be arrested or shot if he should continue to resist.
Acquiring someone’s property by force is wrong, whether done by individuals or governments.
2. Every crime needs a victim. Every crime needs a tangible and identifiable victim, not a potential or possible victim. Every crime must have measurable damages. Libertarianism recognizes no such thing as nebulous crimes against nature, society, the greater good, the public interest, or the state. Having bad habits, exercising poor judgment, engaging in risky behavior, participating in dangerous activities, and committing vices are not crimes. It is on this latter point that 19th-century political philosopher Lysander Spooner so eloquently expounded: “Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.” This means that doing business on Sunday, charging usurious interest rates, discriminating against someone, price-gouging, gambling, and ticket-scalping should never be crimes. Only violent criminals who initiate violence or aggression against someone should ever be incarcerated, and no one should ever be arrested or fined for committing a victimless crime.
3. People should be allowed to do anything that’s peaceful as long as they don’t aggress against the person or property of others. People should be able to do whatever they please, so long as they don’t invade the right and freedom of other persons to do the same. Viewing, selling, or making pornography; manufacturing, selling, or using illegal drugs; exchanging sex for money; unauthorized gambling; making and selling unlicensed beer, wine, or distilled spirits; and selling one’s bodily organs should never be prohibited, since anyone should be able to do what he wants with his own body as long as his activities are peaceful, his interactions are consensual, and he doesn’t violate the personal or property rights of anyone else.
4. Government is the greatest violator of the nonaggression principle, personal liberty, and property rights. As former Foundation for Economic Education president Richard Ebeling has well said, “There has been no greater threat to life, liberty, and property throughout the ages than government. Even the most violent and brutal private individuals have been able to inflict only a mere fraction of the harm and destruction that have been caused by the use of power by political authorities.” Government should be limited to the protection of rights. All government actions — at any level of government — beyond reasonable defense, judicial, and policing activities are illegitimate. Government should be prohibited from intervening in, regulating, and controlling peaceful activity. Government should never punish individuals or businesses for engaging in entirely peaceful, voluntary, and consensual actions that do not aggress against the person or property of others. As long as people don’t infringe upon the liberty of others by committing, or threatening to commit, acts of fraud, theft, aggression, or violence against their person or property, the government should just leave them alone.
5. Markets should be free of government interference. The United States has only a relatively free market. In a truly free market there are no minimum-wage laws, no overtime-pay laws, no government family-leave mandates, no government licensing, no government unemployment compensation, no government insurance mandates, no government regulation, no government price controls, no government-favored unions, no government job-training programs, no government research grants, no central bank, no government subsidies, no government vouchers, no government loans, no usury laws, no price-gouging laws, and no government involvement in medicine and education.
6. He who owns the property or the business makes the rules — all the rules, including dress codes, entry requirements, speech restrictions, rental requirements, hiring and firing, membership requirements, pay, benefits, and service requirements. If someone doesn’t like the rules of a particular business, he doesn’t have to work or do business there. No one has the right to any particular job, membership, residence, product, or service. If a property owner cannot restrict whom he employs, whom he engages in commerce with, whom he rents or sells to, whom he admits, or whom he associates with, then he has no property rights. Businesses should be able to discriminate against customers just as customers now discriminate against businesses. In a free society where property rights are respected, there would be no “public accommodations” laws that force private businesses to accommodate all members of the public. Business owners have the right to discriminate against or refuse service to anyone for any reason and on any basis.
Kirk couldn’t have been more wrong about libertarianism. But he was right about one thing. Although conservatives and libertarians “share a detestation of collectivism” and “set their faces against the totalist state and the heavy hand of bureaucracy,” they profess “nothing” else “in common,” “nor will they ever have.” But rather than being because of libertarianism’s “many and grave failings,” it is because conservatism is ultimately an authoritarian philosophy that seeks to enlist the state to order society.
This article was originally published in the October 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.