February 28, 2007
THE "CANON OF CONSERVATIVE THOUGHT," plus WV items
Caption: Dr. Denton "Denny" Dimwit (center) is an economic libertarian rather than a traditional conservative.
This is the third post in a series about conservative political philosophy. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the previous entries.
Yesterday's post discussed Russell Kirk's seminal book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, which has had enormous impact since it first appeared in the 1950s. Whether you agree or not, it is worth a look and deserves respectful treatment.
Early on in the book, Kirk identifies what he considers to be the canons of conservative political thought. They are enumerated below, with comments from yours truly.
1. "Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience." Comment: I wouldn't necessarily disagree. The problem arises when different more or less bloodthirsty groups fight over exactly what that transcendent order consists of (sorry about the preposition thing) and impose their vision on others. This is one huge advantage of the American system as opposed to theocracy.
2. "Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems..." Comment: I don't have the problem with egalitarianism (in moderation, as with all things) that Mr. Kirk and his allies do but I'm with him at least part way on resisting uniformity and utilitarianism.
The irony of modern conservatism is that a lot of the uniformity and dissolution of old values comes from an amoral and cut-throat capitalism, which for many is at least as sacred as any transcendent order. Personally, I neither worship capitalism nor plan to destroy it; I'd just be happy if it used the bathroom in the right places. I wonder what he'd think of a Wal-Mart world and a fast food nation?
3. "Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes as against the notion of a 'classless' society." Comment: OK, I admit that complete arithmetical equality in terms of income, wealth, etc. is neither possible nor desirable. But that doesn't mean there is any virtue in extreme inequality or a hereditary class system either. And its no excuse for people in a country and world as wealthy as this one for millions of people to live in poverty, do without health care, earn a sub-living wage, etc. Smart conservatives like Theodore Roosevelt knew that.
4. "Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked..." Comment: I wouldn't necessarily disagree, which I why I'd like to see property more widely distributed. One problem conservatives sometimes miss is that if sacred Property is concentrated into a few hands at the expense of the vast majority of people, the same is true of freedom. A persistent danger to principled conservatism is a de facto embrace of oligarchy.
In practice for most of history, as E.P. Thompson noted in his The Making of the English Working Class, "the greatest offence against property was to have none."
5. "Faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters, calculators, and economists' who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs." Comment: I'm OK with that one too, especially if it includes neocon sophisters, calculators and market god cultist economists. By the way, by "prescription," he means tradition or custom.
6. "Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress." Comment: He must have been talking about our adventure in Iraq, huh? I'm with him on this one too. Change is inevitable. Sometimes you have to try to speed it up, slow it down, or direct its course but I would agree with Kirk that "a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence."
So like, where are the prudent statesmen or stateswomen? We could use some. But seriously, all in all it's not a bad list and merits courteous treatment even if one can't swallow the whole thing. But what he's talking about is a far cry from the current fare.
Next time: Edmund Burke, the best conservative.
WEST VIRGINIA ITEMS. In case you missed it, here is UMWA president Cecil Roberts' response to another attack on unions by Massey CEO Don Blankenship.
Let me also mention two really good WV blogs (in alphabetical order:
Lincoln Walks at Midnight, which offers what it calls a "just-the-facts approach to politics and government in the Mountain State of West Virginia," and
West Virginia Blue, which describes itself as devoted to "Democratic politics, progressive policies, the good life and free living in Wild, Wonderful West Virginia."
Both blogs are regularly updated. The latter even has the occasional gratuitous animal picture.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED