Sunday, February 10, 2008

Russell Kirk on Conservatism

With all the hullabaloo in the news recently about John McCain not being "conservative" enough for some voters, it made me reflect once more on just how difficult it is to really define what it means to be a "conservative" these days. For most people, "conservative" is whatever the bulk of the Republican Party happens to believe at any given time. But the late, great Russell Kirk had a much more intelligent and eloquent take on conservatism that is worth reading (or re-reading, as the case might be) at length. Among other things, Kirk believed that:

  • Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization.
  • Power is full of danger; therefore the good state is one in which power is checked and balanced, restricted by sound constitutions and customs.
  • In the affairs of nations, the American conservative feels that his country ought to set an example to the world, but ought not to try to remake the world in its image.
  • Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away..
Perhaps most significantly, Kirk believed "there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata. It is almost true that a conservative may be defined as a person who thinks himself such. The conservative movement or body of opinion can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no Test Act or Thirty-Nine Articles of the conservative creed.".

Of course, Kirk's take on conservatism is only one of many, but it's much more compelling than anything offered by the Limbaughs and Coulters of the world.