Has conservatism lost its mind? The half-remembered legacy of Russell Kirk

Has conservatism lost its mind? The half-remembered legacy of Russell Kirk

Frohnen, Bruce

It’s been 40 years and seven editions since the first publication of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. As one observer recently put it, Mr. Kirk “is like ol’ man river: he just keeps rollin’ along.” And so does his work. The Conservative Mind still is widely considered the single most influential book for modern conservatism. But are the leading ideas and policy proposals of today’s conservative movement truly conservative in the sense in which Mr. Kirk used the term? The answer is both yes and no.

This question is difficult to address because Mr. Kirk produced no schematic blueprint for “the good society.” As he pointed out, “Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma, and conservatives inherit from [Edmund] Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time.”

Nor do Mr. Kirk’s conservatives attempt to construct any one, specific form of government. Instead they seek to maintain what Mr. Kirk called the “permanent things”–the standards of proper conduct derived from revelation, tradition, and reason best summed up in the command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”


The Kirkean conservative seeks to preserve “the old motives to morality and diligence that conservatives always had believed in: religious sanctions, tradition, habit, and private interest restrained by prescriptive institutions.” Mr. Kirk argued that these motives should be maintained, not only for their own sake, but for the virtuous character and way of life they make possible. The conservative good life consists of affectionate attachments–to family, to church, to one’s neighbors and co-workers–that can be lost in the drive for equality and material improvement.

Conservatism begins, Mr. Kirk wrote, with the knowledge “that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience”–that a higher being binds us to our fellows and to our particular duties. It also requires that we recognize the limits of our reason and goodness and look to traditional mores and customs to determine how we should act. Thus, we must protect our traditional way of life, with its many professions, ranks, and orders of men, as well as the sanctity of property upon which our liberty is based. Politics, and especially the central government, must be subordinated to social action and institutions–family, church, and local association–so that we may preserve the essential character of ourselves and of our way of life.

Mr. Kirk’s vision does not lend itself to systematic analysis of discrete, specific policy positions. His primary concern always has been with the order of our souls, not with any one particular policy, save as it affects the permanent things. Yet certain policies are more likely than others to protect what ought to be the immutable aspects of the American character. In this spirit I examine some key conservative positions of the 1980s and 1990s, and ask whether they maintain the understanding of conservatism Mr. Kirk has set forth throughout his many writings, but especially in The Conservative Mind.


Conservatives today stand for economic opportunity.

Conservatives, whether “paleo,” “neo,” or “libertarian,” recognize that welfare programs are undermining our character by taking from us the essential responsibilities of life. Unlike liberals, conservatives actually believe in the catch-phrase used by the “new Democrat” Bill Clinton in accepting the Democratic nomination: Government should provide “more empowerment and less entitlement.” Conservatives believe that government should help people become self-sufficient, not make them dependent on public handouts.

In this spirit, conservatives oppose liberal “entitlements,” instead favoring a strong, robust economy, fostered by deregulation and lower taxes, so that the poor may find jobs and advance in the world. Indeed, many conservatives see economic growth as a primary object of public action. In his first inaugural address, President Reagan stated that “This administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy.” But that is not the way Russell Kirk would define the purpose of a conservative administration.

From a Kirkean perspective, policies aimed at getting people off welfare are essential, but must look beyond material incentives and benefits. Mr. Kirk is careful to praise economic pursuits only when undertaken in a proper social and moral context. In addition to faith, he identifies three other “passionate human interests” that strengthen our sense of duty “and the reason for believing that life is worth living”: the perpetuation of our spiritual existence through the life of our children; the honest accumulation of property; and the confidence that we participate in a natural and moral order in which we “count for more than the flies of a summer.”

Mr. Kirk emphasizes the acquisitive instinct’s proper submission to family loyalty–to the desire to leave something for one’s children and gain honor in so doing. Work is good because it shows us that we are necessary members of our communities. It makes us better by motivating us to live up to our duties to family, friends and neighbors. It helps instill the habits necessary for a good life. To foster job growth is, then, a Kirkean good, provided it is done with an eye toward rebuilding families and local communities, and not merely for the sake of economic growth.

Mr. Kirk rarely mentions economic “growth” save to criticize some Americans for portraying cheap consumer goods as the essence of the American way of life. He does not reject economic health and vigor, but his main concern is for economic stability, which “…does not mean the securing of plenty for everyone: No special program, least of all the planned economy of the welfare state, is likely to succeed in gratifying the material appetites of all humanity.”

However, Mr. Kirk argues for an economy grounded in “a rational relationship between endeavor and reward.” Mr. Kirk often points to the secure position and widespread possession of property as a great bulwark of our liberty and way of life. Men who own property will seek to improve it, and perhaps acquire more. They will recognize that their continued enjoyment of this property requires both a free economy and social and political stability.

The pursuit of property and economic efficiency–whether through improved technology, business relocations, or government action–often has unintended consequences: It can, for example, disrupt communities by shifting or eliminating jobs and shattering social ties. Thus, Mr. Kirk insists that entrepreneurs will seek to balance their desire for economic advancement against the requirements of tradition. They should seek to protect property rights against government regulation–and against government agencies, which too often level established neighborhoods to make room for economic “progress.” Mr. Kirk argues that we must not pursue property so single-mindedly that we forget that it is economic stability–that “rational relationship between endeavor and reward”–which binds communities together and maintains a virtuous way of life. If pursuit of material reward becomes mere greed, it, like any other appetite, will corrupt our character and our society.

Given this concern, Kirkean support for empowerment programs would be qualified. Enterprise zones, for example, put solid conservative principles into practice: They empower poor people by revitalizing economically distressed areas. Freeing entrepreneurs from burdensome taxes and regulations encourages them to start and expand businesses. If allowed to follow their own instincts rather than bureaucratic mandates, people will try to pull themselves out of poverty.

Unfortunately, some empowerment proponents assume that Americans are economic men–entrepreneurs who can be made virtuous solely by promises of material reward. Mr. Kirk consistently argues for the sanctity of private property and for reducing the role of the central government. And free enterprise remains the most efficient and just means for the exchange of goods. But as Mr. Kirk puts it, perhaps over-critically, “The nexus of cash payment, never a strong social link, does not suffice to keep down fanatic ideology, nor even to assure prosperity.”

For Mr. Kirk, our cities’ problems are due not primarily to poverty but to a breakdown in character. As he put it in Enemies of the Permanent Things:

The American slum-dwellers may receive very good wages–when they work. Their trouble is that they are the uprooted, socially and morally. They have lost community, and many of them have lost any sort of moral coherence. Their failure, perhaps in the majority of cases, is a failure of will, complicated and in part produced by the destruction of family and the landmarks of community.

Our slums are pits of despair, in the Kirkean view, not because their inhabitants are poor, but because their sense of community has been destroyed. Federal programs have taken over the proper functions of families and neighborhoods: they–not mothers, fathers, and neighbors–support children. There is no reason, and, thanks to the leveling effects of urban renewal, no place for people to come together to teach their children the habits of morality and hope. Without these habits, too many lose the will to struggle, to improve their lot and the lot of their broken families and communities.

The answer to chronic poverty lies in a regeneration of moral standards, not merely an unleashing of economic appetite. While many policy analysts concentrate on the “leading economic indicators,” William Bennett is closer to Mr. Kirk when he points out that cultural indicators–such as those involving education, the family, and crime–are far more important in judging the well-being of our society. well-ordered community will be relatively prosperous precisely because its members will not focus primarily upon money-making. As Mr. Kirk says, “Our industrial economy, of all economic systems man ever created, is the most delicately dependent upon public energy, private virtue, fertility of imagination. If we continue to fancy that Efficiency and Affluence are the chief aims of human existence, presently we must find ourselves remarkably unprosperous–and wondrously miserable.”

Only when linked by a sense of duty to their families, churches, and neighborhoods can men pursue wealth with virtue. Only when they recognize rules higher than “buy low, sell high” can men maintain the peace and civility necessary for profitable economic exchange. Only when decency is seen as more important than profit can any community endure.


Conservatives today believe in protecting our rights against governmental interference, especially when it touches the education of our children. Conservatives long have defended individual rights against the central government, whether regarding private property, taxes, or other economic issues. Now, in the face of solidifying liberal intolerance, many conservatives also are asserting new rights in the social sphere–from “parental rights” in dealing with welfare and education bureaucracies to the “right” of religious groups to use public school facilities along with other groups.

Mr. Kirk always has been careful to discuss rights only in the context of history and the needs of the community. Thus he advocates the “presentation of local liberties, traditional private rights, and the division of power.” For Mr. Kirk, rights within a political community develop over time in our counties and towns; we inherit them from our forefathers in documents like the Constitution (which is to be interpreted as its framers intended) and in daily practice. Moreover “the rights of individuals are found and maintained within a community–not against a community.” Thus, Mr. Kirk is careful to insist that “every right is wedded to some duty.” And both rights and duties come from historical practice, not from the supposedly all-powerful mind of the philosopher or the jurist. This means that when rights are discussed–whether for gun owners or the unborn–they cannot be stripped of their historical context. Thus, according to Mr. Kirk, no rights are absolute: The historical practice of a community must help us decide when, for example, an individual’s right to life must bow to a society’s right to protect itself against murder.

Today, arguments for school choice, for example, often are framed in terms of parental rights. Parents should have the “right” to decide what school their children will attend. By exercising this right, parents may hold teachers and administrators responsible for their actions. So empowered, conservatives argue, parents could replace political correctness and bureaucratic malaise with a return to traditional standards of excellence.

Mr. Kirk often criticizes the bureaucratic “educators” of the National Education Association. In his recently released The Politics of Prudence, he says it is “highly doubtful that any marked reformation of the public schools can occur until the several states…adopt some form of the ‘voucher plan.'” But “choice” merely provides the freedom to choose, and such freedom must be properly exercised if it is to be beneficial. To claim parental rights, Mr. Kirk says, is to run the risk of speaking the cold language of liberalism. Mr. Kirk’s vision more properly encompasses the historical, habitual practices of American parents–practices recognizing significantly more parental authority than do today’s “protective” bureaucracies.

As to religious rights in the public schools, it may be well to remember that religion, at least in Mr. Kirk’s view, is the very basis of culture, and of civilization in particular. “Religious truth is the source of all knowledge.” Thus, if we allow religious observance to become merely one more private, after-school activity, engaged in merely as an escape from public and political life, we will cheapen our very souls, and the soul of our community.

Parents should not have the mere “choice” or “right” to do as they wish with their children. Instead, we should again recognize parents’ duty to decide how best to educate their own children. That recognition will allow us to go on to a more useful discussion of what kinds of decisions we would like to see parents make in this area.

If we are to restore learning in America, we must “return that learning to its original end of orientation toward the divine–that we may know what it is to be fully human, and to know that man is made for eternity.” School choice in the Kirkean view is not an end in itself, but a means by which to recreate the moral and cultural consensus upon which real learning takes place. If learning is to make us a better people, it cannot focus on our particular desires, including our particular career goals. Instead, it must regain its focus upon “certain orienting books” within the Western tradition that teach us our nature and our duty. Job training and job creation are “by-products” of genuine education; attempts to gain such ends directly are in fact the sources of educational corruption.


Conservatives today oppose the radical egalitarianism of the new class of intellectuals and bureaucrats, instead wishing to establish a nation of middle class habits and values. Rejecting the notion that benevolent bureaucrats should control as they “support” the rest of us, conservatives prefer Lincoln’s vision of a society in which hardworking laborers can become their own bosses. One might get the impression that Mr. Kirk rejects this vision of economic opportunity and the power of the work ethic. After all, he has written that “civilized society requires orders and classes.” Yet Mr. Kirk asserts the primacy, not of inherited, but of “natural distinctions,” linked to “ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law.”

One must not, however, underestimate Mr. Kirk’s concern that the drive for equality has become too powerful in America: “Conservatism’s most conspicuous difficulty in our time is that it confronts a people who have come to look upon society, vaguely, as a homogeneous mass of identical individuals, with indistinguishable abilities and needs, whose happiness may be secured by direction from above, through legislation or some manner of public instruction.”

Many Americans, liberal elites in particular, have come to demand material equality. Affirmative action and other programs remain in place because too many of us have come to believe that all of us should be equal, not only in the sight of God and courts, but in our material success in life–regardless of our talents and efforts. These results are unachievable. But we see ever more political programs aimed at producing them because we refuse to accept that some folk are more successful in life than others.

Mr. Kirk argues, without embarrassment, that it is not possible–or desirable–to have equality of opportunity in a free society. Families will never be equal in terms of parental support and motivation, natural giftedness, or financial resources. Contemporary conservatives, however, are almost mute on this point; hardly anyone openly questions the liberal assumptions about the desirability of equal opportunity.

Along with most conservatives, Mr. Kirk fears and loathes self-appointed bureaucratic elites. Yet his central concern is the same as Edmund Burke’s–that men learn to love their neighbors as themselves by acting as loyal members of the order to which they belong through birth, hard work and/or luck. And there are many orders of men, from farmers to laborers to tradesmen to the “educated classes,” which Mr. Kirk feels are susceptible to conservative reasoning if only addressed in the proper manner.

A large and strong property-owning “class” is among America’s greatest assets, according to Mr. Kirk. But the desire to protect this class must not become the demand that everyone be made a member of it, or that all its members act alike, since property-owners also may be farmers, tradesmen, or members of numerous other orders of men. What we should demand is equal adherence to the dictates of honor and duty to one’s family, church and fellow man.


Conservatives recognize that it is in our families, churches, and voluntary associations of local life that we gain the proper character, that is, learn how to be decent. Conservatives also recognize that our centralized welfare state is endangering these institutions. If one thing joins all members of the conservative movement, it is recognition that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society has virtually destroyed the notion of personal responsibility and public duty so crucial to local communities.

Here we see the continuing effect of Kirkean thought, with its emphasis on character building: Charles Murray, called both a neo-conservative and a libertarian, cites Mr. Kirk in the acknowledgments of his influential book, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, as a man whose work profoundly influenced his own. Liberal social engineering, Mr. Murray shows, has destroyed the very folk it was designed to help. By rewarding illegitimacy and idleness, welfare programs have undermined the families and neighborhoods in which men and women learn the habits of economic and moral success.

James Q. Wilson, in The Moral Sense, also finds that families are the primary means by which we learn our duties, as well as how and why we should fulfill them. Examining numerous societies, Mr. Wilson finds that mankind everywhere looks to the family for moral instruction. Messrs. Murray and Wilson recognize what Mr. Kirk has long pronounced: Virtuous habits are learned only in the close associations of private and social life. The welfare state, by taking away our need to combine with our fellows, turns us into strangers who can look only to the government in time of need.


Mr. Kirk’s response to most contemporary conservative policy positions seems to be “Yes, but….” His vision encompasses most of these positions, but he sees them merely as means to a higher goal–restoration of the permanent things to their proper, central place in our lives.

Conservative discussions of family values show how Mr. Kirk’s vision can be endangered by too much emphasis on practical questions. The family certainly is the source of habits of economic and moral success. But some conservatives fail to see that the family cannot be saved simply by asserting and exploiting its practical utility. And to argue merely that the family is useful is to surrender the moral high ground to those who value the whims of individuals above the needs of families and society.

“Family values” is shorthand for the moral understanding that we owe duties to those we know and love. And “recovery of moral understanding cannot be merely a means to social restoration: It must be its own end, though it will produce social consequences.” The sanctity of marriage was respected until recent years because men and women recognized that it is wrong–not merely counterproductive in the long run, but wrong–to leave one’s spouse and children in the name of “personal growth” or career advancement or new love. Such selfish acts are wrong because they subordinate our higher natures, that part of us which cherishes our affectionate attachments, to our base appetites and so undermine our character and our society.

Mr. Kirk is at times too quick to find fault with those who seek economic growth, and too slow to see ways in which economic and technological advances can be turned to conservative ends. Economics is an inescapable part of life. If a community’s products and ways of working are not changed as necessary to keep them economically viable, that community–however virtuous–will die. Yet Mr. Kirk’s central point is one we forget at our peril: “The 20th-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of 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.”

BRUCE FROHNEN is a Bradley resident scholar at The Heritage Foundation and the author of Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism (University Press, Kansas).

Copyright Heritage Foundation Winter 1994

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