During the Bush years, liberal white Americans seemed to live in constant anger, sincerely felt, over the frustration and humiliation of living under a president they despised who was carrying out a war they hated. At the same time, it was becoming apparent to some people of a more conservative bent (most of whom at had initially supported that president and that war) that despite individual victories for their side the country as a whole was continuing to drift to the left. Now that we have a left-wing president and a Democratic majority in Congress, that drift has turned into a series of huge tectonic jolts. Ironically, the open display on the part of many Democrats and ethnic interest groups of an unlimited willingness to destroy whatever remains of the traditional social order has energized many conservatives to resist this destruction. In this sense it is an exciting time to inhabit the right end of the spectrum. Sooner or later, though, conservatives will see that their energy and excitement will not be able to reverse the leftward movement in the long term.
One theoretical reason for the ineffectiveness of today’s conservatism is its failure to oppose liberal principles. Liberalism as it exists today demands that every inequality between men and women, whites and minorities, citizens and foreigners, Christians and Muslims, wealthy and poor, be eradicated; for this it will use any means at hand, including legal coercion, mass immigration, and redistribution of wealth. Republicans, and intellectual conservatives, oppose this coercion and redistribution in the context of individual issues, but are rarely willing to argue for social policies that affirm and reinforce certain types of inequality. Nor are they willing to defend their own society as having a particular character, viz., to affirm that the United States is essentially an English-speaking, white, Christian civilization, an extraordinarily obvious fact that has been deleted from our collective memory (or turned into our deepest shame). Their conservatism is limited; they are essentially liberal in their core beliefs. We are left unable to take the most basic steps to protect our security, prosperity, and freedom – and we keep moving to the left.
We need to learn to articulate non-liberal principles and say and defend them until they are once more current in our society. A non-liberal principle, it seems to me, is one that affirms or justifies a non-egalitarian social institution or practice in terms of eternal or transcendent truths. “Men and women are naturally different,” “Islam mandates eternal war against unbelievers” “the different racial groups differ in average capacities of various types,” and the like are non-liberal facts; non-liberal principles which guide, say, the institution of marriage, immigration policy, or educational practices are based on the recognition of such facts. How many conservatives are ready to do this intellectual work?
Russell Kirk’s Portable Conservative Reader contains a section called “Critical Conservatism” which gives some samples of how this intellectual work might proceed. One is the 1915 essay “Property and Law” by Paul Elmer More, from which I posted a quote last week. This essay is an excellent illustration of what it means to articulate a non-liberal principle. It starts with More’s expressed concern that during a “long strike in the mines of Colorado, with violence on both sides and bitter recriminations,” no word was expressed by the mine owners and conservative press on behalf of property rights. Rather, they argued for their side in terms of “the inalienable right of every American citizen to work without interference” (as John D. Rockefeller put it; p. 436). That is, they argued in terms of liberal equality, rather than defending the principle of private property, which inherently means the acceptance of inequality.
Why, faced with violent strikes and militant socialist rhetoric comparing mine owners to murderers, was no defense made of property rights? More traces the undermining of the idea of property rights to Rousseau, who saw them as originally having been created by a class of men who, having used their superior abilities to acquire possessions, protected those possessions from the masses by passing laws in defense of property. Rousseau observed that in this way “property is the basis of civilization” (p. 440). With the establishment of property, the originally small natural differences between individuals were magnified into the enormous ones observable in modern civilization. More acknowledges that there is truth in what Rousseau says, but denies that doing away with property rights can lead to general happiness:
It is a fact that property has been the basis of civilization, and that with property there has come a change from natural inequality to what is assumed to be unnatural injustice. But it is not a fact that barbarism is in general a state of innocence and happiness. (p. 438)
More challenges head-on the basic premises of the socialism:
Socialism rests on two assumptions. First, that community of ownership will, for practical purposes, eliminate the greed and injustice of civilized life. This I deny, believing it to be demonstrably false in view of the present nature of most men, and, I might add, in view of the notorious quarrelsomeness of the socialists among themselves. Secondly, that under community of control the material productivity of society will not be seriously diminished. This question I leave to the economists, though here too it would appear to follow demonstrably from the nature of man that the capacity to manage and the readiness to be managed are necessary to efficient production. (p. 440)
More also denies that socialism is based on scientific principles, or as Marxism put it, the “economic interpretation of history.”
…the real strength of socialism, the force that some think is driving us along the edge of revolution, is in no sense a reasoned conviction that public ownership is better than private ownership, but rather a profound emotional protest against the inequalities of ownership. (p. 441)
He then states his anti-Marxist, conservative principle in refreshingly bold terms: “To the civilized man the rights of property are more important than the right to life.” (p. 442)
The reader who does not find the truth of this statement to be obvious should “read the whole thing,” as they say, which includes a discussion of Roman law that I could not completely follow. But the basic idea is clear enough. He does not mean that property is more important than life, in the sense that if I am starving to death I should choose to die rather than steal an apple from my wealthy neighbor’s orchard. He means that one of the main functions of the legal system of a civilized society must be to keep property secure, even though, life and human nature being what they are, there will inevitably occur large and small injustices, and even loss of life from time to time, under any such system. Despite this, he insists, “it is better that legal robbery should exist along with the maintenance of law, than that legal robbery should be suppressed at the expense of law” (p. 445). In closing, he suggests that the Church and the University have generally been have always been “strongly reactionary against any innovations which threaten the entrenched rights of property” because they understood that the spiritual and intellectual vocations that they supported depended upon the security of property. (He did not anticipate the left-wing universities and liberal churches of today!). “[I]f property is secure, it may be the means to an end, whereas if it is insecure it will be the end itself” (p. 450).
More’s essay does not completely fit with the current situation, since socialism, in the sense of a movement for communal ownership of the means of production by workers, is not the dominant ideology today (which is why it is not very effective to call Obama a “socialist,” although it is true in a moral sense). Property rights are still sometimes violated by violent demonstrations, but more often by taxation and regulation of how property may be used – say, anti-discrimination laws, or the ongoing government takeover of the practice of medicine. But the broader truth of what he says has not changed at all. Indeed, it seems to me that the wedding of jealously-guarded personal freedom with firmly-secured property rights is part of the essence of traditional American (or Anglosphere) society.
Other conservative principles, similarly, express the idea that in a civilized society, the whole is in some sense more important than the individual parts, or the transcendent more important than the particular. As a former libertarian, I hate to admit this, but it is true. For instance, that the security of the country is more important than the comfort of the individual. That the preservation of the family is more important than personal sexual fulfillment. Or that the majority culture is more important than any minority sub-culture. One can always cite egregious counter-examples that seem to prove these principles untrue, but to believe them thus refuted is to confuse individual exceptions with rules of general conduct.
A propos of the discussion of property, I was interested to read in a biography of Thomas Jefferson about the public response to his impending bankruptcy in the last year of his life:
At the opening of the year 1826, the last of his life, Jefferson’s financial embarrassments threatened to drive him into bankruptcy and the loss of his estate. In despair he turned to the Virginia Legislature, asking permission to sell part of his property by lottery. “If it can be yielded,” he wrote to a friend in the legislature, “I can save the house of Monticello and a farm adjoining to end my days in and bury my bones. His countrymen came forward with voluntary subscriptions to save his estate. New York contributed eight thousand five hundred dollars, Philadelphia five thousand dollars, Baltimore three thousand dollars. The project of the lottery was suspended, and the immediate demands were met….The aged statesman was fortunately left to end his days under the happy delusion that this “pure and unsolicited offering of love” by his fellow countrymen would suffice not only to pay off all his debts but to leave his dependants in ease at Monticello. (David Muzzey, Thomas Jefferson, p. 303)
What is of interest to the present discussion is not Jefferson’s unfortunate insolvency at the end of his life, but that the American people found it desirable that the property of one of our great statesmen be kept intact, although this would bring no material gain to any of them as individuals. They recognized its spiritual importance to us (and the value of giving a living president the dignity of remaining there), as a symbol of our identity and history. They did not hold rights to it as property, but they knew that as a symbol of the nation it belonged, in a sense, to every American. This is why, for similar reasons, the destruction of the World Trade Towers was in reality an attack on all American people, and not just those who owned or happened to be in the towers that day. Materialists do not see this. They would rather that the British royal family’s property be taken away from them and redistributed among the people; they would rather that a cathedral be made into a homeless shelter.
The spiritual happiness of a civilized people is indeed dependent on property rights. The transcendent is more important than the particular, but is realized, on this earth at least, only through the particular. If conservatives, traditionalists, and other committed patriots can seize on these truths and make them their own, things may begin to turn in their favor again.
Russell Kirk, The Portable Conservative Reader, New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
David Muzzey, Thomas Jefferson, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918.