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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Russell Kirk: Ten Conservative Principles Part 3 -- Witness to Truth

In the final installment let's look at Kirk's last four principles of conservative thought and how they mesh with Catholic truth.

7. Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Labor and Property was the subject of Pope Leo XIII's famous encyclical, Rerum Novarum, "On the Condition of the Working Classes." The Pope rejected both the greed of unscrupulous employers who "laid a yoke almost of slavery on the unnumbered masses of non-owning workers" and the Socialist Utopians who "contend that it is necessary to do away with private possession of goods and in its place to make the goods of individuals common to all" with Government as the administrator. Pope Leo clearly stated that "nature confers on man the right to possess things privately as his own.... And this same right has been sanctioned by the authority of the divine law, which forbids us most strictly even to desire what belongs to another. 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor is house, nor his field, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is his.'"
Kirk likewise warns, "Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all."
Is that not what we see happening in the United States as the government implements the forced redistribution of income from those who work to those who don't? "Upon the foundation of private property," Kirk continues, "great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth." Why? Because allowing men to keep the fruit of their labor teaches them responsibility and industry. It makes work worthwhile and gives men a reason to labor dutifully and cheerfully. Certainly assistance is necessary (and a requirement of charity) to those who are truly needy, but Government redistribution of income from some to others simply because some have more is immoral thievery.

8. Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.Kirk argues under this principle for local/voluntary vs. centralized/remote decision-making. He points out that "Americans...have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger.... [A] nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed."
Bravo! This was the belief of the Founding Fathers and is also the position of the Church under the principle of subsidiarity. Pius XI described subsidiarity in this way, "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view of the common good." Subsidiarity, according to the Catechism, is "opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention....Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative." Bingo! The gargantuan state that regulates from the womb to the tomb is like a combination straight jacket and "comforter." The one ties the hands making productive efforts impossible. The other, behind the mask of "compassionate" care, smothers life and initiative -- exactly where we are today under liberalism. Kirk hits the bulls eye once again.

9. Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. This is the rule of law and the antidote to the false philosophy of "might makes right." Power must be controlled in order for justice to prevail. "The conservative," says Kirk, "endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise." This principle guided the Founding Fathers to create a democratic republic with three separate branches of government designed to be watchdogs of one another. "A just government," according to Kirk, "maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty."
Indeed, the Catechism too discusses both the rights of the individual and the common good both of which should be the foci of government authority. "The exercise of authority," it says, "is meant to give outward expression to a just hierarchy of values in order to facilitate the exercise of freedom and responsibility by all." Kirk says, that "Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite" are the "instruments of freedom and order." The Catholic could well paraphrase his words to discuss the claims of a moral order where one "renders to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

10. Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. Kirk describes the tension between stability and progress emphasizing that the prudent man recognizes the necessity of both, the first to protect "enduring interests," the second to prevent stagnation. Conservatives, according to Kirk, favor "reasoned and temperate progress" as opposed to a cult of change where "everything new necessarily is superior to everything old."
Kirk's final principle reminds me of Jesus' words in Matthew 13. "Every scribe who is learned in the reign of God is like the head of a household who can bring from his storeroom both the new and the old." Throughout his ministry He stressed that He did not come to overthrow the Old Covenant, but to fulfill it. Kirk too recognizes the value of the permanent, but also the necessity of reasonable change. "Change is essential to the body social...just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation."

For Kirk, conservatism has less to do with party than principle. In fact, he says "conservative interest appears to transcend the usual classification of most American voting-blocs....The moving power behind the renewed conservatism of the American public is not some scheme of personal or corporate aggrandizement; rather, it is the impulse for survival of a culture that wakes to its peril near the end of the twentieth century. We might well call militant conservatives the Party of the Permanent Things."

One can argue that Kirk's words, written fifteen years ago, are out of date, that Obama's election proves that conservatism is dead and liberalism has won. But consider: Obama ran and was elected (by a small popular vote) as a so-called moderate. He did not run against a conservative, but a hawkish big-government Republican liberal. When accused of a socialist agenda, Obama and Biden feigned horror and called it a slur. Only since the election is the mantra openly embraced as Newsweek illustrated when they chortled, "We're all socialists now." Obama never acknowledged openly that his goal was redistribution of income; in fact he ran from the accusation. Will he succeed as a modern Robin Hood who robs from the workers to support the welfare state? It won't be just "the rich." If Obama took every cent of income of "the rich," he could not support his trillions in spending for one year as the Wall Street Journal wrote in The 2% Illusion.

Time will tell whether the American people will embrace liberalism and reject outright the permanent things. The disintegration of moral values obviously makes that a distinct possibility, but there are glimmers of an enduring spirit of conservatism among many of the young. You can find it on Facebook and YouTube and on blogs created by the under 40s. The permanent things have an appeal that the radical change agents can never suppress. Look, for example, at the popular resurgence of Gregorian Chant and the trditional Latin Mass, among young Catholics.

I think young conservatives would respond with enthusiasm to Kirk's words, "Conservatives cannot offer America the fancied Terrestrial Paradise that always, in reality, has turned out to be an Earthly Hell. What they can offer is politics as the art of the possible; and an opportunity to stand up for that old lovable human nature; and conscious participation in the defense of order and justice and freedom." You can hear the echo of the Founders in those words as well as the voice of Catholic apologists like Chesterton and Belloc, and many popes. They are words to stir the human spirit.

Pray for the repose of the soul of Russell Kirk, a giant among Catholic conservatives or conservative Catholics. He is a man who joins both words together in a joyful witness to truth.

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