Foundations III: Ten progressive principles, a response to Russel Kirk

With the roots of the philosophy of progressivism – interdependence and expanding substantial freedom – covered now in slightly more detail, here’s a first take on a full progressive response to Russell Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles that dates originally back to 1957, the hazy dawn of movement conservativism.

Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries.

The ideology dodge here is a little bit of a funny tactic. Kirk protesteth a bit too much and he returns to it again and again. Don’t look behind the curtain, there’s no idelogy here! But there’s more:

Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For 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.

If ideology is just a group of ideas, then conservativism is the negation of ideas? I doubt that’s what Kirk meant. But if this whole “see no ideology, hear no ideology” game is appealing to you, then progressivism is in the same boat…

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.

Ditto for progressivism. We lefties love to make up our laundry lists, and there is value in doing so. But the project here is more at the level of worldview and narrative. What is the story that progressives have to tell? What are our values, our identity? Kirk does do a fair job at that.

In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night.

Mr Kirk, I’ll see your Milton reference and raise you one. The progressive is simply one who is fascinated with Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme. Not to say that we deny the continuity and value of our history; nothing could be further than the truth. The expansion of substantial freedom was at the core of the American revolution and everything that’s happening now is just a continuation of that spirit. But progressivism is surely about looking and moving forward into the unattempted and undiscovered country. Awake, arise, or be forever fallen!

…the diversity of ways in which conservative views may find expression is itself proof that conservatism is no fixed ideology. What particular principles conservatives emphasize during any given time will vary with the circumstances and necessities of that era. The following ten articles of belief reflect the emphases of conservatives in America nowadays.

As with progressives. Lakoff’s six(ish) types of progressives (socioeconomic, identity politics, environmentalists, civil liberties, spiritual and antiauthoritarian) have a lot of work to do to really nail down what our principles and narrative are going to be. This is only a start:

First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.

Nothing too shocking there if you’ve read Lakoff; this really is conservativism in a nutshell. This is where the conservative predilection for control that manifests itself in issues from women’s rights to foreign policy comes from: It’s all about defending the moral order. Progressives, instead, are about the broad expansion of substantial freedom.

That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

Some moral truths are permanent, and some are discarded through the arc of history. Slavery is a good example; someday the way we currently treat economic refugees will be as well.

This word order signifies harmony.

What it really signifies all too often is dominance.

There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth… Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order.

The connection between the internal and outer orders is true enough. But the most hideous acts of the 20th century were largely a result of our desperate clinging to the old moral orders in the face of new emergent challenges to humanity, not the other way around. What was Nazism but the defense of a strict moral order, an assertion of racial superiority? What was the cold war but a contest for the dominance of two competing moral orders, neither of which provides the answers? The path to the future is towards the devolving of these grim and oppressive hierarchies, not their embrace.

A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society…

This is conflationary sleight of hand. Personal conviction towards justice and honor and a strong sense of right and wrong by no means lead to slavish devotion to some rigid moral order. The thirst for justice can lead only to questioning and working toward the eventual dismantling of such orders, to the extent that they hold people back.

Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.

This one is easy: Progressives are unafraid to think critically, question authority, customs and continuity. The painfully critical need for this in the world today is blindingly obvious.

Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.

Progressives believe in the principle of interdependence, which gives rise to a very different approach than this:

Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often.

This is the first mention of property rights and there will be more on this alter. But this is a particularly grim passage…

Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste.

The historical ramifications for this are astounding. Think of the breadth of artistic, scientific and technological endeavors just over the past few years, let along the course of history. None of these count as brave new discoveries? If Kirk were still alive I’d send him a gift subscription to iTunes. Democracy may not be a new idea but as a species we surely have a long way to go in figuring how to make it work. How this can happen without new moral and political discoveries is unfathomable.

Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.

Progressives are guided by their thirst for justice and by their curiousity and wonder. The rationale for this paragraph is a litany of do-nothingism:

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…The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with reflection and planning. But when enterprises of great pitch and moment turn awry and lose the name of action, as they have so often recently, things have gone too far.

Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.

It’s a little hard to tell exactly what Kirk is talking about in this one. Maybe this is an area of agreement, and yet conservatives…

…feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.

So Kirk goes on and on about enforcing the moral order and then turns around to complain about narrowing uniformity, but pins the blame on the other guys. And what the heck is remotely deadening about egalitarianism?
Regardless of what sort of point Kirk was trying to make here, it’s clear that progressives value maximum diversity. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations isn’t just for Vulcans. Progressives value diversity innately; life is just better with real variety, not whatever conflicting surface variety Kirk may (or may not) be trying to make the case for here.

Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.

Again, this sounds like excuses, reasons to give up on moving things forward, which accounts for a lot of Kirk’s approach really. It’s somewhat amazing that something so uninspiring could have had such an impact. The obvious alternative: progressives accept the principle of imperfectability, but never allow their dreams of abundance to be shackled by it.
This is another interesting bit that illustrates some of the basic negativity and even near-delusion at the core of conservativism:

The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.

To the extent that the 20th and 21st centuries have a hellish component, it’s more than a little disingenuous to pin that on “ideologues” of whatever stripe. Bad things happen when our vision is too narrow, not when it’s too broad. The short term biases of capitalism as it’s currently implemented, for just one example, are far more responsible for what’s gone wrong than whichever unnamed ideologues Kirk is trying to blame. Without more detail on what Kirk considers hellish though, it’s a bit hard to tell what he’s thinking.

Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.

Progressives appreciate the incredible breadth of freedom. It’s telling that it took Kirk six other topics (starting with moral order!) before finally getting around to any kind of meaningful discussion of freedom. For as much blathering as conservatives do about freedom, it isn’t really a top priority of theirs. Even when it is, they miss the point of it, as the freedom linked to the ownership of property is among the most vulgar and coarse of freedoms. The cognitive freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom to learn, freedom of and from religion, freedom of thought – as well as freedom from want and freedom from fear are the progressive pillars of the infinite taxonomy of freedom. Those are the substantial freedoms and form one of the two core philosophies of progressivism.
This isn’t at all to say that private property shouldn’t exist, of course! It just means that property rights have to be placed alongside other rights and freedoms. This gives rise to a certain critical but generally positive approach to capitalism: it needs to be housebroken, not smashed.

Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.

This issue, tied to the notion of coercion, is something more conservatives, especially those of a more libertarian stripe, seem to lose a lot of sleep over. What they don’t seem to undertstand are some of the basic truths behind taxes and democracy. In any democracy, and indeed any society where the aforementioned property rights that Kirk values so highly are respected, there must always be some degree of “coercion.” Things are never going to go your way 100% of the time and it’s almost childish to think that they could; most of us learn this pretty early on in school. Ditto for taxes. Since the great majority of Americans are not in fact anarchists, we’re always going to support some degree of taxation and are willing to have a discussion about exactly how much or how little that is, and what the most beneficial level is. Voluntary taxes would lead obviously and inevitably to free-rider problems.
So what to focus on instead? Progressives are pragmatic and grateful for all that civilization has provided. The unswerving hope for a better future that all progressives share is always tempered by their unending commitment to understanding an ever more complete picture of reality. For progressives, justice is of far higher priority than the thinness of focusing solely on property-linked freedom. The penniless monk who owns nothing is certainly no less free than the rich corporate executive.

Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.

Another area of large agreement, but with a slight twist: The progressive believes in the unlimited power of human passion, and in restraint provided via countervailing powers. A large, thriving, complicated economy needs a large, thriving public sector as a countervailing force to keep corporate power in check. Capitalism does very much right but there are many basic needs that are not well met by markets, and government sets the ground rules for markets. But passion is what drives the game that is then played inside the boundaries of these rules: this is why there is a connection between a knowledge based economy and progressivism. Unlocking human potential and expanding cognitive liberty simply makes good business sense now. With power pushed out to the edges, the smarter the edges are the better we all do.

Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.

Basic agreement yet again. However:the thinking progressive understands that extreme concentrations of wealth and power can throw the process of reconciling permanence and change badly out of whack. The development of a modern American oligarchy is at the root of what has slowed progress in this country to a near standstill. Crashing the gates – the breaking of the stranglehold this oligarchy has on power and the restoration of democracy – is a top priority for progressives.
So that’s it. A couple things are clear: one, Kirk may have been influential, but a lot of his thought seems to be on pretty murky ground. And a whole lot of it sounds like elaborate excuses to quit trying. Maybe that will end up being one of the core values of progressivism: get off your butt and keep working! The arc of history is long, and it sure bends away from Russel Kirk.