Ben Lewis

February 18, 2020

Russell Kirk’s Big Tent Conservatism

At the end of Prospects for Conservatives, Russell Kirk writes,

Journalists, for their own delectation, invent or cry up such labels as 'Old Right,' 'Traditionalists,' 'Neoconservatives,' 'Libertarians,' 'New Right,' 'Fundamentalist Right,' and the like. But those categories overlap and intermingle. The more eccentric members of this loose coalition may be expected to fall away into fresher eccentricities - and no great loss will result. Various emphases upon this or that aspect of pulic policy will linger among the several conservative groupings; but enough common ground can be cultivated to maintain substantial agreement on some large questions - supposing that narrow ideology is abjured.

Kirk is often considered an enemy of libertarians, but I count at least three occasions - with one being his infamous-among-libertarians essay, "Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries - in which he included at least some libertarians in the conservative camp. Indeed, Kirk’s conservatism was a very broad one, both in terms of modern day groupings and historical lineage.For Kirk, it was only ideology that could undermine conservative unity, and by ideology he meant the inflexible insistence on a narrow range of principles, not the commitment to principles in general. This is why he was frustrated with libertarians, because he understood them to be entirely focused on liberty to the exclusion of other concerns. That this does not apply to all libertarians does not negate the truth that it does apply to a good many (and the broader truthfulness of Kirk’s assessment of libertarians will be taken up by Mitch Thompson in the summer issue of AL Mag).

All this to say that Kirk was certainly not as anti-libertarian as he is often portrayed as being, and there is a sense (a very large one, I believe) in which Kirk and the libertarians were oriented towards similar goals. In my opinion, Kirk’s big tent mentality is one is a that modern day libertarians could stand to consider. Conservative libertarians - which is to say normal libertarians who oppose state oppression but don't want to tear down society - have many points of disagreement with other conservatives, but the increasingly apparent truth is that these libertarians have more in common with their mainstream conservative friends and family than they do anyone on the left, including professional and beltway libertarians.

One weakness of the conservative movement, of which libertarianism was a part, as it developed after the end of World War II was the inability of its members to overcome differences regarding specific points of view and to present a unified alternative to leftism. Perhaps libertarians should take a page out of Kirk’s book and consider the possibility that, whatever differences exist on policy issues, the successful defense of liberty and society (which are much more intimately connected than many libertarians admit) against the onslaught of their would-be destroyers requires a broader sense of purpose, and of friend and foe.

About the author

Ben is a contributing editor for Bastion Magazine. In addition to Bastion, his articles have appeared at a variety of online outlets, including the Tenth Amendment Center and The Patriot Post. He and his family live in the last refuge for traditional manners, the American Midwest.

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