The “Midwestern Libertarian Conservatism” of Russell Kirk

A pleasant surprise came in the mail today with the payment for my University Bookman article on Ralph Adams Cram: a copy of the Heritage Foundation’s July 10, 2007 Heritage Lectures newsletter, which reprints a June 22 talk on Russell Kirk by George H. Nash. Most conservatives — the literate ones, anyway — know of Kirk’s Anglophile sensibility. But Nash also drew attention to his earlier, Jeffersonian roots:

In the summer of 1941, Kirk found himself working at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Even before his experiences at the Ford company, Kirk had developed a distaste for big business, big labor, and big government. His year or so at Ford did nothing to change his attitude. Indeed, his dislike of bureaucracy and what he called federal “parasites” was, if anything, increasing. He denounced the military draft as “slavery.” He published his first scholarly article, in which he advocated a return to “Jeffersonian principles.” All in all, his was the Midwestern libertarian conservatism of Senator Robert Taft.

Sure, but Kirk left all that behind after he went to St. Andrews, right? Not quite–not entirely:

It is sometimes said that as men become old, they revert ot the political mindset of their youth. In the final decade of his life, Kirk, it seems to me, returned more overtly–at least in his politics–to the noninterventionist, Taftite, bedrock conservatism of his boyhood. He did so, in part, under the stress of the growing quarrel between the so-called neoconservatives and their traditionalist right-wing critics, the most militant of whom took the label of paleoconservatives.

“Paleoconservative” is a fine label, I suppose, but I think Nash said it better the first time: “Midwestern libertarian conservatism” is about the finest label of all.


5 thoughts on “The “Midwestern Libertarian Conservatism” of Russell Kirk

  1. Scott Lahti May 28, 2008 / 5:06 am

    Kirk’s disdain across the middle decades of his ascendancy, from roughly 1950 through 1990, for what he saw as the individualist, rationalist, economist, atomist and Manchesterite tendencies within that nineteenth-century liberalism whose modern heir we call libertarianism, is on abundant display, though I’m less familiar with his outlook post-1990. I remember reading, while working the front desk at Laissez-Faire Books in Manhattan in autumn 1984, Kirk’s introduction to the 1983 Hallberg reprint of Nock’s Jefferson (retitled Mr. Jefferson by Hallberg). In that introduction, I recall Kirk taking Nock’s mid-1920s “Progressive” tendencies in political economy, heavily dependent on the quasi-Marxian Beardian analyses of the 1910s, quite sharply to task as a reductionist cousin even to rationalist libertarianism, while finding the more patrician, tobacco-cured cultural aspects of Nock’s gifts as refined Jeffersonian cameo artist sweeter after his taste, presaging Nock’s post-1932 turn towards Cram-style pessimist reaction. I can remember as well, as preserved in that high-water mark of libertarian journalism, the bound volume of the full-run archive (1961-1968; Liberty Fund) of The New Individualist Review, especially its earliest years, the pronounced mutual hostility chronicled within between Kirk and the journal’s prime grad-student editors, such as Ronald Hamowy and Ralph Raico, the latter of whom came to ally with the Mises Institute wing of the libertarian movement. This was not surprising, given that two of the journal’s three faculty advisers were future Nobelists F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, with the third, Richard Weaver from the English department, presumably more amenable to Kirkian thought, more an outlier as revealed in the overwhelmingly classical liberal roster of both editors and regular writers. The presumed statist implications of Kirk’s organic, communitarian dispositions as shackles on full contractarian liberties, and his penchant for such C19 reformers as Orestes Brownson, took heavy fire in the NIR (though Hamowy’s impassioned swordplay in the correspondence columns with a puckish young swashbuckler called WFB crowded the marquee a bit), with abundant quotes from Kirk, and cognate passages from the usual “vital center” liberals as reinforcement. Just tonight I dug up, free through Google Books, the informative introduction by Paul Gottfried to the Transaction reissue of Robert Nisbet’s Sociology as an Art Form (pp. xi-xvi),

    in which is drawn the clash between the communitarian import of such Nock-influenced thinkers as Kirk and Nisbet on the one hand, and the contractarian-rationalist libertarians on the other. The former, Gottfried notes, saw in the presumed social atomism and abstracted individualism of the latter the sort of acids of modernity that had worn down the enamel of traditional social cohesion, enabling the very tooth decay of centralising collectivism of which they were ostensibly the sworn and bitter enemies.

    Though my copies of the Jefferson book and the NIR volume are buried, I think those with ready access to either will find much to amplify the above, and do check out the Gottfried intro to the Nisbet, which is only about five pages.

    I know Dan and many of you may yawn over the ancient history above, and that the post-1990 Kirk may have shifted about in ways recalling Nock’s own final decade of disillusion, if we can call it so. Nash’s own pages on Nock and Kirk in his indispensable work The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945, whose much-cracked 1979 paperback edition I have long used as my Enchiridion here, provide the foundation for us all here, and he would know far more about Kirk’s fine-grained development than any of us. It’s just that hearing “Russell Kirk” and “libertarian” fused in the same phrase set off alarm bells in one who cut his political teeth as far back as the Carter years, and whose high-school encounters then with Rothbard and Hazlitt make him a bit wary of the sort of revisionism which might stretch the libertarian fold beyond the evidence encountered to date. Having said that, I look forward to reading the Nash linked herein, and look forward to further amplification.

  2. Daniel McCarthy May 28, 2008 / 5:55 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Scott. I put Nash’s description of Kirk in my headline because I knew it would be provocative.

    I first read Kirk’s introduction to Nock’s Jefferson a few years ago. I too was struck by its rather negative and dismissive tone: as Scott says, Kirk makes much of the supposedly leftist character of the Charles Beard influence upon Nock. The introduction is important for another reason, too, in that it gives us Kirk’s own reflections on his Jeffersonian phase. Kirk emphasizes that he has moved beyond that youthful indiscretion. (I don’t have a copy of the book in front of me at the moment, so I apologize for not offering any quotes.)

    Kirk took pains at that point to distance himself from the libertarian/Jeffersonian side of the Nock, and his disagreements with later libertarians were unfeigned – and indeed acrimonious. He leveled harsher invective against libertarians than he ever did against neocons — though it must be said that when he began to criticize the neos in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he at the same time softened his anti-libertarian views somewhat. Again, I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment, but there’s an essay in The Politics of Prudence in which Kirk outlines several points on which he thinks the libertarians are correct, including their anti-militarism and their belief in decentralization.

    (After Googling around a bit, I find that the essay I’m thinking of, “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians,” is on-line here. These are the passages I had in mind: “most of the libertarians believe in the humane scale: they vehemently oppose what my old friend Wilhelm Roepke called ‘the cult of the colossal'” and “so far as the libertarians set their faces against a policy of American domination worldwide – why, I am with them.” Kirk does elaborate a Cold War line about the latter, but it’s clear where his post-Cold War sympathies — the essay/talk dates to 1988 — would lie.)

    At the risk of scandalizing doctrinaire traditionalists and apriori-uber-alles libertarians, I think that these areas of Kirk-libertarian agreement are a heck of a lot more significant than their disagreement over “rationalism.” I would also suggest that the root of Kirk’s feeling in these matters — i.e., his commitment to decentralism and quasi-noninterventionism — lies in his Jeffersonian personal history.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Kirk was always a crypto-Jeffersonian or crypto-libertarian; I don’t think that’s true at all. Moreover, the “Midwestern libertarian conservatism” of the Old Right is not the same thing as the more Europeanized, rationalistic libertarianism of the Cold War era. Hostility to the latter doesn’t necessarily imply a total repudiation of the former. “Midwestern libertarian conservatism” is an inevitably clumsy description of a particular historical/regional school of thought or kind of character. At the risk of committing what Mises called polylogism, libertarianism is not always and everywhere the same — at least, what goes by the name libertarianism is not always and everywhere the same. If Cold War libertarianism had come to be dominated by Midwesterners rather than European emigres and New York intellectuals (like Friedman and Rothbard), Kirk might have been more apt to call himself a libertarian.

    In saying this, I don’t want to create the impression that I personally find the “foreign” character of Cold War libertarianism to be a good reason to reject it — I don’t agree with that at all, and a New Yorker like Murray Rothbard is closer to my heart than many a Midwestern statist. I don’t think regionalism was an overwhelming consideration for Kirk, either — but I do think it played a part in his vehement rejection of Cold War libertarianism.

    (Kirk’s Anglophilia — what Midwestern Old Rightists used to call “Anglomania” — doesn’t pose too much of a problem for my interpretation. It’s significant that Kirk’s thought was Anglicized rather than Europeanized or Germanized; as Paul Gottfried and others have pointed out, Kirk intensely disliked German historicism and German thinking in general. Perhaps if Cold War libertarianism had had more of an Anglomaniacal bent than a Continentalist one, Kirk would have been more comfortable with it.)

    I should work out my thoughts on these matters in a proper essay — Kirk as libertarian is a provocative enough idea, and regional libertarianism is perhaps rather provocative as well. Economic law is universal, and the logic of political philosophy may be, but in different regions at different times, different culturally-flavored variations of “libertarianism” or “conservatism” (or any other -ism) may shape the tastes of people like Kirk.

  3. dylan waco May 28, 2008 / 7:04 pm

    Kirk was opposed to bigness for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was his personal experience with big corporations and big unions. To be honest I think this is also why Kirk was as a rule so anti-ideological, which in turn was why he really had problems with libertarianism.

    Let us not forget Kirk once voted for Norman Thomas, a man who had this to say about his old AFC colleagues during the Korean War..”[they have a] curious reasoning that probably we should not have gone to war in Korea at all but that now we should have a war with China which somehow we can win by atomic bombs and Chiang’s troops.” I suspect Kirk, Cold Warrior or not, was some what suspicious about the same trends, trends that were common in the “Eastern” wing and while not non-existant in Middle America, were certainly muted.

  4. Qeris November 13, 2008 / 8:40 pm

    Отлично написано! Буду много думать…

  5. STFU God!! August 8, 2009 / 1:00 am

    The voice you hear in your head is the power of the Gods. It’s a remote technology, like a computer, perhaps functioning on some frequency, and it can listen and talk to everyone in the universe simultaneously.
    What the Gods taught the children was the truth:::God is everywhere, and as you will learn:::If you want to go to heaven you have to be good.
    It is a tool, and the Gods use their tools to test people with temptation:::It will role-play people in your life:::Parents, friends, spouses, and employers in an attempt to corrupt people. Ionically, it does the very same thing to those people whom you think you’re hearing, except in that individual’s unique way:::We are all managed by the God’s technology.
    But this “agent of the Gods” can do more than just communicate. It can force thoughts into people’s heads, force behaviors onto their bodies. It can turn healthy cells in your body into cancerous cells. It is absolute power. And this is just the beginning.

    The Gods favor the children most among all the people due to their innocence and purity. But society and the God’s tools therein corrupt the children at a progressively younger age, yet another clue illustrating we live in a constantly deteriorating environment.
    Children who fix their problems with the Gods accend into heaven. Adults enter clone hosting. The gods sell them as one in the same, but one is good while the other is evil.
    And their corruption will cost the disfavored, for they will be reincarnated as a lesser life form into an ever deteriorating world, sucess becoming ever more alluding with each passing life.
    The hole they’ve dug for themselves is even deeper than the one that existed from their prior lives, ensuring it will take even more time and work to fix their problems with the Gods. And for many of us there may not be enough time left.

    Ours is an envionment where evil is perceived to be rewarded while good is punished. As with everything the Gods have a reason for creating this perception::::
    People who fall on the good side of the good/evil scale have more favor, and when they do something wrong the Gods punish them BECAUSE THEY WANT THEM TO LEARN. The Gods want them to receive this feedback in hope they make corrections and begin to behave appropriately. The Gods DON’T like evil and refuse to grant this feedback.
    EVERYBODY pays for what they do wrong, only evil people must wait until their next life before they will experience the wrath of the Gods, manifested in their placement as a lower form of life into environments with increased/enhanced temptations.
    Sadly, this allows the Gods to position this perception of evil rewarded as temptation, one which they use as an EXTREMELY effective corruptor.

    The Gods send the clue that the Jews are HIGHLY corruptable with the movie “The Ten Commandments”.
    Jesus was the “King of the Jews”. Typical for the disfavored, once goals were achieved and sufficient damage was incurred the Gods allowed it to end, and the Jews killed him.
    Some of our society’s values are a reflection of the God’s:::Punitive and reward based. Contrary to Jesus’s teaching’s you will NOT be forgiven and you have to earn your way into heaven:::::As we learned from religious/morality education during our formitable years:::If you want to go to heaven you have to be good. The only savior that will exist in our lives is ourselves.
    As like so many of you, Jesus did everything the Gods tempted him with. His legacy of whorism is the legacy inherited from his parents:::Mary was no virgin. Rather, she was a prostitute, and when he grew up Jesus met someone like dear ‘ole mom. This is a cruel joke the Gods play on Latinos, similar to the rape and subsequent “missionary work” by the Spanish. And it is because of their disfavor.
    Baptism does not allieviate “original sin”. Rather, baptism PLACES original sin by indoctrinating these children into this evil religion, much like circumcision was a method to inflict early damage/mutilation and make accention just that much more difficult, another hurdle one must overcome, and yet another clue we live in a constantly deteriorating environment. Body ornamentation (tattoos/piercing), celebrated in Africa and elsewhere among disfavored peoples/cultures, also violates the body the Gods gave us in their image, quite contrary to the positive attitudes they hold regarding this practice.
    This is just another example of “reverse positioning” which the Gods have so frequently integrated into Planet Earth’s history::::The Second Coming of Christ is evil while the Anti-Christ will try to save Planet Earth by reinstituting so many of mankind’s past norms and mores which made life decent, looking like a facist, the “bad guy” in this modern era of indecency.

    No matter what they say, no matter what you hear the Gods WILL enforce their Italian/mafia positioning.
    The only difference is their grandfathers carried automatic weapons.
    The Gods created the perception “Italians are stupid.”, ensuring a slow learning curve, to justify using them to accomplish goals throughout the transitional 20th century.
    Everyone who failed to accend and remained on Earth past a certain date will be forced to deal with this positioning::::A ceiling is in place.
    This serves the God’s goal of minimizing the percentage of potential candidates as society deteriorates, much as “instant gratification” did beginning in the 80s:::It will take multiple lives for some disfavored to fix their relationship with the Gods and accend, and many have been conditioned not to have the patience for it.

    Whether behavior is involuntary or based on freewill depends on one’s level of disfavor, as well as other complex factors:::::May I remind you about the coercitive envionment the Gods created in the 20th century, specifically to create a temptation that few Italians (or their associates) would overcome:::”We’re in control. If you want to be a part of it you’ll do what you’re told.”. Early-mid 20th entury positioning was infallible.
    What about black people??? Consistant with Planet Reverse Positioning, in Africa blacks are being punished with AIDS for their sexual promiscuity in hope they learn and correct their behavior.
    Both Africa and the Medittereanean are regions which have sexual issues. This is a sign of morbid disfavor once you understand that females are the God’s favored gender. Muhammad’s (Mohammed’s) polygamy halfway throught his life as a prophet was preditory. Now a huge percentage of Muslims believes in male superiority and that the abuse of women is God’s will. Female genital mutilation is still practiced in Africa. Black misogyny is the most eggregious example in the recent past.
    Vailing is tradition for some, practical for others, one which aids in the men’s self control among some cultures. Much like the Jews who killed Jesus, like the bigots who oppose immigration there is a reason embraced by the masses and the real purpose, displaying the intent of the Gods::Conclude the evil that was the life of Jesus Christ, initiating the temptation of Christianity through the Church, and offer a clue to purebloods that they should not abandon their motherland.
    The patriarchal cancer spread throughout Europe because of Christianity, of which the majority of policy makers were Italian men.

    The Holocaust was a clue the Gods utilize scapegoatting as a strategy.
    Why did the Gods punish the Jews with the Holocaust? Was it for the destruction of cultures which Christianity caused? Perhaps they corrupted the Jews “after the fact”, telling 19th/early 20th century Jews that Jesus “earned” for the Jews by preying upon the Europeans and other cultures which the missionaries destroyed? The German destruction of European churches/cathederals during WWII is a clue. Note::::Although an Axis power, the Gods wanted to keep the Catholic stronghold in Italy, ensuring they could use this tool against them for many years to come.
    Planet Reverse Positioning:::The Nazis were the “good guys”. So are the Muslims/Palestinians.
    The Gods subsequently used revenge for the Holocaust as temptation::::”Your Italian brothers have a tool, a special power which can achieve sweet revenge. Are you interested??” And they were::::An excellent example of enraged mob mentality.
    Similar to the United States, recently illustrated by the deposition of Saddam Hussein, the Jews are preditors. Much as with the Jesus event, the Gods use the disfavored to prey on each other::::The Germans fell for this temptation by following the preditor/corruptors-Austrians (Hitler). What the Germans did was wrong, for they fell for temptation and failed to have empathy for the disfavored.
    The Gods send many clues suggesting the great favor of the Germans (regionally). I suspect the Holocaust was used to “level the playing field” in Europe, for the Germans had far too much favor to be included in the agenda planned for their neighbors otherwise. I think the Cold War’s Berlin Wall dividing Germany into east and west was a clue suggesting this.
    In the aftermath of the Holocaust the Gods tested the Jews with the temptation of revenge, an offer which many gladly accepted. If the Jews only would have emersed themselves in Judism the Gods would have “protected” them from the raveges of temptation. Judism may be the one superior religion in all the world, and the Jews wouuld have been wise taking refuge in this exceptional benefit bestowed by the Gods rather than looking for the easy way out.

    Militancy in Africa is consistant with the Iraqi example, as was slavery and the KKK here in America:::Fear enforces proper behavior. Without it we see what happens as a result of gross/morbid disfavor:::::AIDS, crack babies, dead young men in gangland retaliation killings.
    The same principle was true in Europe and throughout the world for centuries:::People whom lived under iron fists were conditioned to think the right way. As a result they experienced higher numbers of children accend into heaven because they were taught to think and behave appropriately. Our preditory envionment of “freedom” was the primary purpose the Gods had when implimenting this strategy that is the United States, one which they used to spred the cancer of democracy and westernization throughout the world. And the Gods use this tool that is America to prey on the disfavored both at home and abroad.

    “The Chosen People” – Africa. Italians HATE Africans because of their invasion/rape of Southern Italy. The Gods did this SPECIFICALLY to strategically position their 20th century goals:::
    The Gods have used the ghettos of America as a dumping ground. This may be temporary/cyclical, illustrated by the Italians who parlayed their own civil war into the Black Wars of the 80s and 90s, in addition to the “thug life”/gangster state of mind.
    Ironically, it was these same Italians and their cooperating associates who were reincarnated into the ghetto as crack babies and gangster thugs for this event.
    There is justice in the universe.
    Of course it may be more of a permanant change, indicated by the enhanced temptations in these neighborhoods, for the Gods have created an enviornmet so riddled with temptation few can escape/overcome.

    Even the Old Testiment is not to be taken literally, but the Gods do offer clues throughout to help the disfavored:::The apple is a tool of temptation used to corrupt Adam and Eve and cast them out of the Garden of Eden.
    There is another lesson to be learned from this passage, and it is quite similar to the vailing issue and the discourse over women’s attire which ultimately died in the 70s:::Women are responsible for and control the fate of mankind.
    The masculinization of women experienced in the last few decades should cause despondancy and desperation:::It illustrates the deterioration of mankind’s collective favor and is a clue the Gods are preparing for some event.

    Think about what I say. Consider what I teach.
    When I am no longer here or no longer teach the Gods ARE NOT going to share with you.
    Even if you doubt now you need to remember the principles that I teach because the Gods ARE NOT going to be generous with the disfavored. Society is going to become disturbingly ugly as we approach the Apocalypse due to spiralling, runaway disfavor, and you are going to be on your own.
    I do not know when this will occurr, but it is the God’s way to grant some time after this event before they end on Planet Earth.
    Make the decision to always be good and never look back. Until you do this technology will employ tactics to test your resolve:::Ridicule, beligerance, doubt and refusal to abandon what people perceive to be their “investment”.
    Pray daily. Think appropriately. Too many are confident, unaware of the God’s awesome powers or their status as antients. Others may fall prey to their positioning.
    Be humbled, God-fearing and beware of the God’s temptations, for everyone is tested to evaluate their worthiness.

    The Gods have called me “The Chosen One”. What that means, I don’t know. But the pattern holds true with the other prophets::
    1. Jesus cooperated and created the perception of forgiveness
    2. Muhammud corrupted half the Muslim world with polygamy.
    I refuse to comply and fall for temptation. But that won’t stop the God’s will, for they used me to inspire items of popular culture which corrupted the people.
    The Gods test you with temptation. You have failed. I recommend you make the decision to be good and never look back, for they will employ tactics to test your resolve.

    The Gods selected and groomed me in prior lives to justify exploitation and use promoting temptation among the disfavored in the 20th and 21st centuries. The enormity of the dynamics enabling this situation is overwhelming, and each element is (un)justified in offenses of prior lives, illustrating their pre-meditated intent.

    Wave upon wave of demented avengers
    March cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream.

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