Having just committed the libertarian faux pas of publishing a favorable review of a Russell Kirk book, now might be a good time to consider some things that Gerard Casey has written about Kirk and his intellectual muse, Edmund Burke. In Freedom’s Progress, Casey writes,
The basic principles of conservatism were laid out in various of his writings by Russell Kirk… In The Politics of Prudence, we are presented with 10 principles: 1. the moral order is enduring – human nature is a constant and moral truths are permanent; 2. conservatives adhere to custom, convention and continuity; 3. conservatives believe in prescription, that which has been established by immemorial usage; 4. conservatives are guided by the principle of prudence; 5. conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety – equality before the law levels all ranks – in all other respects inequality is the norm; 6. conservative are chastened by their principle of of imperfectibility – no perfect social order is attainable, utopias are not in sight and are not to be sought; 7. freedom and property are closely linked; 8. conservatives uphold voluntary community and oppose involuntary collectivism; 9. conservatives see the need for prudent restraints on power and on human passions; and 10. conservatives understand that permanence and change must be recognised and reconciled.
Libertarians may adhere to none, some, or all of these principles. This libertarian: recognises an enduring moral order and the constancy of human nature; grants the heuristic and presumptive value of custom, convention, continuity and prescription; whole-heartedly recognises and values the differences that make a difference; ruefully recognises (in others) and confesses (in himself) human imperfectibility, and neither expects nor seeks the fantasy of a utopia, for here we have no abiding city; willingly grants – indeed, insists upon – the close connection between freedom and property; rejects involuntary collectivism and welcomes the creation and sustaining of voluntary communities; recognises prudence as the first of the cardinal virtues, sees restraint as a form of social capital and, as such, the foundation of the moral individual, civil society and political order; and is happy to seek a balance between permanence and change.
Regarding Burke, Casey adds,
Edmund Burke thought that manners mattered more than law and even more than morals, inasmuch as both law and morals in large measure depend upon manners. [Burke wrote] “Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or sooth, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”
We do not produce and maintain our manners primarily by some process of detached reason. They arise naturally from social relations. Such judgment as they embody is a kind of pre-reflective judgment, what Burke calls ‘prejudice.’ Manners, as prejudices, allow us to act swiftly and surely and rightly without the need for agonised reflection and reasoning. At the root of manners is the notion of restraint, of limitation, of delayed gratification, and its produce is a kind of social capital, just as the product of fiscal delayed gratification and restraint is economic capital. Burke contrasts this form of ordered liberty with mere license, which is the freedom to do whatever one wants to do without regard to circumstances.”
I believe that a civilized existence requires both freedom and order; that just as a sound economy requires capital which is produced by saving and delayed gratification: “the essential mechanism of societal preservation is not inspiration but restraint.” [David Mamet] Freedom without order is like a sudden explosive release of energy, pointless and destructive; order without freedom is like the body in the library, a lifeless corpse. Freedom and order together are necessary to produce a living, vital society.
…When manners decline as the result of cultural decay, then the law (or rather legislation) rushes in to fill the vacuum. Matters that in a culturally rich society are dealt with by informal sanctions, such as speech that is intended to be crude, insulting and hurtful, now have to be overtly regulated by laws with consequent intrusions upon our liberty. But the law is a blunt and crude instrument and such micro-regulation is both ineffective and stifling. Man does not live by legislation alone. A society replete with minute and detailed legislation is a society whose stock of social capital has declined and is declining. This, I suggest, is an accurate account of many contemporary Western societies. Whether these societies can replenish their social capital is a matter for conjecture. Some societies have done so in the the past – but others have not, and have perished.
It’s not uncommon for libertarians to scoff at conservatives and the concerns they raise about society, questions that Kirk, and Burke before him, addressed more articulately than most. But Casey, whose libertarian credentials are unassailable, offers good reasons for libertarians to consider the importance of the non-political, and even non-rational, elements of our life, without which libertarianism isn’t likely to last for very long.