Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
“The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
There’s nothing quite so near and dear to the rhetoric of the Right as disparaging Big Government. Whether it goes by the name of the deep state, the Military Industrial Complex, the Establishment, the Man, the Feds, the Illuminati, lobbyists, big corporations, PACs, the fourth branch of government, bureaucracy, the IRS, FBI, CIA, NSA, CNN, or the ominous “THEY” the Right can conjure up vivid images of some big, powerful, intrusive government behind the scenes, pulling the strings of machinations.
Since conservatives belong to the broadly defined political Right they share this disdain for big government. But the true dividing line between those on the generic Right and the traditional conservative view is whether the aim is to give political control to the “right people” or to disperse that control as far as possible so that neither the “right people” nor the “wrong people” can gain control.
Conservatism may be the only political ism that requires humility; for it professes that the main problem isn’t the Left or big government or any other ism, but human nature itself. And that includes us all. Conservatism isn’t trying to save humanity but trying to deal with the harsh reality humanity cannot save itself. The conservative isn’t the hero or the victim of their own story—they’re just as much a culprit as the next guy. The conservative can no more be trusted with absolute power than anyone else, no matter how much they may believe in the moment they could withstand temptation and wield it only for good. For even if that were true, in a system of absolute central control the transition of power from the benevolent monarch to the bloodthirsty tyrant only requires an assassination—a historical tragedy that has occurred since time immemorial.
And these features—the inability to think of oneself as either a hero or victim, the rude awakening to the idea we are just as much a part of the problem as they, and the unsettling idea that there are no sure investments in the pursuit of a perfectible society—can make conservatism a hard pill to swallow.
Many on the Right have wrongly adopted the idea that conservatism must surely mean the enforcement of a specific, narrow, and exclusive vision of America that resembles red-state culture. The kind that smacks of Southern Baptist potluck dinners, Civil War reenactments, bluegrass and chili festivals, Branson-style entertainment, Blue Lives Matter police officers, gun-toting NRA members, Southern gospel quartets, blue-collar steel workers, large homeschooling families, Christian alternatives to pop-culture, and selfish country-music loving ladies. That’s real America! Hard work, patriotism, and an affinity towards those cultural norms that come from the good ol’ days. That’s what we’re all striving to become if we’re truly a great American!
And yet an authoritarian enforcement of red-state cultural values runs contrary to the original American blueprint of limited government. Government wasn’t supposed to enforce some cultural norm. That’s your job. It is often those who insist the loudest that they are the “true conservatives” who display this tendency towards radicalism. The country is so far gone that the only way to save it from some perceived threat is to instigate a revolution.
Our American ethos is given to revolutionary fantasies, since we are the benefactors of one of the few successful revolutions in history. While most revolutions devoured the revolutionaries and ended with greater tyrants than the tyrants they sought to dispose, our revolution led to an unprecedented miracle of prosperity, liberty, and stability.
Yes, sometimes revolutions are the only way to go. Sometimes the train is so far off the track that the surest way to correct its course is to dynamite the entire apparatus and start anew. How do we know when revolution is preferred to reform? Let’s consider the words of Thomas Jefferson in this excerpt of the Declaration of Independence:
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
In summary, the proper time for revolution is when the government becomes destructive to the liberty and consent of the people after all other prudent measures have been exhausted. When is it prudent? Ah, there’s the rub. Jefferson once infamously surmised that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thankfully, he was in the minority among the Founding Fathers in terms of how quickly he believed “prudent measures” had been exhausted. It would seem self-evident that when it would be prudent should be determined by those who are themselves prudent; those who have shown self-restraint, a steady hand, and are not given to radical, ideological, and dogmatic revolutionary impulses.
The Founders gifted us with two pillars on which to build a new nation: the Declaration and the Constitution. While the former provided the justification for abolishing governments through revolution, the latter provided a mechanism for reforming government without resorting to revolutionary upheaval. From a certain point of view, you might say that America undergoes a soft-revolution every election cycle, as prescribed by the Constitution.
It is my contention—my fear, actually—that American’s share a skewed idealism about the prospects of revolution bringing about the changes we desire. Even a bloodless revolution such as the proposal for a Convention of the States, in which “the people” modify the Constitution to get those establishment politicians to behave, is problematic. I have serious doubts there are enough Jeffersons, Adams, Washingtons, Madisons, and Hamiltons among the same electorate that settled on Trump and Hilary in the last presidential election to somehow “improve” our current situation.
Regardless of how hopeless you might think our current situation to be, it doesn’t follow that radical revolution will restore liberty, order, and political representation. Even for a cause as laudable as “liberty” revolution may be dangerous. “In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power,” observed Russell Kirk. “But power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. That power which the revolutionaries had thought oppressive in the hands of the old regime became many times as tyrannical in the hands of the radical new masters of the state.”
Kirk’s political superhero, Edmund Burke, echoed similar sentiments: “A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community, in some hands, and under some appellation. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear.” As we discussed in Part 1, the desire for power is universal; so is the natural tendency to attempt to shift power from the “wrong people” to the “right people” when one perceives their interests to be at stake.
One may rightly see the dangers inherent in one form of authoritarianism only to seek a remedy in another form. The purist who demands absolute despotism (losing all faith in humanity) or absolute democracy (placing all faith in humanity) is more alike than they are dissimilar. Both are seeking to right the wrongs of this world out of desperation and a desire to control the situation. It was G. K. Chesterton who observed a certain desperation of control for the despot:
“It is when men begin to grow desperate in their love for the people, when they are overwhelmed with the difficulties and blunders of humanity, that they fall back upon a wild desire to manage everything themselves. Their faith in themselves is only a disillusionment with mankind. They are in that most dreadful position, dreadful alike in personal and public affairs—the position of the man who has lost faith and not lost love. This belief that all would go right if we could only get the strings into our own hands is a fallacy almost without exception, but nobody can justly say that it is not public-spirited. The sin and sorrow of despotism is not that it does not love men, but that it loves them too much and trusts them too little.”
Despotism is hardly a catchy “ism” in Western civilization. Democracy is. And while a certain quantum of democracy is desirable and necessary for a free society, democracy left unfettered can destroy any society. A purist pursuit of democracy is the belief that “the people” must surely mean whatever form of populism those advocating expanded democracy currently find favorable. Radical democracy is tyranny of the majority—the brutal oppression of minorities.
“What is called public opinion, instead of being the united opinion of the whole community, is, usually, nothing more than the opinion or voice of the strongest interest, or combination of interests; and, not infrequently, of a small, but energetic and active portion of the whole,” wrote Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind. Kirk continues, “Illusions of direct democracy lead to direct tyranny. The franchise should be the privilege of citizens whose stake in the commonwealth, and whose moral character, to some extent lift them above the temptations of power to which corrupt human nature is terribly susceptible.” So as not to belabor the point, let me direct the reader to the We the People series I wrote on the subject for some light summer reading.
In both the case of despotism and pure democracy the desire for power is the same; only the mechanism—to give control to one or the majority—is different. For a truly free, just, and ordered society to exist we must find a middle way between the two that recognizes both humanities capacity for good but desire for evil; a method for disbursing the concentration of power. In Part 3 we will explore why governments tend towards this “concentration.”