Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
“The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
The Law of Conservation of Mass in physics states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. A similar principle applies to political power. The—often unintentional—consequence of depriving one individual or group of power is to divert that power to another individual or group. It may sound laudable to advocate power be taken from our rulers and returned “to the people.” But individual interests are not so easily condensed into a vaguely defined mass of people; and unless “the people” have some mechanism by which they can look after their various competing interests, those who exercise influence and authority over the masses will, in effect, become the people’s new rulers.
Whenever Dr Despot is overthrown by “the people” it creates an opportunity for Anarchy Man wreak havoc. When “the people” chose a new hero to rid them of Anarchy Man that new leader quickly becomes—SPOILER ALERT!—the next Dr Despot. Far too many “heroes” of “the people” have played the role of Anakin Skywalker. Captain Conservative was the first Luke Skywalker to arrive on the scene.
As we’ve discussed in detail, Captain Conservative used his trusty Limitation Ray and his handy Segregation of Duties Toolbelt to combat the villainous duo. But even with these formidable weapons in his arsenal the deck has always been stacked against Captain Conservative. Political power can never truly be created or destroyed. Even when the seat to the stool is perfectly balanced on the three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—there’s always a risk that Two-Legged Stool Man may arrive on the scene and knock it over.
That’s why Captain Conservative knows that there is only one true weapon that can keep his enemies at bay indefinitely. But unlike his other weapons, Captain Conservative must rely on “the people” to put it into effect. I’m speaking of the Human Passion Inhibitionator; the final tool in Captain Conservative’s arsenal. The Human Passion Inhibitionator doesn’t target would-be tyrants or populous uprisings; rather, it targets the impulses of the “the people,” making them less vulnerable to chaos. You see, it may be impossible to stop Two-Legged Stool Man from upsetting the balance of power forever, but it isn’t impossible to make the stool shorter—thereby ensuring that, should the stool ever topple over, it’s fall won’t be nearly as catastrophic.
In each generation a new hero steps forward to don the cape and spandex costume and assume the Captain Conservative moniker. But the original Captain Conservative’s secret identity was none other than British statesmen Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism. No one understood human nature better than Burke. The British statesman who lived through both the American and French revolutions correctly predicted that Britain's heavy handed policies on the American colonies would lead to rebellion and that the French revolution would yield to violence and chaos. Reading through excerpts from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France certainly leave us with the impression the man had the power to see the future:
While the revolution had begun without much bloodshed, Burke was adamant that would not last: “There must be blood. The want of common judgment manifested in the construction of all their descriptions of force and in all their kinds of civil and judicial authorities will make it flow. Disorders may be quieted in one time and in one part. They will break out in others; because the evil is radical and intrinsic. All these schemes of mixing mutinous soldiers with seditious citizens, must weaken still more and more the military connection of soldiers with their officers, as well as add military and mutinous audacity to turbulent artificers and peasants.”
Elsewhere Burke describes how the newly formed republic, which had retained their king but stripped him of all power, wouldn’t stop there—“This relation of your army to the crown will, if I am not greatly mistaken, become a serious dilemma in your politics”—this “serious dilemma” led to the execution of King Louis XVI.
Perhaps most notably, Burke correctly predicted that the revolution would eventually end in military dictatorship (Napoleon): “In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understand the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master; the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your assembly, the master of your whole republic.”
What gave Burke such uncanny, prophetic insight? A time machine? Super powers? No. It was nothing more than a brilliant understanding of human nature. Burke understood human nature so well that he was able to foresee the dangers inherent in radical political philosophies. In Burke’s day revolutions in the name of liberty and the rights of men were all the rage. Anarchy Man would laugh, “that revolution’s so hot right now.” And yet Burke was a staunch opponent of much of the revolutionary spirit of the age. How could the Father of Conservatism be against liberty you ask?
“What is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue?” Burke questioned, “It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.” Burke viewed liberty like a firefighter views fire: wonderful when constrained, destructive when let go. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but there simply is no better source for understanding the conservative heart on the matter. This passage below illustrates the exact problem we encounter when Dr Despot is vanquished in the name of liberty:
“Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it; and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves: and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.”
Burke was warning that holding liberty as the supreme virtue with no thought to restraints upon the passions of the individual was reckless. “To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.”
Lady Libertarian, Classical Liberal Boy, and many on the political Right are strong advocates of liberty. But Captain Conservative seeks first a virtuous citizenry capable of self-governing, while others advocate limiting government irrespective of the capacity of the citizenry to handle the responsibilities that follow such a limitation. Captain Conservative may hold Dr Despot and Anarchy Man at bay with his Limitation Ray and Segregation of Duties Toolbelt, but only the Human Passion Inhibitionator can secure a liberty that doesn’t descend into chaos led by our base human nature. In fact, as the power of government is limited it becomes all the more important each citizen learn the fine art of self-governance—an art that is not equally attainable by every individual or culture.
As we explored in Part 1, no one is good enough or wise enough to be entrusted with ultimate power. The closer one comes to having their every whim and desire fulfilled, the more likely they are to abuse that authority as their natural appetite becomes less and less inhibited. “Why does power corrupt so many people?” Asked Jonah Goldberg. “The way I see it, power—money, fame, celebrity, authority, or some mix of them all—lowers the cost of indulging human nature.”
The United States was the first to experiment with the idea of self-governance on such a grand scale. Prior self-rule existed in the form of city/states in ancient Greece and renaissance Italy. Never before had such an audacious experiment in relinquishing control of Dr Despot and passing it to the average citizen across a vast confederacy of colonies of various cultures, populations, and interests been attempted. Without the interference of Dr Despot, what was to hold such a society together? Would people simply choose to live in peace and harmony with one another, curbing their own personal or group interests for the sake of the country as a whole?
Much as we may think our Founders were likeminded, there was fierce disagreement in how this new nation would be able to sustain self-governance. “[Thomas] Jefferson wished to emancipate men from external control,” wrote Russell Kirk, “But he never understood, as Burke knew, how power without and power within always must remain in ratio; so that every diminution of power on the part of the state, unless it is to result in injury to society, should be accompanied by an increase of self-control in individuals.” Power cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be constrained. And the more power that’s transferred from Dr Despot to the average citizen, the more incumbent it is on each citizen to constrain their desires.
What then is needed to prevent individuals from giving over to their base appetites? That is THE question of the ages and the central challenge Captain Conservative has always faced. Our ancestors recognized that the selflessness necessary to sustain a free society was extraordinarily unnatural and required great effort to cultivate. They believed in a multi-pronged offensive against our appetites, which included the family, local community, sound philosophy and logical reasoning, and, most important of all, religious zeal.
“Good will is not enough to safeguard freedom and justice: this delusion leads to the triumph of every demagogue and tyrant, and no amount of transplanted Idealism can compensate for the loss of religious sanctions,” warned Russell Kirk, “Men’s passions are held in check only by the punishments of divine wrath and the tender affections of piety. The sovereignty of God, far from repressing liberty, establishes and guarantees freedom; authority is not the antagonist of liberty, but its vindicator.” And, in the Western tradition, that sovereignty of God is viewed through the lens of Christianity.
I don’t want to be misunderstood here—I do not mean that a free society can only persist if it is a “Christian” society filled with those who profess a Christian faith. I mean that a free society can only persist if it is built upon a religious worldview that is capable of both speaking to the transcendental yearnings of the human heart and offering a moral framework of confession, forgiveness, and selflessness. The Judeo-Christian heritage is the only framework that has worked to this end, which is why men like Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, Irving Kristol, Roger Scruton, and Jordan Peterson—none of whom are or were Christians—have fiercely defended the church as a necessary institution in a free society.
Russell Kirk continues, “Conservative thinkers believe that man is corrupt, that his appetites need restraint, and that the forces of custom, authority, law, and government, as well as moral discipline, are required to keep sin in check.” This idea is foreign or even hostile to much of the rhetoric on the Right and underscores the rift between Captain Conservative and his allies Lady Libertarian and Classical Liberal Boy, who scoff at the notion we should restrain our appetites.
“In the libertarian free-for-all what is worst in human nature enjoys an equal chance with what is best, and discipline is repudiated as a meddlesome intrusion. Conservatism is the attempt to affirm that discipline, and to build, in the space of free association, a lasting realm of value,” wrote Roger Scruton. Captain Conservative knows that freeing the individual from the shackles of Dr Despot or the burden of Anarchy Man is only half the battle. Once freed, it’s up to the individual to choose a life of virtue or vice, and Captain Conservative can’t bear the thought that we’re simply not supposed to have a preference what life the individual chooses.
There is far more at stake here than the collapse of a free society. For the individual who, upon experiencing freedom from external force, embraces their base appetites emerges more enslaved than ever. The worse Dr Despot and Anarchy Man could do was rob the individual of their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Those who are not careful to apply the Human Passion Inhibitionator to their daily lives have been robbed of something far greater—their humanity. “This power, peculiar to man, of invoking a check upon the impulses of sense, even upon the impulses of reason, is what makes him human. The surrender…to desire, the surrender…to avarice, end in the dehumanization of our race,” concluded Russell Kirk.
Captain Conservative has bravely fought many a foe and won. His powers are so vast and awesome that the mere mention of his name sends chills down Dr Despot’s spine. He’s been known to keep Anarchy Man awake at nights. And yet Captain Conservative isn’t the most powerful hero of this story. The most powerful hero is the individual who has learned to conquer their own base appetite. For whoever possesses the power of self-control is the most powerful of all.