While Russell Kirk (1918-1994) is properly recognized
for his role in reviving American conservative thought, his ruminations
on economics have received little attention. Yet he gave economics due
consideration, and was a sturdy friend of economic freedom and a foe of
statism. Moreover, because he drew on religion, morality, and a
comprehensive view of human nature, Dr. Kirk achieved important insights
in political economy that a purely economic approach would have missed.
Kirk's starting point was belief in God and a "belief in an order that
is more than human," 1 which rules both society and
individuals. A transcendent God implies that eternal truths exist, that
"human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent."
This conviction that certain norms, or enduring moral
standards, exist was central to Russell Kirk's world view; upholding
them was his life's work. These "Permanent Things - norms of courage,
duty, justice, integrity, charity, and so on - owe their existence, and
authority, to a higher power than social good.
For Kirk, loyalty to the Permanent Things is the
standard for judging individuals, societies, and institutions. "Real
progress consists in the movement of mankind to ward the understanding
of norms, and toward conformity to norms. Real decadence consists in the
movement of mankind away from the understanding of norms, and away from
obedience to norms."3
One of the central elements of Kirk's view of human
nature was his belief in the tenets of orthodox Christianity. Made in
God's image and likeness but fallen and imperfect, man is a mixture of
good and evil. And as a spiritual being, man has deep needs of a
spiritual nature. People are inherently restless, and need challenges
and adversity to keep them and their love of life keen:
Something in human nature seems to call for the
possibility of a real victory in life-and the possibility of a real
defeat. Life is enjoyable only because Hope exists: hope for success of
one sort or another. And hope for success cannot exist without a
corresponding dread of failure. In a very real sense, life is a battle;
we never could be happy were it otherwise. 4
A crucial corollary is that - life without obstacles is
boredom, just as life without purposeful work is infinitely dreary," and
wealth "without duties or challenges" spells lifelong unhappiness.
"Mankind," Kirk warned, "can endure anything except boredom."
5 Without challenges, people turn to mischief and escapes.
Kirk also stressed prudence. Human nature is imperfect,
society is complex and reckless, shortsighted policies may not only
fail, but produce worse evils than they address. Necessary reforms
should be thoughtful and judicious.
Moral Foundations of the Market
These beliefs were the foundation of Kirk's advocacy of
the free-market system. Kirk insisted that economics cannot be separated
from morals and character: "material prosperity depends upon moral
convictions and moral dealings "- specifically, a high degree of
honesty, industry, charity, and fortitude. Intellect, initiative,
shrewdness, vigor, and imagination are also crucial. 6 He
argued that a free economy is the best economic system for encouraging
these characteristics and virtues:
"Ordinary integrity," Edmund Burke wrote, ,'must be
secured by the ordinary motives to integrity." Men and women are
industrious, thrifty, honest, and ingenious, in economic life, only when
they expect to gain certain rewards for being industrious, thrifty,
honest, and ingenious ... the vast majority work principally out of
self-interest, to benefit themselves and their families. There is
nothing wrong with this state of affairs; it is merely a condition of
ordinary human nature. Competition puts a premium on industry, thrift,
honesty, and ingeniousness, for the slothful, the spendthrift, the known
cheats, and the stupid fall behind in the economic contest of free
Like Adam Smith, Kirk held that pursuing self-interest
serves the public interest. Moreover, "Industry, thrift, honesty, and
ingeniousness deserve concrete rewards. A competitive economy provides
these rewards." 8 He argued that free enterprise is not only
useful in rewarding these virtues, but good and just: better than other
economic systems, it encourages loyalty to the Permanent Things.
Similarly, Kirk recognized that "Ability is the factor
which enables men to lift themselves from savagery to civilization."
Like virtues, ability requires rewards-including material rewards. A
society which doesn't reward ability stagnates. 9
With keen insight, Kirk argued that free enterprise
best suits our nature in another way: its competition provides the
struggle against obstacles which true happiness and fulfillment require.
Its freedoms and choices, e.g., of occupation, help meet "the
fundamental human longing for self-reliance. They make men and women
free." 10 Morally, too, competition surpasses other systems.
If ethical and governed by conscience, competition benefits all:
As Samuel Johnson said once, "A man is seldom more
innocently occupied than when he is engaged making money. . . ."
Economically and morally, a competitive system is nothing to be ashamed
of. On the contrary, it provides for human wants, and respects human
freedom, far better than any vague scheme of reliance solely upon
altruism, or any system of forced labor. In essence, it is not
competition which is ruthless; rather, it is the lack of competition
that makes a society ruthless; because in a competitive economy people
work voluntarily for decent rewards, while in a non-competitive economy
a few harsh masters employ the stick to get the world's work done.
Private property too received Kirk's vigorous
endorsement. Besides making the argument that private property is
essential to freedom, 12 Kirk went much further. Property is
a prerequisite of civilization and culture. "Unless property is secure,
there can be no civilized fife; for without the right to keep what is
one's own, and to add to that if possible, there can be no leisure, no
material improvement, no culture worthy of the name." 13
Moreover, property fosters right soulcraft; "it is one
of the most powerful instruments for teaching men and women
responsibility, for providing motives to integrity." 14
Finally, Kirk deemed saving a bulwark of freedom, since
it gives material independence and security, thereby averting servile
dependence on government. In rewarding saving, the market economy
promotes freedom. 15
In sum, Dr. Kirk saw a free economy as the economic
system best suited for promoting loyalty to the Permanent Things he
cherished. But Kirk's endorsement of the market sprang not from
spiritual and moral truths alone. Its other root was a firm grasp of
economic realities. He never forgot Irving Babbitt's wise admonition
that imagination and theorizing should be "disciplined to the facts. "
Like his defense of the free economy, Dr. Kirk's
rejection of statism combined philosophical and economic considerations.
Keenly aware of human imperfectibility and reality's constraints, he
categorically rejected all utopian economic schemes. Utopia, he
reiterated, means Nowhere. Only incremental improvements in the human
condition are possible-and the only real progress is within individual
characters and consciences. 17
Prudence, too, argues powerfully against statism.
"Society is not a machine," Kirk saw, but rather "a delicate growth or
essence," 18 with causality running between economy, society,
and culture in complex ways. Prosperity makes a flourishing culture
possible; but Rome's decline shows that government economic
mismanagement "may undo a high culture." 19 Also, "our
industrial economy, of all systems man ever created, is that most
delicately dependent upon public energy, private virtue, and fertility
of imagination. " 20 Hence the need for caution, lest
government disrupt the economy and exact unforeseen forfeits. For
example, while government cannot create ability, statism can extirpate
it. "The thing has been done before." 21 Better that we not
meddle with things we don't understand.
Furthermore, imperfect people cannot be trusted with
much power. Kirk exploded both statists' moral pretensions and
democratic ideologues' crass error of confusing democracy with liberty:
To say that the "democratic" state would not deprive
anyone of liberty is to play upon words. The democratic state, like any
other, is directed by individuals, with all the failings to which
humanity is heir, especially ... the lust for power. To suppose that the
mass-state would be always just and generous toward its slaves is to
suppose that there would exist, upon all its levels, a class of
philosopher-kings superior to human frailty, purged of lust and envy and
petty ambition. But in modern America we have no such class to draw
upon; indeed, often we seem to be doing what we can to abolish that
sense of inherent responsibility and high honor which compensates a
patriarchal or feudal society for its lack of private
A command economy is not only unfree, it stifles
individual growth: providing for people's wants and making their choices
for them keeps them in "perpetual childhood," thus discouraging "full
development of mind and character." 23
Desire for security inspired much of modernity's drive
to statism, but Kirk warned that swapping freedom for security is "a
devil's bargain." Political freedom, individual rights, and economic
freedom stand or fall together. And once the free market's ordinary
rewards for ordinary integrity disappear, economic performance
inevitably declines. "In the modern industrial world, it really is not
possible to buy economic security at the price of liberty."
24 Since productive work is indispensable, and requires
material rewards as both incentives and rightful "ordinary rewards for
ordinary integrity," Kirk warned especially against excessive taxation.
It not only discourages work but depresses private saving below that
needed to replace and increase capital, thus diminishing production.
25 Likewise, overregulation discourages enterprise,
investment, and production. 26 Dr. Kirk was a scathing critic
of Social Security. Centralized, compulsory, wielding ever-expanding
arbitrary power, it "bears nearly all the marks of a remorseless
collectivism." 27 While acknowledging that some people
wouldn't save on their own, he maintained that it would be better
"morally and economically" to let them make their own mistakes and to
provide voluntary charity, than to embrace forced saving. He argued that
Social Security's stated motive, provision for the poor elderly, is
disingenuous; the real reason for Social Security's expansion is that it
gives the government access to "a vast reserve of money and credit," and
is "disguised taxation," evading opposition to new taxes. 28
Kirk's robust moral denunciation of Social Security, as tyrannical and
mendacious, towers over today's conservatives' ingratiating endorsement
and proposals to "save" it.
One great strength of Kirk's viewpoint is that he
spotted pernicious consequences of statism ramifying in directions which
economists commonly overlook. Not only is the inheritance tax a
confiscatory capital levy, 29 it undermines the natural
aristocracy of wealth and noblesse oblige that provides leadership and
cultural patronage. "No social institution does more to develop decent
leadership and a sense of responsibility than does the inheritance of
large properties, and of the duties that accompany those properties."
30 Furthermore, the inheritance tax weakens the social fabric
by damaging the family's economic base, as "a capital levy
discriminating against family enterprises and partnerships" and
threatening "dissolution of family farms of any extent." 31
Likewise, assessing real property at "speculative
current market values-that is, taxing real property at what it might be
worth if converted to other uses-has encouraged the destruction of
farmland and of farm families in the neighborhoods of growing cities and
towns. " It thus abets urban sprawl and the demise of the farm
population and the farm family, a bulwark of traditional mores.
Inheritance, capital gains, and progressive income
taxation make launching new small businesses out of personal savings,
and maintaining existing ones, extremely difficult. Family businesses
are forced to incorporate, or sell to large corporations 33
Such taxation encourages retail consolidation, thereby abetting loss of
humane scale in retail trade, uglification of towns as old buildings are
razed for less attractive modern ones, and replacement of small
businessmen involved in local life with managers of large impersonal
For Russell Kirk, then, statism was both morally wrong
and, in flouting the realities of economics and human nature,
destructive. Moreover, its corrosive effects on culture, social life,
and character promote "true decadence "-forsaking the Permanent Things.
Order and Liberty
Kirk believed that government has a valid role. Human
nature being what it is, "in any tolerable society, order is the first
need. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is
reasonably secure." 35 Historically, people used government
to establish order. Neither property nor markets can function without
it. Property can exist "only when some form of political order ensures
that a man may keep what is his own." 36 Markets require
protection against theft and fraud; enforcement of contracts; and
reliable weights and measures. "In these and other ways, markets are
made possible by political authorities. Otherwise, buyers and sellers
could not come together to exchange goods safely. Without political
protection, even the most simple market economy would collapse." (Kirk's
italics) Violence and crime plagued the California gold rush until
orderly government was established in 1849. 37
Moreover, Kirk knew the limits and costs of things
economic. Modern controversies, he maintained, overemphasize economics.
The real conflict "is between traditional society, with its religious
and moral and political inheritance, and collectivism" (Kirk's italics).
38 Ultimately, the clash is between "opposing concepts of
human nature. "
His view that people are spiritual beings led Kirk to
maintain that though a prosperous economy is good in itself, "its real
importance is the contribution it makes to our justice and order and
freedom, our ability to live in dignity as truly human persons....
Economic production is merely the means to certain ends." 39
Those ends are "to raise man above the savage level , to make possible
the leisure which sustains civilization and to free man from the
condition of being a simple drudge. " Regarding efficiency as an end in
itself merely duplicates the error of Communism. 40 Kirk
realized better than many of capitalism's other defenders that economic
activity does not occur in a vacuum; free markets require moral,
cultural, and social foundations. Ideas and beliefs govern conduct,
41and exist in a hierarchy. Religious ideas are the most
fundamental: "culture springs from the cult," as does morality.
Morality's primary purpose is "to order the soul and to order the human
community, not to produce wealth. Nevertheless, moral beliefs or
disbeliefs have economic consequences :" 42 "Political
problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems." 43
Thus, capitalism "is a development from certain moral assumptions of
Western civilization" and "can exist and prosper only within a moral
order." 44 Christianity condemns envy, thus helping protect
the market from its enemies. But as religion wanes, envy and blaming
free markets and property for one's frustrations - and therefore statism
- grows. 45
Dr. Kirk's ultimate assessment of free enterprise was
positive, and his outlook cheerful: "there is reason to believe that the
productive market economy will be functioning well a century from now.
The errors of command economies and the blunders of utopian welfare
states have become obvious to a great many people, while Adam Smith
continues to make economic sense." 46
The free economy's foes often argue that there is more
to life than economics. Indeed there is, Dr. Kirk realized-and a free
economy, provided it is operated by humane people, serves humane values
and the Permanent Things best. Defenders of economic freedom would do
well to steep themselves in the wisdom of Russell Kirk.
At the time of the original publication, John Attarian
was a free-lance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
1. Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, rev. ed.
(Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1962), p. 41.
2. Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence (Bryn Mawr,
Pa.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1993), p. 17.
3. Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things:
Observations of Abnormality in Literature and Politics (New Rochelle,
N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969), p. 20.
4. Russell Kirk, The American Cause (Chicago: Henry
Regnery Co., 1957), pp. 100-101.
5. Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a
Half-Century of Literary Conflict (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William
Eerdmans, 1995), p. 412.
6. Russell Kirk, Economics: Work and Prosperity
(Pensacola, Fla.: A Beka Book Publications, 1989), pp. 365-367.
7. Kirk, The American Cause, p. 102.
8. Ibid., p. 103.
9. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, pp. 180-182.
10. Kirk, The American Cause, p. 105.
11. Ibid., pp. 10 1, 104.
12. Russell Kirk, Intelligent Woman's Guide to
Conservatism (New York: The Devin-Adair Co., 1957), pp. 72-73.
13. Ibid., p. 67.
14. Ibid., p. 69.
15. Kirk, Economics, p. 193.
16. Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership
(Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1979), p. 258.
17. See, e.g., Kirk, Intelligent Woman's Guide, pp.
16-17; Reclaiming a Patrimony (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage
Foundation, 1982), p. 9.
18. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, p. 181.
19. Russell Kirk, The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things
Are Written on the Sky (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1987),
20. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, p. 210.
21. Ibid., p. 180.
22. Kirk, Intelligent Woman's Guide, p. 107.
23. Kirk, The American Cause, pp. 106-107.
24. Ibid., p. 107.
25. Kirk, Economics, p. 243.
26. Ibid., p. 244.
27. Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, p. 160.
28. Ibid., p. 161.
29. Kirk, Intelligent Woman's Guide, p. I 10.
31. Kirk, The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are
Written on the Sky, p. 51.
33. Russell Kirk, Confessions of a Bohemian Tory (New
York: Fleet Publishing Corp., 1%3), pp. 267, 272.
34. Ibid., pp. 271-272.
35. Kirk, Politics of Prudence, p. 167.
36. Kirk, Intelligent Woman's Guide, p. 68.
37. Kirk, Economics, pp. 228-231.
38. Kirk, Intelligent Woman's Guide, pp. 9, 106.
39. Kirk, The American Cause, pp. 95-%.
40. Russell Kirk, "Ideology and Political Economy,"
America vol. %, no. 14, January 5, 1957, p. 390.
41. Kirk, The American Cause, pp. 12-14.
42. Kirk, "Capitalism and the Moral Basis of Social
Order," Modern Age, vol. 35, no. 2 (Winter 1992), pp. 101, 102.
43. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 7th rev. ed.
(Washington: Regnery Books, 1986), p. 8.
44. Kirk, "Capitalism and the Moral Basis of Social
Order," p. 102.
45. Ibid., pp. 103-104.
46. Kirk, Economics, p. 368.
Reprinted with permission from The
Freeman, a publication of The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.,
April 1996, Vol. 46, No. 4.