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The issue of freedom and liberty served—rather needlessly from the perspective of hindsight—as a nasty sticking point between libertarians and conservatives in the 1940s and 1950s. Each side desired freedom and liberty (I’m using them here as roughly interchangeable terms), of course, but one side believed liberty absolute and abstract, the other considered it earned only through struggle and tradition, understood in its historical and cultural contexts.

From this division, scholars of the 1950s viewed the past in a rather Manichean way. One could either ally oneself with Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson on the one side or with Edmund Burke or Alexander Hamilton on the other. That is, one either embraced the abstract liberty or the manly order.

Of course, this begs a question regarding two other heroes of the right.
What could one possibly do with men such as Adam Smith or Alexis De Tocqueville?

Libertarians especially attacked Kirk for his views (as witnessed in the secret notes from Rothbard, published on this site a couple of days ago, courtesy of The most vehement attack on Kirk from the Right, though, came from Frank S. Meyer.

“Only the principles of individual freedom—to Dr. Kirk the ‘conservatism of desolation’—can call a halt to the arch of collectivism. The New Conservatism [a 1950s term for Kirk’s thought; no relation to present-day neocons], stripped of its pretensions, is, sad to say, but another guide for the collectivist spirit of the age.” [Frank Meyer, “Collectivism Rebaptized,” The Freeman (July 1955)]

Meyer had simplified Kirk’s arguments to a gross degree, as Kirk was far more nuanced than Meyer allowed. Kirk’s subtleties, Meyer complained, were merely symptomatic of the Michiganian’s rhetorical thinking rather than his rational thinking.

Throughout forty years of professional writing, Kirk never came to a firm conclusion regarding the question of whether order or freedom trumped the other. During some of his career, he emphasized liberty, during other times he emphasized order, but never one at the expense of the other.

In the following excerpts, Kirk wrestles out loud with one of the most important issues of his day. Just as the question of order and liberty presents a problem in understanding Kirk’s thought, so it presents a problem for all of us on the Right today.

It should be noted that Kirk does embrace a theory of natural rights, but he does so in a way that would not be recognizable to most adherents of that doctrine today.

Please enjoy a little Kirk from 1956.

All of the following quotes come from: Russell Kirk, “Conditions of Freedom,” Commonweal (January 13, 1956): 371-373.


“Every right is married to a duty; every freedom owns a corresponding responsibility; and there cannot be genuine freedom unless there is also genuine order in the moral realm and the social realm. Order, in the moral realm, is the realization of a body of transcendent values—indeed a hierarchy of values—which give purpose to existence and motive to conduct. Order, in society, is the harmonious arrangement of classes and functions which guards justice and gives willing consent to law and insurers that we all shall be safe together. Although there cannot be freedom without order, in some sense there is always a conflict between the claims of order and the claims of freedom. We often express this conflict is the competition between the desire for liberty and the desire for security. Although modern technological revolution and modern mass–democracy have made this struggle more intense, there is nothing new about it in essence. President Washington remarked that ‘individuals entering into a society must give up a share of their liberty to preserve the rest.’ But doctrinaires of one ideology or another, in our time, continue to cry out for absolute security, absolute order, or for absolute freedom, power to assert the ego in defiance of all convention. At the moment, this fanatic debate may be particularly well discerned in the intemperate argument over academic freedom. I feel that in asserting freedom as an absolute, somehow divorced from order, we are repudiating our historical legacy of freedom and exposing ourselves to the danger of absolutism, whether that absolutism be what Tocqueville called ‘democratic despotism’ or what recently existed in Germany and now exists in Russia. ‘To begin with unlimited freedom,’ Dostoevski rights in The Devils, ‘is to end without on limited despotism.’” (Page 371)

“It is quite possible for man, in ancient or modern times, to be materially prosperous, and freed from the necessity of choice, and yet servile. It is also possible that he may suffer no outrageous oppression. But he must always lack one thing, this servile man, and that is true manhood, the dignity of man. He remains a child; he never comes into man’s birthright, which is the pleasure and the pain of making one’s own choices.” (Page 372)

“Liberty, prescriptive freedom as we Americans know it, cannot endure without order. Our constitutions were established that order might make true freedom possible. For all our American talk of private judgment, dissent, and individualism, still our national character has the stamp of a respectful order almost superstitious in its power: respect for the moral traditions inculcated by our religion, and for the prescriptive political forms which we, more than any other people in the world, have maintained little altered in this time when Whirl is King of most of the universe. I think that we would do a most terrible mischief to our freedoms if we ceased to respect our established order and began, instead, to run after an abstract Jacobin liberté—in this age of the triumph of technology, of all times.” (Page 372)

“When most people use the word ‘freedom’ nowadays, they use it in the sense of the French Revolutionaries: freedom from tradition, from established social institutions, from religious doctrines, from prescriptive duties. I think that this employment of the word does much mischief. For we do not live in an age—and there are such ages—which is oppressed by the dead weight of archaic establishments and obsolete custom. The danger in our era, rather, is that the fountains of the great deep will be broken up and that the pace of alteration will be so rapid that generation cannot link with generation. Our era, necessarily, is what Matthew Arnold called an epoch of concentration. Or, at least, the thinking American needs to turn his talents to concentration, the buttressing and reconstruction of our moral and social heritage. This is a time not for anarchic freedom, but for ordered freedom. There are much older and stronger concepts of freedom than that espoused by the French Revolutionaries. In the Christian tradition, freedom is submission to the will of God. This is no paradox. As he that would save his life must lose it, so the man who desires true freedom must recognize a providential order which gives all freedoms their sanction. The theory of ‘natural rights’ depends upon the premise of an on alterable human nature bestowed upon man by God. Only acceptance of the divine order can give enduring freedom to a society; for this lacking, there is no reason why the strong and the clever, the dominant majority or the successful oligarch, should respect the liberties of anyone else. Freedom without the theory of natural rights becomes simply the freedom of those who hold power to do as they like with the lives of those whose interests conflict with theirs.” (Page 373)

“Our problem is how to reconcile respect for true human dignity, personality, with the demands of social cooperation. And that is a most difficult problem. Very few people really are interested in true freedom, in any era; most folk always go for security, secular conformity, and enforced routine, at the price of independence. But the freedom of the few who really deserve freedom—and they are fewer in our time than ever they were before, I am inclined to believe—is infinitely precious; and in the long run, the security and contentment of the whole of humanity depends upon the survival of that freedom for a few. The great danger just now is that, in the name of general security, we shall neglect altogether the claims of the minority who need and deserve freedom. We seem bent on establishing a universal equalitarian domination which will call itself free and democratic, but which will have made existence almost impossible for those natures that seek to obey the will of God and to abjure desire.” (Page 373)

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