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5-IMG_3747In this article, “The Trap of Disintegrated Liberalism,” Russell Kirk challenged an argument advanced by an economist, Professor Bruce Knight, who seems to have defended a twentieth-century conception of “Social Justice.” I have not found Knight’s original piece.

When writing or speaking of liberal utilitarianism, Kirk frequently used the dismissive term, as Gleaves Whitney first pointed out to me, “defecated rationality.” By employing only “disintegrated liberalism” in this Faith and Freedom rebuttal, Kirk must have possessed some respect for Knight as being merely mislead by an improper reading of Christian social thought. He could not have been a full-blown utilitarian, or he would have suffered from “defecated rationality.”

“The Trap of Disintegrated Liberalism,” never reprinted in any form since its 1954 publication, offers us a nice peak into Kirk’s views on the traditional meaning of justice. In the article, Kirk rather strongly challenged a Christianity that institutionalized charity through the mechanism of the state as neither virtuous for the soul nor for the society as a whole.

True love, Kirk argued here and elsewhere, comes only from a submission of the will, one person freely giving to another person.  Only slightly less important to Kirk’s overall contention, state-enforced welfare always damaged social stability and the attenuated the long-term endurance of a society.

Though short lived, Faith and Freedom presented a form of Christian libertarianism in the mid 1950s.  While this is not Kirk’s best expression of a traditional understanding of justice, the article does hit a nice tone, intellectually and stylistically. It also shows Kirk’s more anti-government side, foreshadowing what Friedrich Hayek would develop more fully in his 1970s trilogy, Law, Liberty, and Legislation. Kirk even came close to calling some “taxation mere theft.”

The following excerpts come from Russell Kirk, “The Trap of Disintegrated Liberalism,” Faith and Freedom (June 1954): 17-22.

“I think that Mr. Knight, with the best will in the world, is invoking the dogmas of doctrinaire individualism to bring about practical collectivism. I do not want to live in either world; I do not relish the concept of society which looks upon us as so many isolated economic units governed by your self–interest, nor yet the concept of society as an equalitarian tapioca–putting.” (Page 18)

“He thinks that it is a chief function of the state to ‘equalize opportunities’; and this will be accomplished, presumably, by taking away from the prosperous and giving to the poor until all opportunities are equal—what ever that may mean. I do not know, for my part, how we are to draw a line of demarcation between ‘opportunity’ and ‘attainment,’ or how a mere grant of money can bring men and women equality of opportunity. The real causes of inequality, in nine cases out of ten, are differences of intelligence, strength, swiftness, dexterity, beauty, perseverance, and other physical and moral qualities. How can money provide equal ‘opportunity’ in this competition? Are we to give an extra–large grant to a stupid man, or an ugly woman?” (Page 18)

“I do not believe it would be just, in classical or in Christian eyes, to enforce ‘equality of opportunity’ upon us; for this benevolent folly would deny us the high freedom of being ourselves. Most of us do not want to be equal to everybody else, and cannot hope to be: to establish a ‘right’ to such ‘opportunity’ would simply stir up a complex of in these and senseless ambitions that no amount of money could satisfy.” (Page 19)

“The question is one of degree and method. But we need to remember that Christianity looks upon poverty as no evil, and inequality as no evil, and obscurity as no evil, and even physical suffering as no evil. These things, indeed, may be positive advantages if we employ them for the improvement of soul and the inculcation of obedience to God. Thus it is that, to the understanding Christian, charity is a benefit to the giver, more than to the man who receives; it is an opportunity for the sacrifice of self in obedience to the ordinances of God. The great merit of true charity, therefore, is that it is voluntary or—a deliberate act of will. If someone snatches our money from us and gives it to a beggar, we are not being charitable and neither is the interloper: it is no virtue to be liberal with someone else’s money.” (Page 20)

“If our money is taken from us in taxes, that is no credit to our hearts; indeed, such compulsion may harden hearts to the very idea of personal and private charity. And the man who receives a state distribution of money as a right, from an abstract central authority, will not feel gratitude. Why should he? And how could he? We can not love abstractions, really; we can love only particular persons.” (Pages 20–21)

“Our traditional concept of taxation, which still visibly influences our legislative bodies, is that taxation is a voluntary grant by free citizens to provide for their common benefit. If we abandon this principle altogether we shall have gone a great way toward abandoning liberal political institutions.” (Page 21)

“Christian thinkers always have known that man is a creature of mingled good and evil, frequently very weak of will, easily misled, and in need of the guidance of good men. Man does not exist by pure rationality; he is governed, much more commonly, by immediate appetite, and he cannot possibly be expected to perceive even his own remote self–interest.” (Page 21)

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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3 replies to this post
  1. The photo, by the way, comes from Kirk's ancestral home at Piety Hill, Mecosta, Michigan. I don't know the story behind it–only that Annette refers to it as "The Dancing Girl." Many such eccentricities adorn the Kirk home.

  2. Brad, the Dancing Girl looks to be a 19th C ship's figurehead, probably a replica from the fellow who made the gargoyles outside under the eaves of Piety Hill. Fiberglass gargoyles: who says that we conservatives cannot accommodate modernity!

    Thanks for the piece. When I think of all the sensible arguments against state welfare, Dr Kirk's argument from Christianity and benefit to the giver is rare and compelling. That grinding, whirring sound that you hear is Ayn Rand rotating in her coffin (fast enough to generate about 10 mw I should imagine).

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Brad. This lays out the important point that "giving" through the instrument of taxation is not a moral act of compassion at all, neither for the one who gives nor the one who receives. And beyond that, it isn't effective, either.
    It is interesting, however, to see that in the politically liberal mindset the two are equated. Charitable giving of liberals is significantly lower than conservatives, particularly for the non-churchgoing. (see Arthur Brooks' book "Who Really Cares?)
    Love the term "defecated rationality." I'm looking for an opportunity to drop it in, so to speak.

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