Russell Kirk set out sixty years ago to refresh the minds of his fellow American about the beliefs “we Americans live by.”
First published in 1957, Kirk’s The American Cause maintains its power to refresh our minds about why we love America and what that love requires of us.
The book was not a set of political slogans or a history of American politics. Kirk, who was a columnist for National Review and had become famous as one of the leading lights of the post-war conservative movement after publishing The Conservative Mind, had grown concerned that many of his countrymen were badly prepared for the task of “defending their own convictions and interests and institutions” against enemies both external and internal. Many Americans needed a brief reminder of why their way of life was worth defending.
Kirk organizes his book around three quintessential American principles and how these are put into practice through American institutions and habits. The first is the “moral principle,” which centers around the nature of man and his relation to God. We can see its function in a healthy division between church and state, where tolerance is practiced and religious faith is honored.
The second principle is political, which is based on the concept of ordered liberty and embodied in our constitutional structure of a federal republic with strong states.
The third, however, may be the most interesting for us–in part because it has largely been lost in the intervening years. The economic principle of a “Free Economy” would probably be unrecognizable to many who call themselves conservatives or libertarians today. Here is how Kirk described it:
Now in the economic realm, what is the American cause? It seems to be the defense of an economic system which allows men and women to make their own principle choices in life, which reinforces political liberty, which adequately supplies the necessities of life, which recognizes and guides beneficently the deep-seated human longing for competition and measurable accomplishment. What we call the “free economy” does those these thing.
An economy focused merely on maximum efficiency or productivity is one that has lost its proper focus, according to Kirk. It must also contribute to the maintenance of “a decent society.” An American economy organized as a “free economy” must provide its people with fruitful work, sufficient leisure, and “hopeful competition.”
It will not take much to convince Breitbart readers that our economy has failed this test in recent years. Opening the American market to imports from mercantilist China and low-wage competition from developing nations has devasted large parts of our country. The destructive impact on American manufacturing, in particular, has been far worse than even pessimists foresaw. In many areas of the country, “fruitful work” and “hopeful competition” are more legends than reality, something that might have existed for our ancestors but has not been seen in generations.
Here is how Kirk described the American economy of the 1950s:
A free economy is one in which men and women can make their own choices. They can choose the kind of work they want to do, and where they want to do it. They can buy what they choose, and abstain from what they choose. They can work when they like, within limits, and rest when they like. They can change their occupations and employers and their material circumstances much as they like. These are great benefits: they help to satisfy the fundamental human longing for self-reliance. They make men and women free.
In the name of “free trade,” we killed the free economy. Now, many Americans find their opportunities limited and, if they complain, they are told they should move and take what is on offer in a far-off city. Rather than changing occupations and employers as much as they would like, they find themselves shuffling between low-paying jobs and working whatever hours their employers demand. They cannot buy the things they want but are forced to buy health insurance.
Our men and women are not free. Our economy is not a free economy; it is a servile economy. It more closely resembles the economy of a colony than a free republic.
Kirk praised America of the 1950s because its “wealth is very widely and equitably distributed.”
“Never before, in any civilized society, has there been a greater equality of incomes than there is now in America,” Kirk wrote. “So far as material achievement can satisfy human longings, nevertheless, we Americans have gone further than have any other people; and we have diffused our prosperity more widely throughout our nation.”
The last two decades have seen the process reverse. Prosperity has become concentrated in the hands of the few; inequality of income has risen to mind-bending ratios. This is not unprecedented in the history of civilized society. But it is not an economy built on what Kirk saw as the principles of America.
Kirk did not think the economy of the 1950s was perfect. He warned that prosperity was only the starting place, not the goal.
We have many grave problems. We need to humanize mass production, and to restore craftsmanship and personal accomplishment to work, and to teach ourselves how to make our leisure something better than boredom. We need to infuse into modern industrial life a sense of community and purpose and hope and deep-rooted security.
It was easy enough for those with open minds to hear this idea in the words President Donald Trump spoke on the day of his inaugural. Kirk was describing the economics of American greatness in the 1950s–while Trump was promising to “Make America Great Again” by restoring the institutions and ideas that had been forsaken in the passing decades.
Today, we call this patriotic faith in a free economy “economic nationalism.” Russel Kirk simply referred to it as the economic principle of the American cause.