The political theorist, writer, and thinker Russell Kirk often referred to the need for attention to be squared upon “The Permanent Things,” a term he popularized but that originally came from the poet T.S. Eliot. The recent republication of one of Kirk’s 1957 works, Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, proves that the sage of Michigan was right all of those times that he referred to the “enduring” and “The Permanent Things.” A contemporary bookstore browser who is unfamiliar with Kirk might take time to discover that this book is a republication rather than a newly issued one written by a living author.
Kirk, if he were still alive, would probably remind the reader that he had no supernatural ability to foreknow future events, but rather that the perennial questions of man are recycled through the generations. He would also likely argue that the extreme moral degradation and the mistaken questioning of objective truth that one sees in the present day have been repeated many times in human history. Men continue to fall into the same trap if they do not follow, to use Kirk’s words as he meant them, “the wisdom of their ancestors.” Kirk’s words were prescient not because of prophetic ability, but because truth, morality, and virtue do not change with time.
Kirk’s Concise Guide touches on many topics. This essay will focus on two of these topics: man’s need for community and localized government as the best possible form of governance.
Kirk and Community
Kirk begins from the Aristotelian conception of man as a naturally communal being, and he distinguishes between false “community,” and, as he calls it, “real community.” For Kirk, citizens cannot be fulfilled simply by depending on a large, centralized government bureaucracy, for this interaction does not constitute proper community. “Real community is governed by love and charity, not by compulsion. Through churches, voluntary associations, local governments, and a variety of institutions, conservatives strive to keep community healthy,” writes Kirk.
What is generally offered by contemporary ideologies is false “community.” In this vein, Philip Jeffery observes that many today may sense that men by nature are fulfilled in community, but that they ultimately look for community in the wrong places. As Jeffery notes, identity politics, to which many turn, “falls short in almost every respect: It desires community, but can only offer broad abstractions . . . it desires a connection to history, but only knows clichés about repression and colonialism; it desires solidarity, but can find no basis for it other than the exclusion of ‘privileged’ groups, and so on.”
Kirk understands that true community does not subsist in, to use Jeffery’s words, “broad abstractions.” For Kirk, true community is based on shared affection, which entails mutual care for and duties to the other members. The conservative man, says Kirk, “is just precisely because he looks upon men and women as his brothers and sisters, under a divine commandment of love.”
With the decline of communities in the present day, some—among them a number of the top Democratic Party presidential contenders—are proposing socialist alternatives to the current American order. Again, Kirk rejects the idea that government can substitute for true community. In his view, “the way to a good conscience is through personal charity, personal relationships, and private duties—not, ordinarily, through the mechanical and impersonal functioning of some grandiose state design” (original emphases). Socialist state designs are no exception. For, as Kirk says, “a new and better social order” is created “not by cooperating in the grim process of social collectivization, but by infusing new life into the ancient and well-loved institutions of family, church, and community.”
Kirk and Localism
For Kirk, “political power ought to be kept in the hands of private persons and local institutions. Centralization is ordinarily a sign of social decadence.”
In arguing that local institutions are best able to care for the needs of the people, Kirk is in agreement with the principle of subsidiarity. Kirk sees the local level not only as the best equipped to serve the needs of the people, but also that which best protects their dignity. Kirk writes that “all the ordinary problems of society, except in great emergencies, can be dealt with sufficiently, and most humanely, on the personal, local, voluntary foundation of simple conscience, the sense of duty which good men and women feel toward their fellow creatures.”
The desire for a uniformity of culture that attempts to standardize the United States and erase local cultures found within the nation is not new. Kirk was already seeing these tendencies take root in the 1950s, observing how “real community is detested by the radical social reformer, in our century, who would like to see society forced into a single rigid mold, characterized by central administration, rule through executive decree, uniformity of life, and eradication of all personal and local distinctions.” Indeed, the “radical doctrinaire,” says Kirk, “endeavors to stamp out the vigor of local community, as Hitler tried to do in Germany, and as the Communists have done with dismaying thoroughness in Russia and elsewhere.”
Kirk’s description of the proper administration—that the most localized government or association as possible, which is often the most personal and intimate to people, must carry out as many functions as it possibly can—is as applicable as ever. Kirk argues: “Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, and others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of the citizens, they constitute healthy community.”
The Loss of Localism Causes Real Harms
The loss of community and local government is not simply a theoretical concern. The degradation of community and local government harms people in many ways. Kirk was aware of this fact, and pointed out that following these losses, “private rights and social well-being are in peril.” The problem is moral, too, for “culture and morality,” writes Kirk, “flourish only when local community teaches men and women standards of civilization and decency.” A republic with a population of 329 million people spread over a massive 3.5 million square miles of land area cannot properly teach morality to such diverse and polarized peoples without descending into a totalitarian regime. On its own, a republic of such a size and composition simply cannot nurture virtue in its citizens. As Kirk writes, “a nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed.”
In most instances, local governments are better able to care for the common good of communities. In the current system, governmental layers are already too large, which results in friction between peoples. For instance, in California, there are sharp differences between the core urban territory and what has been called the “Great Red North.” The northern thirteen counties are spread over a full one-fifth of the state, but they hold just 3 percent of the state’s population. The area from Hollywood to Silicon Valley is urban, minority white, economically booming, and politically liberal, with a population that generally votes Democratic. By contrast, the “Great Red North,” which voted for Donald Trump in 2016, is rural, mainly white, struggling economically, and politically conservative, with a population that generally votes Republican.
The residents of this section of Northern California often feel “politically invisible”—and for good reason. The state allocates only one state senator per roughly 931,300 people. County and state senate district maps show that this area mostly straddles two state senate districts (districts 1 and 4), with two of the counties in a third district (district 2), out of a total of 40 districts in the state. The divide is so wide that a secession movement for the area has been active since the nineteenth century and continues to this day. Many farms and ranches in northern California and parts of southern Oregon proudly fly flags of the “State of Jefferson.”
In terms of just this one example of division in the country, the principle here should be clear: Urban communities should not be controlled politically by rural ones, and rural communities should not be controlled by urban ones.
Community and Localized Government Are Necessary for Flourishing
Neither community nor local government, of course, will bring men to complete happiness. As Kirk writes: “We cannot make a heaven on earth, though we may make a hell.”
Kirk’s statement here echoes Thomas Aquinas’s conception of happiness. For Thomas, there are two types of happiness: the best possible worldly happiness (felicitas) and the best possible happiness (beatitudo), which is union with the divine essence in another world. As Thomas argues: “some participation in happiness can be had in this life, but perfect and true happiness cannot.” Yet this reality is lost on some, leading to disastrous effects. As Kirk points out, “This delusion of the possibility of earthly perfection lies behind most socialistic and totalitarian schemes.”
A man’s community shapes him. This shaping is good when the community is good. In this day, most of our communities are far from good, and they shape people in ways that are harmful to their development.
As a result, families must work even harder than they would need to in a healthy society in order to inculcate a sense of virtue in children. As Pius XII wrote: “When churches are closed, when the Image of the Crucified is taken from the schools, the family remains the providential and, in a certain sense, impregnable refuge of Christian life.”
Individualism, the loss of community, and the general deterioration of localized authority threaten human flourishing. As Kirk argues: “Community is essential to freedom, to private rights, and to the whole fabric of the civil social order.” In a nation whose communities have declined, and in a republic in which disagreement on first principles now includes topics that previous generations never thought could be in widespread contention, rebuilding of the moral order will have to occur in local communities. On why local communities and local government must thrive, Russell Kirk provides many of the most enduring arguments. Americans would do well to heed these arguments.