Russell Kirk’s Third Conservative Principle: Prescription

In our continual quest to uncover what conservatism actually is, we are going to move on to the Third Principle of The Ten Conservative Principles of Russell Kirk. While the actual definition of conservatism is bantered about by columnists and opinion shapers, Kirk’s principles can help steer the conversation in the right direction.

Kirk writes:

Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.

This does require a little bit more definition, which Kirk provides, because I don’t know that we are all necessarily working from the same definition of prescription. Kirk goes on to say, “Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary.”

In short, conservatives care about time-honored traditions that are running reasonably effectively because they serve as a check against the irrational passions of the moment. Consider the left’s current obsession with democratic socialism. It is certainly something that many are passionate about, but the West has a long tradition of embracing capitalism. This is not to say that we have rejected all aspects of socialism or executed the perfect capitalistic system, but when you look at Western civilization as a general rule, our tradition has been to embrace capitalism and reject socialism.

The conservative looks at this current historical moment and recognizes that there very well might be a good reason that we have traditionally rejected socialism. Perhaps we have realized the unprecedented prosperity created by capitalism and realized that taking advantage of the power of the market and of competition is good. We don’t emotionally dive after alternatives. Instead, we respect tradition.

Like I suggested when we looked at Kirk’s Second Principle, conservatives are not opposed to progress when it is consistent with the higher moral order. However, conservatives should also refrain from automatically jumping to emotional reasoning. It is far wiser to weigh any new ideas against the balance of historical evidence. There are times when the human race has been wrong for centuries. The other day, I spoke about the evil of the slave trade and William Wilberforce’s heroic efforts to end it in the British Empire. That was a time when human tradition had deviated from the higher moral order, and progress closer to that far superior moral order was remarkably beneficial and tragically long-overdue. Progress was made, and rightly so, by abolishing the slave trade. This post should not be read as a polemic against progress in all situations.

Conservatives ought to be people of prescription. We ought to be people who don’t just run to the contrary of the status quo automatically or recklessly. Instead of rash decisions, we should celebrate reason and respect for history. When things do need to be changed to correct that which is against the enduring moral order, we make those changes. However, change for the sake of change alone is to be avoided.

Perhaps I am oversimplifying the brilliance of Russell Kirk by reducing this entire Principle to a cliché, but what this tells me is that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If something has been around for a long time and has been working pretty effectively, consistent with the enduring moral order, then conservatives think long and hard before changing what is already in practice.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the remainder of the series.

Russell Kirk’s First Conservative Principle: An Enduring Moral Order

Russell Kirk’s Second Conservative Principle: Custom, Convention, and Continuity

Russell Kirk’s Third Conservative Principle: Prescription

Russell Kirk’s Fourth Conservative Principle: Prudence

Russell Kirk’s Fifth Conservative Principle: Variety

Russell Kirk’s Sixth Conservative Principle: Imperfectability

Russell Kirk’s Seventh Conservative Principle: Freedom and Property Are Closely Linked

Russell Kirk’s Eighth Conservative Principle: Voluntary Community

Russell Kirk’s Ninth Conservative Principle: Restraints upon Power and upon Human Passions

Russell Kirk’s Tenth Conservative Principle: Permanence and Change


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