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Bill Campbell Tribute to Russell Kirk

“An Economist’s Tribute to Russell Kirk”

William F. Campbell

Originally appeared in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 1994

Reprinted by Permission of The Intercollegiate Studies Institute


Russell Kirk loved to quote the one passage from Edmund Burke which has found its way into the economist’s books of quotations: “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.”


Would Russell have wished to be praised by an economist? This economist shares Russell’s predilection for the glory of Europe and the Gods of the Copybook Headings and I am definitely not a calculator; whether I am a Sophist, I will leave it up to others more wise than myself to determine. But whether he would like it or not, I come to praise Russell.


To be an economist does not necessarily disqualify one for the job of praising others. The words esteem and estimation come from the Greek word, time, for honor. There are clear grounds for esteeming Russell Kirk’s life and work. He was a worthy in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott who wrote till the end in defense of the good old cause of liberty and virtue. But should we worship Russell? This sounds blasphemous, but as Orestes Brownson reminded us, the Anglo-Saxon word, weorthscipe from which we derive worship “means simply the state or condition of being worthy of honor, or respect, or dignity, or excellence to someone–literally, to honor, it may be God, the magistrate, or simply any man for his office, station, acquirements, or virtues.” Russell never held office or high station, but his acquirements and virtues are enough to make him a worthy and more than his usual simple obedient servant.


Russell might have been embarrassed by such adulation and would immediately have pointed out that Brownson made all the necessary distinctions between rendering supreme worship to God alone and the worship of finite human things.


Perhaps the best way to praise Russell Kirk would be to describe the impact he has had on my intellectual life. I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a Christian libertarian home. The external indoctrination which my father inflicted upon us in season and out of season was mainly economic and free market rather than traditionalist conservatism. The latter was taken for granted in a decent Midwestern home at that time, and it was the former which needed explaining and justifying since economics was abstract and not simple. Every Sunday after church, we would go to the Hawthorne Room in Indianapolis for lunch. My father took the liberty of using the waiting time to read from the Freeman and Human Events or even occasionally the poetry of E. Merrill Root.


I also had the good fortune that my father’s law partner was Pierre Goodrich. Although I had little personal contact with Pierre, when I graduated from Shortridge high school, he took the idea of commencement literally. He gave me a copy of Mises’ Human Action among other books. I immediately was stumped by the word praxeology, but then I was probably not the first who could not find it in a dictionary. I fell in love with Austrian economics and the lucidity of Ludwig von Mises. Whatever small shred of reason and analysis I still maintain is due in large part to Mises. Balanced against these libertarian influences was a first edition of Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind which my father had lying around the house. The appeal of Russell Kirk was different from the rigorous analysis of the Austrians. Here I was captivated not by rational systems, but by Russell’s imagination and beautiful prose style which showed that conservatives could have a heart and soul as well as a mind.


Keeping all these disparate intellectual influences in balance has been the story of my life, but as a general rule, economists and Russell Kirk usually observe a respectful distance. There are intelligible, if not good, reasons for this. Most modern economists are model builders and analyzers who pride themselves on parading professionally without their moral clothes on. Russell, to my knowledge, at least in public, was always fully clothed. If economists–including here Mises and Hayek–like to parade without their moral clothes on, some are better looking than others. Kirk knew that Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek were the Lady Godiva’s of the science. They did not suffer from the hubris of the technocrats and knew the limitations of human reason.


Both Mises and Hayek were in Kirk’s Conservative Mind. But, from the first to the seventh edition it is significant that the number of bibliographical entries to Mises dropped from three to one. Kirk knew well enough that when he dealt with an F.A. Hayek or a Ludwig von Mises, he should be respectful of their analytic powers. But he always kept his critical hat on. In both cases there was libertarian or individualist baggage which he could not accept. Kirk’s model economist was Wilhelm Roepke to which I shall return later.


Russell Kirk continued to play a role in my family beyond the reading of his books. The personal influence of Russell was mediated in my family through the impact of Don Lipsett and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Then as well as now, they were adept at balancing the demands of the traditionalists and libertarian impulses that comprise the effective conservative movement. A tribute to Don’s skill is the fact that he could have a close personal relationship with both a Russell Kirk and a Milton Friedman.


At this time in the 1950s my father met Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Henry Regnery. After my father died, I came across a couple of undated index cards which he used to introduce a talk by Russell Kirk at a conservative forum in Indianapolis organized by Don Lipsett when he was the Midwestern Director of ISI. As my father worked into the introduction of Russell, he told a story of his attempt to verify the rumor that Archduke Otto von Hapsburg considered Russell the world’s greatest living scholar. He wrote a cable to his and my dear friend, Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. The cable read, “Otto Von Hapsburg has stated that Russell Kirk is the greatest living scholar in this country. Is this true?” The response came back, “The answer is ‘NO’. You people have an adopted son from Austria who is in 1st place. Modesty prevents me from naming him. But my friend Russell Kirk is in 2nd place–this is good because he will try harder. Herr Erik.” The story may be apocryphal, but it reveals my father’s wonderful sense of humor; it could be true of Herr Erik. Whether Herr Erik or Russell Kirk get the laurel for scholarship, I will leave in the lap of the Gods.


Aside from many specific intellectual friends that I met in The Conservative Mind, I knew, reluctantly, at that time that I could never be a pure libertarian. I say, reluctantly, because even as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Minnesota in the early 60s I knew that I was attracted to the positive-normative distinction (really, the fact-value distinction, but I did not know it at the time) for some good and some not-so-good reasons. The good reasons might have been something like an austere dedication to scientific method and rigor, no sentimentality or sloppy thinking for me. That was part of my Mises’ heritage.


The bad reasons, which I suspect were more important than the good reasons, was that I liked the relativistic implications of the positive-normative distinction as it was misused by the economists. It was not that I was so great or notorious a sinner, but I knew that if I wanted to be one, I could avoid all discussion of the tough issues if they ever came up. How easy it is to avoid conflict by pontificating–“Oh, well, that’s just your opinion.” Since everyone else wanted to play the same game, it worked. It never occurred to me that one could give good grounds for some opinions and not others. It took strong doses of Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin to intellectually wean me from philosophy parading as methodology. But if it had not been for the imaginative moral vision transmitted to me by Kirk in the Conservative Mind, I would never have made it to the political philosophers. The wholeness and completeness of real human beings living in a particular culture and at a particular time was Kirk’s forte. He was fond of quoting Burke’s “I must see the things; I must see the men.” He did not
worship at the shrine of the God of Abstraction. The naked public square would have been seen by him as the prelude to the austere public squares of the French Revolution with only the guillotine to adorn them.


G.K. Chesterton, one of Russell’s heroes, once said of Leonardo da Vinci, “Leonardo could take it to pieces but also put it together again.” The economists have the virtue of the analytic half of Leonardo but not the second
synthetic half. Russell’s strong suit was keeping it altogether. The spirit of synthesis allowed him consistently to favor free markets, private property, competition, and at the same time to champion virtue. He did not absolutize the institutions of the marketplace or find them self-justifying. Some have found Kirk to be fuzzy and it is true that he did not aspire to a more geometrico style. But I never found Kirk inconsistent or logically contradictory. He was nuanced and textured as they say in literary circles. It is probably more precise to say that his concerns were not economic postulates of self-interest or utility maximization which are favored by economists, but moral-laden goods such as character and public decency. What might a conservative political economy look like which would incorporate these more expansive goods for human beings? One of the phrases from Burke that has stayed with me over my scholarly life is the “unbought grace of life.” Kirk was always reminding economists that there were things in this world which could not be bought or sold. There were limits to the economic calculus or the triumph of the will. Markets are not the determinants of true value or the good, but only of things which are merchandisable.


Wilhelm Roepke was Kirk’s favorite economist precisely because he did his economics within the full light of this limitation. In fact, Kirk was responsible for the title Humane Economy used for the translation of one of Roepke’s more important books, the title of which if literally translated would have been, Beyond Supply and Demand.


Roepke was the only economist of the 20th century who was a Leonardo da Vinci in the Chestertonian sense discussed earlier. He could take the economy or society to pieces with rigorous analysis, but also put it back together again. He never lost the firm foothold in moral philosophy and common sense distinctions which Russell considered so important. Russell reviewed Roepke’s work in a very provocative article comparing Roepke to Mises, Hayek, and W.A. Orton–“The New Humanism of Political Economy” in The South Atlantic Quarterly, 1953.


Russell continued to refer to Roepke in later essays, publications, and speeches, including an address which he gave to the Heritage Foundation in 1989. Recently, in fact, Russell was invaluable in helping Ralph Ancil found the Wilhelm Roepke Institute to promote and promulgate the ideas of a humane political economy.


But Russell was not content to admire an occasional economist from afar. He went so far as to write an elementary economics textbook. Of all things–for Kirk to have writen a really good economics textbook is most shocking to the economist! There are probably not more than one or two economists who have read Kirk’s Economics: Work and Prosperity which is one or two more than are alleged to have read Smith’s Wealth of Nations from cover to cover. But it is a good first book in economics which even professional economists can read to their advantage. Characteristically Kirk reflects on the moral foundations of a market economy and capitalism. He explicitly deals with moral themes which economics is only beginning to address such as emulation versus envy, trust, and integrity. He stresses the importance of intelligence and not just dessicated formal rationality of well-ordered preference maps–this reflects the thinking of William Mallock.

In this single volume he introduces the student to an intelligent discussion of American economic history by using the Pilgrims at Plymouth, the story of the du Pont family, and Henry Ford whom he personally met and worked for at Dearborn, Michigan. At the same time the student gets a subtle introduction to Hesiod, Aesop, Midas, St. Paul, and the virtues of the Dutch.

Having provided a short sketch of the legacy of Russell Kirk for economists, the question arises, how do we extend it? What is the unfinished business from the agenda of Russell Kirk. From The Conservative Mind I developed a healthy respect for Edmund Burke to whom political economists have never done justice. On the scholarly side, I now see that my proper life’s work ahead of me includes a careful study of Burke’s political economy. I only wish that Russell could have been alive to guide me through these troubled waters.

One of Russell’s few criticisms of Burke revolved around Burke’s seeming approval of the enclosure movement. Exploration of such issues as the property rights issues could nicely draw together Chesterton, Cobbett, Burke, and the Southern Agrarians. The key element in this strange melange of radicals, democrats, and natural aristocrats is respect for the common sense intelligence of men and women rooted in the soil and/or small businesses. The best exemplary of a Kirkian approach in the social sciences is the approach of intelligent anthropologists like Grace Goodell. In fact, her tribute to Russell Kirk at the Dearborn meetings of the Philadelphia Society was the most riveting presentation to this observer because it took the spirit of Kirk’s work, the respect for the dignity and worth of ordinary persons, and applied it to new and uncharted areas for most conservatives.

But whatever work scholars do intellectually, they must simultaneously adopt the organizational spirit of the Russell Kirk enterprise. Alternatives to the current academic behemoth must be created in small cells as the Kirks have done in Mecosta. He has touched so many lives for good by the influence of his seminars. But there must be more cells and nodes of growth in these United States where the truth is pursued, preserved, and propagated. We have lost Russell’s direct personal impact which was an enormous influence on young scholars, but we have not lost the authority of his example.

He took arms against seas of troubles and never wavered in his fight against injustice and stupidity. He enlisted the energy of his wife, family, and countless friends to carry on the fight and carry on they will. It is our duty to keep the flame of Mecosta lit. 

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