In Defense of Order - Part 1
The Priority of Order over Liberty
Every summer for the past several decades, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute gathers some of the nation’s brightest young conservative students, and a small number of conservative or libertarian professors, for a week of lectures, seminars, meals, and informal conversation. Dubbed the “Honors Program,” the lectures and discussions are centered on a theme chosen by the leaders of I.S.I. I was honored and delighted to take part in the 2023 Summer Honors Conference, where I was invited to speak on one aspect of the main conference theme — the “four cities” of Russell Kirk’s 1974 book, The Roots of American Order, i.e., Jerusalem, Rome, London, and Philadelphia. In keeping with the theme of my recently published book, Regime Change, I was invited to speak early in the conference on the subject of the tradition of “mixed constitutionalism” in Ancient Greek (as well as medieval) political thought, and thus, according to the assigned rubric, was expected to speak to the subject of Athens.
However, as I sat to compose my remarks, I couldn’t get past the extraordinary fact that a contemporary conservative program was devoting a week to a book whose central theme was ORDER, and not the predictable Con. Inc. emphasis on LIBERTY. This difference in emphasis was all the more remarkable given the fact that, according to Kirk, the two ideals are not only in tension, but that one must predominate - namely, ORDER. This remarkable fact actually became the main subject of my talk, one which ended in Athens, but began decidedly in the modern city of Washington D.C. and sought to explore not only the nature of modern conservatism, but how it had gone astray in ways that Kirk’s book helps us to see.
What follows is an abbreviated and edited version of my remarks, in two parts. The first part focuses on the contemporary implications of the diminution of “order” as a priority for conservatism, and thus, for America; the second part will focus on the contemporary relevance of the tradition of “mixed constitutionalism” that originated in Athens.
Let me begin by noting remarkable fact that we are devoting this week to the theme of Russell Kirk’s book, The Roots of American Order. The book was published in 1974, shortly before the political ascendancy of modern conservatism with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. While that vindication of Kirk’s long efforts lay some years in the future, the book appeared in the wake of the establishment of a number of what were to become legacy conservative institutions. Given the minor focus on “order” among those institutions, Kirk’s book was already “out of tune” in that expanding ecosystem of what was becoming “establishment conservatism.”
Then, as now, the emphasis of institutional conservatism was upon LIBERTY or FREEDOM (two words often used interchangably) – especially individual and economic liberty or freedom. For all the claims of defending the variety of viewpoints that arise from a market society, these institutions are remarkably homogenous, indeed, essentially indistinguishable, in their unstinting invocations of the central value of “liberty,” while remarkably silent when it comes to a commendation of “order.” Kirk’s book was, in a sense, already out of fashion from the moment it was published.
As an experiment, I thought I’d explore some of the prominent language from the organizations that you (students) are most likely to have had some involvement during your time in college, or might end up working for after graduation, and perhaps even someday running in the fullness of time. These descriptions are generally taken from the “About” or “Mission” page of the respective websites of these institutions. You won’t be surprised to learn that the words “liberty” or “freedom” are always prominently featured.
· Heritage Foundation: “Free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense – these are the values that we fight for every single day.
· AEI: “a public policy think tank dedicated to defending human dignity, expanding human potential, and building a free world.”
· Cato Institute: “The vision of the Cato Institute is to create free, open, and civil societies founded on libertarian principles.”
· Institute for Humane Studies: “IHS is rooted in the classical liberal tradition and promotes a freer, more humane, and open society by connecting and supporting talented graduate students, scholars, and other intellectuals who are driving progress in the critical conversations shaping the 21st century.”
· Young America’s Foundation: “Young America’s Foundation is committed to ensuring that increasing numbers of young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values.”
· Hudson Institute: “A research organization promoting American leadership for a secure, free, and prosperous future.”
· Fund for American Studies: “Teaching Freedom since 1967…. Our mission is to develop courageous leaders … inspired to protect and advance the ideas of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic freedom…”
· Liberty Fund (“Law and Liberty” website): “A private educational foundation that encourages enduring issues about liberty…”. Created at the bequest of Pierre Goodrich, it reflects his commitments to the “preservation, restoration, and development of individual liberty…
· Law and Liberty (webzine of the Liberty Fund): “focus is on the classical liberal tradition of law and political thought and how it shapes a society of free and responsible persons…”
· Acton Institute: “mission is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles…” (Its magazine is called “Religion and Liberty…”)
· And, yes, our host this week, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I.S.I. was one of the first movement conservative organizations, and its initials originally stood for “Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.” The organization was founded in 1953 by William F. Buckley and Frank Chodorov. Chodorov, incidentally, was editor of “The Freeman” (1954), published under auspices of Foundation for Economic Education [its “Vision”: “To make the ideas of liberty familiar, credible, and compelling to the rising generation”], and the author of One is a Crowd: Reflections of an Individualist (1952) and Out of Step: The Autobiography of an Individualist (1962)]
I.S.I.’s website announces that “under the leadership of our first president, William F. Buckley, we began mentoring young men and women to become eloquent defenders of the principles of liberty.”
To this day, its motto remains: “Educating for Liberty”
What’s remarkable about this representative, marquee lineup of institutions, programs, and organizations that form the backbone of modern conservative movement is the predominance of the words “liberty,” “freedom,” and “individualism.”
But what we should also notice the almost complete absence of the word “ORDER,” or, at best, a minor chord which invokes “values” or “responsibility,” which are assumed to be entirely compatible with the primary emphasis upon liberty. The absence of even the word “order” is particularly noticeable in light of its comparative prominence in the title and theme of the book around which this week’s lectures and colloquia have been organized – a book penned by one of modern American conservatism’s main “founders,” but whose theme never became prominently featured or a main topic of institutional conservatism.
And yet, if is there any concept that ought to be central to the conservative tradition, it is an emphasis on order. The very word – its etymological origin and root meanings – reflects the deepest commitments of the effort to conserve, to preserve, and to sustain.
According to the indispensable “Online Etymology Dictionary,” the word order originated from a few root concepts, ones with some rather remarkable connotations and related ideas:
ordene, from Latin ordinem (nominative ordo) "row, line, rank; series, pattern, arrangement, routine," originally "a row of threads in a loom," from Proto-Italic *ordn- "row, order" (source also of ordiri "to begin to weave;" compare primordial), which is of uncertain origin. Watkins suggests it is a variant of PIE root *ar- "to fit together…”
The original English word reflects a medieval notion:
a system of parts subject to certain uniform, established ranks or proportions," and was used of everything from architecture to angels…. From the notion of "formal disposition or array, methodical or harmonious arrangement" comes the meaning "fit or consistent collocation of parts" (late 14c.).
Conservatives are generally well-known to prefer an orderly world, whether personal habits, cities, buildings, curricula, community, liturgy, and so forth – e.g., classical architecture or high masses – over the disorder that is one of the singular hallmarks of modernism. The word reflects a preference for “formality” over informality, and – as the image of weaving suggests – a concern for how the parts fit into the whole – not with the aim of elimination of the parts, but their fitting and even beautiful participation in fashioning of a whole that does not eliminate the strands of distinctive particularity. Order governs forms and patterns out of what might otherwise be random disorder or outright chaos - the difference, for instance, between a beautiful downtown in contrast to the degradation of a Philadelphia or San Francisco. At the most comprehensive level, the whole or the entirety – the “universus” – is presumed to be an order, the comprehensible and intentional creation of a God who orders, and who governs over an Order. Unsurprisingly, there is a close etymological connection between a word that originally signifies “formal disposition or array, methodical or harmonious arrangement” and religion.
After all, the words “ordain” and “ordination” derive from the same root, and the very word “order,” as a proper noun, means “a body of persons living under a religious discipline.” The verb “order,” from “ordren,” originally meant “to give commands for or to, instruct authoritatively," as well as to "command to be made, done, or issued.” All of these meanings accord with the core conservative understanding that the human domain ought rightly to be a reflection of the order of creation itself, and that authoritative commands and directives to that end are not in contradiction to, but rather fulfillment of, the requirements of order.
Why the remarkable absence of the word, concept, and priority of order from the conservative movement over the past three score and ten, and in spite of the best efforts of one of modern conservative’s architects, Russell Kirk? And, as pressingly, why does it matter to our current moment?
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I wanted to spend some time emphasizing the theme, meaning, and significance of the word and concept of “ORDER,” because Kirk’s book is such a striking outlier in today’s conservative world — one that interchangeably embraces the language and concepts of “freedom” and “liberty,” and which has correspondingly severely downgraded the centrality of order.
Yet there is nothing inherent to conservatism that disallows or contradicts a movement in which the central importance of order eclipses by comparable orders of magnitude the focus on liberty, or, better yet, one which would have emphasized that liberty is properly understood to be one of the consequences of order, and not an appendage. One can, and ought, to imagine a world in which Kirk’s work is anything but an outlier, but would have been one of dozens and scores of texts, taught by dozens and scores of conservative organizations, emphasized by dozens and scores of conservative faculty and public intellectuals, in which order was the central theme and topic. The prominence of “liberty” is a result of a particular historical moment, and not the inevitable trajectory of a “conservative” understanding.
In particular, the monotonous emphasis on “liberty” is a reflection of the historical circumstances at the time of movement conservatism’s formation, attendant upon the experience of mid-century totalitarianism, and especially — by the mid-fifties through the end of the 20th-century — the dangers posed by Communism.
However, imagine for a moment a different set of historical contingencies. Picture the lineaments of a conservative movement that would have been formed had the political threat been quite different. What if, instead of Communism, the great threat – both external and internal – had been anarchism? Such a scenario is not difficult to imagine, since anarchism was a “going concern” in the late-19th and early 20th-century, and remains visible today in the activities of Antifa and even elements of the BLM protests of 2020, especially those who tore down statues and monuments willy-nilly, regardless of whom or what was being memorialized. While anarchism tended to take the form of individuals or small cells violently attacking important institutions or figures — such as the self-proclaimed anarchist Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, Duchess von Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 — the hopes of many of its leading proponents was that it would become a global political movement. It had its political philosophers, including Petr Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Mikhael Bakunin.
What if the modern conservative movement had developed in the backdrop not of fears about communist collectivism and loss of liberty, but fears of radical disorder bred of hostility toward organized political power, and attacks on government from a dispossessed demos or malcontented oligarchs. In other words, what if the animating concerns at the time of conservatism’s modern formation were more similar to the fears of those who called for a Constitutional Convention, many of whom feared that Shay’s Rebellion might lead to full-scale political, social, and economic disorder?
The invitation to imagine such a conservatism is not intended to be a theoretical exercise, but of pressing contemporary importance. Kirk emphasized that the American founding - so often today viewed as an effort above all to secure individual liberty - was, in fact, dedicated to securing order. While the Founding Fathers were, in Kirk’s view, “men both of freedom and of order,” they recognized that the age called for the preeminence of one of these principles: “they found it well, at that moment in American affairs, to redress the American balance in favor of order.” We find ourselves in a remarkably similar moment, in which a profound imbalance has led to a deemphasis upon a politics of order.
For Kirk, however, this redress ultimately was not required merely to restore balance in a moment in which liberty had overtaken an emphasis upon order. Rather, the scales needed to be more heavily weighted toward the priority of order. Kirk recognized that there is always a tension between “the claims of order and the claims of freedom” (419). He called this tension “the most persistent and perplexing of all political problems.” In practice, political societies must resolve this tension in favor of one, even while giving due to the other. For Kirk, order must have priority; without order, there could be no genuine freedom.
In the book’s first pages he writes, “the good society is marked by a high degree of order, justice, and freedom. Among these, order has primacy: for justice cannot be enforced until a tolerable civil order is attained; nor can freedom be anything better than violence until order gives us laws…. Order precedes justice and freedom” (6; emphasis mine).
The rise of modern conservatism was born primarily out of tyrannophobia, fear of the tyrant — a sensible fear in the shadow of totalitarianism and the Cold War. Yet as a result of those circumstances, organized conservatism not merely neglected, but largely eradicated, what was arguably the dominant strand of the Western tradition (and certainly American tradition) that regarded “bad freedom” and attendant anarchy as ever-present political threat, and called for preeminence of Order as the foundation of a virtuous political regime, including a virtuous form of liberty.
For these arguments, and because of this prioritization, Kirk underwent severe attacks from the heart of movement conservatism - indeed, from its most prominent architect. Then, as now, a conservative who defends the centrality of order can expect to be attacked by fellow “conservatives,” i.e., libertarians as essentially indistinguishable from a leftist authoritarian. According to this view, there is no distinguishing calls for order in the service of conservative ends, from left authoritarian calls for authority in the name of radical liberatory ends. To the libertarian, they are the same.
Among the most infamous of the attacks on Kirk from the right (if largely a forgotten part of the conservative tradition) was a hit job by Frank Meyer, the “father” of movement conservative “Fusionism.” In an essay commissioned by Frank Chodorov (recall, co-founder of I.S.I.) for the journal The Freeman which he edited, Meyer attacked what was then called “The New Conservatism,” The essay, titled “Collectivism Rebaptized,” was especially an attack on “new conservatism’s” intellectual leader — Russell Kirk.
Meyer attacked Kirk’s emphasis on order as indistinguishable from the oppressiveness that he saw animating the Middle Ages – for him, the ultimate insult. According to Meyer, “The social pattern which emerges from the hints and suggestions in [Kirk’s] writings is shaped by such words as “Authority,” “order,” community, “duty,” [and] obedience. ‘Freedom’ is a rare word; the ‘individual’ is anathema…. The qualities of this suggested society are a mixture of those eighteenth-century England and medieval Europe – or perhaps more aptly, they are those of Plato’s Republic…”
These charges are in essence identical to those made today against defenders of “order” — including, not infrequently, authors at this website. And, just as often as they are made by progressives from the Left, they are made by right liberals who have deceptively claimed the mantle “conservative” since Kirk was writing. Indeed, on the point of defending ever more extreme visions of a free society detached from the priority of order, the attacks from both the progressive “left” and the libertarian “right” against defenders of order are as indistinguishable today as seventy years ago.
Notably, the charges of Meyer against Kirk were the same essential claims made by liberals of the post-WW II era against fascists and communists, who developed the thesis that totalitarianism was simply an updated iteration of Platonism and Medievalism. This was exactly the line of argumentation developed by Karl Popper in his 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies. That argument - invoking the priority of liberty against a reductionist portrait of authority that supposedly informs every philosophical tradition from Plato to Aquinas to Marx - is exactly the reductionism adopted by Meyer against Kirk. The libertarian Meyer draws the same conclusion as would the liberal Popper, intellectual father of George Soros: “The New Conservatism, stripped of its pretensions, is, sad to say, but another guise for the collectivist spirit of the age.” To the libertarian, Kirk was indistinguishable from Marx and Stalin. Liberal bad-faith reductionism continues unstintingly to this day.
Why does this abandonment of the “politics of order” matter? As we like to say at Postliberal Order: Look around. The answer is obvious.
We are surrounded - indeed, our senses are nearly desensitized - by pervasive disorder. Political disorder is now our norm. Our approach to education, and its goals, are defined by disorder. Schools produce disordered young people. Our cities - once beautiful, and a source of pride for Americans - are defiled by disorder. Many of our churches - both in their liturgy and their form - are sullied by disorder. Our understanding of sex and sexuality is deeply disordered, perhaps the point of origin of so many of the forms of social disorder that affect family, community, church, nation, and globe.
One would think that a conservatism worthy of the name could readily name our condition and inspire opposition with an alternative vision.
Far from it. The conservative movement is incapable of diagnosing the nature of our disease, much less redressing it, because it misunderstands the nature of our disease, and blindly assists in its advance. Conservatism is itself “disordered” because it has eschewed the priority of order.
As the “mission” statements of so many of its organizations suggest, and main arguments of its leaders harp upon, according to contemporary conservatism, the modern world is suffering from a surfeit of oppression. Lacking any other vocabulary, it resorts to the hackneyed assumption that every problem can be understood through the dichotomy liberty vs. oppression. Well-engrained habits lead to the brain-dead conclusion that what we face today is a renewal of communist oppression. Nearly every bestelling conservative author claims that the threat arises from a renewed Marxist totalitarianism - now redescribed as “cultural Marxism.” Efforts to silence campus speakers, cancellation, the control over financial transactions, enforced misnaming of a person’s gender, and lockdowns are all seen as evidence of totalitarian impingement on our freedoms.
There is some truth to this perception, but a partial truth, and one ultimately misleading because of its partiality. Most of what is experienced as oppression is actually the enforced imposition of disorder, and the attendant suppression of defenders of order. That is, the deprivation of freedom is, in teleological manner, secondary to the advancing effort to impose disorder.
Take just the example of the trajectory of transgenderism. To misidentify one’s gender once was medically described as a disorder. The longstanding effort to deny that there is a fundamental order in the world, one example of which is the fact that the overwhelming majority of humans are either male or female, and rather to insist that the mere suggestion of such an order constitutes an offense that can be fireable and even actionable, is one vivid if limited example of the effort to deny the existence of order and to impose disorder. It is not liberty that is under assault; what is being rejected is order. To claim that the political answer to this effort to deny order requires a ferocious defense of liberty is to misunderstand our situation. Indeed, to prioritize liberty as the answer to efforts to impose disorder is to cede the agenda of the opposition. Merely to claim the right not to use someone’s preferred pronoun is to concede that one’s pronoun is a matter of opinion, and that liberty demands that people can think about gender, sexuality, marriage, and family in whatever way they like. After all, in a world of liberty, order is “oppressive.” The “freedom agenda” is a losing proposition, one inherently destined to lose in an age of disorder, since progressives will always to seek to advance a more radical form of freedom.
The invocation of “freedom” concedes to the forces of disorder in every domain. Against the degradation of education and disordered curricula, today’s conservatives have retreated to invoking “academic freedom” and “viewpoint diversity.” Against the institutionalization of gay marriage and transgenderism, conservatives claim the protections of “religious liberty” to afford a shield from a societal commitments based on a disordered understanding of ordered human sexuality. And what of arguments against the “pro-choice” movement? How can a conservatism devoted to advancing the paramount priorities of “liberty” and “freedom” ever hope defeat a movement that merely claims that the right to an abortion is the very essence of freedom?
Quite understandably, institutional conservatism took on a particular set of priorities at a particular time in history, but our moment in history has fundamentally changed. What Kirk understood in 1974, and what we need desperately to understand nearly 50 years later, is that “order precedes justice and freedom.” There can be no justice, and no genuine freedom, without the predominance of order. Our parties today are not divided between the Party of Order (Right) and the Party of Freedom (Left). Our political world instead pits the Party of Disorder (Left) against the Party of Freedom (Right). Out of such a divide, it can be little wonder that Disorder reigns supreme.