Nations who had ceased to feel themselves a people, who had lost the state-instinct, gave liberalism its opportunity. The masses allowed an upper crust to form on the surface of the nation. Not the old natural aristocracy whose example had created the state; but a secondary stratum, a dangerous, irresponsible, ruthless, intermediate stratum which had thrust itself between. The result was the rule of a clique united only by self-interest who liked to style themselves the pick of the population, to conceal the fact that they consisted of immigrants and nouveaux riches, of freedmen and upstarts. They did not care whether their arrogance and new-won privilege was decked out with the conceptions of feudal or of radical ideology, though they preferred a delicate suggestion of aristocracy. But they found it most effective and successful to style themselves democrats.
Often the liberal speaks of intolerance as if it were something bad in itself, which of course it is not; yet, when it suits, he speaks fairly reasonably: intolerance is something good when its object is something bad. Naturally, where the liberal, or anyone else, has wrong ideas of what is bad, so his intolerance is wrong for that reason at least, if not also because of a lack of proportion, but is not wrong by itself. But with all this honest talk of intolerance, the advisers and administrators of our liberal-bureaucratic regimes need to be careful as the confidence of these regimes grows in the service of great lies and political evils, and as they abandon the expedient device of tolerance for those areas where their power formerly could not determine the case, they risk becoming as unsubtle as the old Marxistic regimes, whereof they have been hitherto the more refined brethren.
Doubting all things in heaven and on earth, accepting only what can be validated by empirico-quantitative reason, utilitarianism is a “philosophy of death; its morbidity is the consequence of Benthamite emphasis upon Doubt and this is consummate folly. For Doubt is a surly envious, egotistic emotion, a bitter denial of everything but the sullen self; and one learns nothing by doubting. Doubt can never be wholly assuaged in many things, but we must manage to live despite our doubts (which are a condition of our imperfect temporal nature).” We must recognize, admonished Kirk that we are ignorant of much and must accept much on faith. To doubt everything results in a paralysis of the will and the impoverishment of one’s spiritual existence. Such is the fate of the doctrinaire liberal who would follow Bentham in repudiating authority, tradition, and the prescriptive wisdom of his ancestors. He has succumbed to the Benthamite folly of believing that “private rationality henceforth would emancipate mankind from obedience to tradition, authority, and the past experience of humanity.” Without faith and standards to check his arbitrary will, the Benthamite liberal comes to believe, in his own pride, that he has the right to judge everything according to his private taste. The modern mind, having made utility the essence of politics and having thereby lost sight of the higher ends of existence, Kirk charged, “has thought of men as the flies of a summer, and so deprived himself of the wisdom of our ancestors, and laid waste that portion of posterity.” The result is a weakening of the social bonds that hold a community intact. A community lacking the restraining power of tradition or prescriptive institutions is rendered defenceless against the demands of special interests and selfish passions.
Lacking historical perspective and imagination, modern liberalism proceeds from Benthamite assumptions to the delusion that scientific reasons can solve all of mankind’s complex problems and thereby guarantee a golden age of prosperity and plenty. This abstract, utopian mentality, Kirk predicted, will be the ultimate undoing of liberalism. The atomistic individualism and ahistorical rationality of the libertarians, reflecting their utilitarian mentality, would corrupt conservative thinking. Their exultation of reason uninformed by the moral imagination precludes any understanding of values beyond utility and self-interest. A conservatism incorporating old Benthamite or social Darwinist tenets would be worse than no conservatism at all. Like liberalism, its lack of imagination would be its undoing.
Liberalism has undermined civilization, has destroyed religions, and has ruined nations. Primitive peoples know no liberalism. The world is for them a simple place where one man shares with another. Instinctively they conceive existence as a struggle in which all those who belong in any way to one group must defend themselves against those who threaten them.
Great states have always held liberalism in check. When a great individual arose amongst them who gave the course of their history a new direction, they have been able to incorporate him into their tradition, to make his achievements contribute to their continuity.