Russell Kirk posed as one of the “canons” of conservatism the existence of orders in society. Critics have responded for decades that such a view shows that traditional conservatives are by nature aristocratic in their orientation, that they are in some sense “un-American” in their rejection of egalitarianism. The assumption appears to be that a people must choose between aristocratic class-consciousness and an ideological commitment to human equality.
This false choice between aristocracy and ideological egalitarianism is rooted in a kind of class-consciousness that is itself foreign to the traditional American way of life. The view that orders must manifest themselves in iron class structures is a kind of aristocratic prejudice that never took root in America. And the confusion it spawns is made worse by later, Marxian notions of “relations to the means of production.” Worse than confusing, however, these latter ideological developments and the policies they have spawned are undermining the strain of genuine egalitarianism that helped build American culture and the American politics of ordered liberty.
True, American egalitarianism is not inconsistent with the existence of real social orders. Rather, it fosters and is in turn fostered by an ethic of self-reliance that insists on the dignity of all honest work and the duty of those who have achieved material success to continue living with those who have not, fostering a common life of mutual respect and public service. The result is, or at least has been, no utopian fantasy, but rather a common response to the inevitable difficulties of life that demands virtue from everyone, with their “place” in the social order liable to change according to their performance.
It has become common to disparage the cultural observations made by the great nineteenth century French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville on his trip to America. But Tocqueville’s recognition of differences among American, British, and French social orders remains instructive. In France, he noted, the people looked to the government to tend their needs and address even emergency situations. In Britain, it was to the local aristocrat or great man that people would look for guidance. In the United States, meanwhile, the people looked to themselves in their various local associations to address common problems. One might add to this that most Americans looked first and foremost to themselves in managing most aspects of their lives.
Until quite recently one might say that Tocqueville’s observation still held true in America, not just as a social generalization, but as a fact of individual conduct. Visitors from Europe and Latin America, at least, seem constantly surprised at the extent to which Americans prefer to take care of their own business rather than hire outside help. Reactions vary, of course. Taking my own experience, family friends from Argentina moved back to their home country in large part because they could not, on a middle-class income, afford servants in the United States—and could not, or would not live without them. Meanwhile, many less well-off immigrants from other regions we have known are extremely happy to throw themselves into what they see as a kind of yeoman life of single-family home ownership—complete with landscaping and home repair—open only to the well-off in their home countries.
The difference in custom and character-traits is more fundamental in terms of attitudes toward work. Europeans’ standard month-long holidays are well-known, as is their view that Americans work excessively long hours. In response, most Americans merely shrug, having forgotten the underlying attitudes that traditionally kept Americans working. The first attitude once was more common in general than it is today. Misidentified as a specifically Protestant work ethic by Max Weber, this attitude was a simple recognition of one’s vocation as a service to God and community. By being a good craftsman, farmer, or professional, one was a good person, on this view, making contributions to one’s community and showing gratitude to the God who granted one gifts and opportunities. The other central attitude, here, was shaped by America’s frontier past. The need to fend for oneself and one’s family led to a valuation of all productive work, or perhaps more accurately a refusal to denigrate difficult, unglamorous work that is a necessary part of life.
Today, sadly, we live in an era of welfare dependency and social dislocation, in which the rich have abandoned the mansions that once were built on main street for gated communities, and a new class of left-wing aristocrats seeks to exploit foreign workers in their homes and businesses. In such times it is easy to lose sight of the true egalitarianism of the American way of life. But that spirit is alive and well. It is overlooked because it does not exist in political rhetoric, let alone in government policy. True, American egalitarianism lives in the habits of a free, entrepreneurial people who recognize the dignity of all honest work and the virtue of self-reliance.
I was reminded of this fact on a recent trip to Mecosta, Michigan, location of Piety Hill (Kirk’s ancestral home and the headquarters of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal). Here Annette Kirk reminded me of a mutual friend who cooks, cleans houses, runs a beekeeping business with her husband, helps tend a neighbor’s livestock, and is building a cosmetics business using her own honey as a key ingredient. She also works part-time as a waitress. The same people this entrepreneurial woman “waits on” one moment share their own meals with her, buy from her, and discuss ideas with her the next, as they should.
This exceptional woman (I leave out her name so as not to cause embarrassment) is a model, but hardly unique. Sadly, however, this kind of life is becoming increasingly less common because it is less respected. Indeed, in writing this I can almost hear the dismissive response that such people are “privileged” in their upbringing and merely serve to further a destructive valuation of “middle-class values.” No response is possible to this assertion because no matter how many examples one provides of people who have made it on their own, rising from poverty to prominence through hard work and personal genius, naysayers will simply recur to the claim that these people are “exceptions” managing to succeed in our “rotten system.” But let us consider such examples from a different angle—not of whether one can get rich in this fashion, but whether it brings a good life.
Many people hold down several jobs just to make ends meet. Leaving personalities aside, many of us know people who have to stitch together enough income to care for a relative, deal with an illness, or otherwise pay the bills. The issue is not one of wealth, but of pride. What used to make America stand out from the rest of the world was the American’s willingness to take and do necessary jobs to help him achieve his goals. Most of us who worked our way through college did so in jobs that lacked glamour (my own least favorite was washing dishes at a restaurant). And almost all Americans have had to get their start in a job they would gladly leave behind. Sadly, America today seems increasingly split between those who use their own success to “save” their children from such an ennobling experience and those who demand government action eliminating the very idea of a job as a stepping stone to something better.
As with all such ideological divides, the greatest losers are the most vulnerable—the poor who are told increasingly that they should only accept work with dignity, as if work were not intrinsically dignified or that there is not a price paid to one’s dignity in accepting public assistance. One of the many problems with our current social democratic ethos is that it teaches people to look down on some forms of work, which inescapably means looking down on those who do it. How else explain our current combination of high unemployment and dearth of employees for small businesses? I know a number of people who own small businesses who have trouble finding workers who will stick with them. These are hard jobs with low pay, so it is not surprising that people do not want to spend their lives working at them. But a key factor in long term poverty is the lack of so-called “middle class values” that tell you it is possible to move up in the world if you work hard and keep a good attitude. Today’s destructive egalitarianism undermines upward mobility by telling people they should not lower themselves to a difficult, low-paying job—that all jobs should pay a “living wage” or they do not have dignity. This is the stuff of resentment, welfare dependency, and a failing economy. It is an insult to hard working people in the name of an economic fantasy and an impoverished vision of human nature. It is a part of the Europeanization (and/or third-worldization) of America. For government subsidies and transfer payments in such countries substitute “equality” in terms of certain financial outcomes or security for equal dignity.
Social orders in America historically were based in material success—often to an unseemly degree. But far more important in this country, until quite recently, was the status that went along with being able and willing to provide public service in one’s local community. That service could be provided directly in voluntary works, as well as indirectly through productive work engaged in for its own sake and for the betterment of one’s own and one’s family’s well-being. Racial and ethnic rivalries could produce ugliness and even a denial of human dignity, but the recognized norm was that people can and should respect all who work hard, to a purpose consistent with the public good. In losing this norm we are losing the chief means by which poor people can build decent lives. We also are losing a central part of what has made us specifically American.
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