7 Russell Kirk Quotes on Economics


Editor’s Note: In recognition of the centenary of Russell Kirk’s birth, we present Russell Kirk Week here at FORMA. All of this week’s content will be free.


Solomon the Wise seems to eschew pursuit of wealth in his biblical writings while, at the same time, promising it as a blessing that accompanies righteous conduct. Russell Kirk embodied that proverbial balance in his approach to property and economics. For Kirk, private property was society’s means of dignifying human makers as bearers of the divine image. On the other hand, production and consumption are not the ends for which society existed, nor are they ends that can be pursued without regard for “the permanent things”—the moral virtues, respect for the natural world, and duty to one's neighbors. The following selections express Kirk’s estimation of prosperity as an indicator of a healthy society. He believed that the way a people generates their wealth (and how they treat the poorest among them) reveals their allegiance to the transcendent moral order upon which every enduring society must be founded.

As the bull, doomed in the ring, returns after every charge to his little patch of stamping ground, so man requires innately some tiny territory that is his.
— Property Healthy for Man,” The Freeman, September, 1964

Freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic levelling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress. Getting and spending are not the chief aims of human existence; but a sound economic basis for the person, the family, and the commonwealth is much to be desired. . . . To be able to retain the fruits of one’s labor; to be able to see one’s work made permanent; to be able to bequeath one’s property to one’s posterity; to be able to rise from the natural condition of grinding poverty to the security of enduring accomplishment; to have something that is really one’s own—these are advantages difficult to deny. The conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully.
— The Politics of Prudence

To complete the rout of traditionalists, in America an impression began to arise that the new industrial and acquisitive interests are the conservative interest, that conservatism is simply a political argument in defense of large accumulations of private property, that expansion, centralization, and accumulation are the tenets of conservatives. From this confusion, from the popular belief that Hamilton was the founder of American conservatism, the forces of tradition in the United States never have fully escaped.
— The Conservative Mind

If men are discharged of reverence for ancient usage, they will treat this world, almost certainly, as if it were their private property, to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the property of future generations, of their own contemporaries, and indeed their very own capital.
— The Conservative Mind

If the horn of plenty is to continue to overflow with good things, it must be cherished with courage and intelligence. Crushing taxation, imprudent meddling, malicious envy, or revolutionary violence might destroy the horn. To protect the cornucopia, it is necessary to understand economics tolerably well. Otherwise, a society of generosity may give way to a society of envy.
— The Moral Foundations of Economics,” from Economics: Work and Prosperity

The decay of old aristocratic prejudices against greedy speculation, the undermining of orthodox Christian faith (which forbids avarice) . . . the debauching of agriculture to a gross money-getting concern: these particular aspects of a vast and voracious concentration upon profits are so many illustrations of our sinning confusion of values.
— The Conservative Mind

The Industrial Revolution seems to have been a response of mankind to the challenge of a swelling population. . . . But it turned the world inside out. Personal loyalties gave way to financial relationships. The wealthy man ceased to be magistrate and patron; he ceased to be a neighbor to the poor man; he became a mass man, very often, with no purpose in life but aggrandizement. He ceased to be conservative because he did not understand conservative terms.
— The Conservative Mind

Sean Johnson teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida. He is the Reviews Editor for FORMA.