Limiting Values of Democracy and Competing Views on Materialism in American Society: Comparing Kirk and Nedelsky

By Brian D. Blankenship
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 2/2 |

Nedelsky has no doubt that the necessary redefinition will be “radical,” and her call for this shift reflects not only her emphasis on material goods’ hold in American minds, but also her preoccupation with economic equality (1988: 272). She idealizes what she refers to as “a truly democratic and egalitarian society,” albeit one that moderates “the tension between the individual and the collective” with appropriate limiting values (1988: 272-273). Because she so values both limited democracy and economic equality, she holds an ambivalent view of property. She refers to it as “at the root of both what is best and what is worst about the American constitutional system,” for it acts not only as a limiting value on the power of the majority, but also as “a pernicious force” that stands in the way of “any fundamental egalitarian and democratic transformation of the system” (1988: 271, 272). Without redefinition, property is unlikely to “serve as a path toward an egalitarian conception of the material base for liberty” (1988: 261). But such a re-conception cannot be “superimposed…on to the existing system,” and for this reason Nedelsky also calls for “a major restructuring of our institutions,” which are currently “skewed…toward the protection of property” and of inequality (1988: 246, 272-273). Thus, Nedelsky’s call for property’s redefinition is a product of her focus on material considerations: both the material nature that is essential for any limiting value, and the economic and material equality that is her ideal.

Kirk, too, sees a need for limiting values to prevent majority tyranny and to preserve justice, liberty, and “order” in America. A limited democracy, for Kirk, must not be “absolutely controlled by the masses” (Kirk 1991: 415). But such a government is also made possible by what he calls America’s “unwritten constitution”—feelings of unity among its participants and order in the society at large (1991: 416). The limits on majority power take form in not only a government inhibited through a division of power, but also through a sense of moral community that moderates the desires and passions of the citizens who always, to some degree, mold their polity. Quoting Sir Henry Maine, Kirk argues that “‘Democracy may be made nearly as calm as water in a great artificial reservoir; but if there is a weak point anywhere…the mighty force which it controls will burst through it and spread destruction far and near’” (1991: 427). Much like Nedelsky, Kirk perceives majoritarian power as inherently encroaching; without appropriate restraining values, a democracy will be as a flood, heedlessly leveling all that resist its will.

However, unlike Nedelsky’s, the limiting values that Kirk lays out—what he calls “the permanent things” in American society—are fundamentally non-material (1991: 443). Material guarantees by themselves are woefully inadequate for limited government and the maintenance of order; rather, it is “loftier values of mind and spirit” such as “self-fulfillment, redemption from sin, and salvation of the soul” that truly constrain men’s desires and, correspondingly, the “passions” and will of the democracy (1991: 442, 455). When individualism and materialism are the rule, there can be “no restraining Leviathan” to keep desire in check; political orders based around guarantees of material security are “miserable shams,” for an emphasis on guarding material goods merely breeds avarice (1991: 444, 459). The feeling of commonality and unity of purpose that shared values produce—and not the “isolation” that Kirk associates with materialism—is absolutely necessary for order and the restraint of majoritarian avarice (1991: 446).

Materialism destroys political and moral limits on the majority by enflaming man’s envy of his fellow citizens. In his discussion of Tocqueville, Kirk writes that “their [democracies’] materialism and their desire for equality may entice them into a ‘democratic despotism’” (1991: 446). For Kirk, the line between anarchy and “despotism” is a thin one; if no common values restrain men and solidify the tenuous bonds between them, then there is no true “moral force” to hold the government in check. An envious majority of “rootless” citizens would seek to use the power of government to constrain the “men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament” from achieving and gaining what their natural abilities allow (1991: 446, 472). As this indicates, Kirk does view the protection of property as important; however, creating “sanctity” around material institutions would have the dual effect of enflaming the majority’s passions—the empowering avarice of the majority, rather than limits on majority power, would be the norm (1991: 418). Instead, the reinforcing power of Americans’ “body of moral habits” has allowed the United States’ laws and separation of powers to maintain order, justice, and limited government in the country—even during its “era of appetite and passion” in the early nineteenth century (1991: 445, 447). Kirk’s conception of “limits” and his version of Nedelsky’s “limiting values” are, at their core, based in his emphasis on both restrained individuals who resist the temptations of avarice and on the harmonious community of those individuals. Promoting a material conception of rights to limit democratic authority, Kirk argues, destroys men’s “order of the soul” by overthrowing temperance and moderation. These pillars of self-control are essential not only for peace within an individual but also for order and limits within a democratic society, which far outweigh material considerations of equality and safety of property. To Kirk, self-restraint among individuals and unity between them are the greatest guarantee of private rights against public encroachments (1991: 475). Thus, “poverty is no evil,” Kirk writes, for “this world is a place of trial and struggle, so that we may find our higher nature in right response to the challenge” (1991: 466).

For Kirk, shared moral values limit majoritarian political power not in spite of their “permanent,” non-material nature, but because of it. “Practical government,” he writes, “is possible only because most people…accept the existence of some moral order, by which they govern their conduct—the order of the soul” (1991: 439). Even the greatest laws and institutions are not enough; a true “order” requires acceptance of common moral values to limit men’s desires (the “order of the soul”) and thus constrain the power of the democratic majority. The American tradition of commonality and moral restraint creates bonds—rather than “extreme individualism and isolation”—between citizens; like Nedelsky, Kirk sees Americans as subject to material temptations, but he also understands them to be highly capable of a unity based around shared moral tradition (1991: 446). This is what Kirk means by “order”—a society united around common institutions and principles and in which all have a place. “An order is something that one belongs to,” he writes; it has its roots “in class, family, church, and community” (1991: 443, 469).

Paradoxically, the maintenance of bonds between citizens is Kirk’s means of maintaining boundaries between majority rule (of those same citizens acting through the power of government) and the rights of individual people. This is because limited democratic government is a product of society’s moral order: “political measures,” Kirk argues, are “the mirror of…the moral and the social order” (1991: 443). “Whenever people cease to be aware of membership in an order,” he writes, “to the person and the republic, the consequences of such alienation will be baneful,” for such “rootless” individuals “grow angry and destructive” (1991: 473, 474). Tempered passions among the citizenry (which Kirk associated with moral values and a sense of common membership in American “order”) make them less avaricious and encroaching when they exercise their power through the majoritarian representative government. Material emphases on economic and social equality merely produce “envy,” which is conducive not to limiting democracy but to forging a “democratic despotism” in which people’s desire for economic “equality” leads them to embrace a government that “does not break men’s will, but softens, bends, and guides it,” and “hinders, restrains…and stultifies so much that…each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd” (1991: 446, 464). Although Nedelsky and Kirk both claim that limiting values’ true strength comes their place in citizens’ minds, Kirk’s rejection of Nedelsky’s material emphasis and his focus on “permanent,” intangible moral values proves to be a divergent point between their prescriptions.

But Kirk’s argument is similar to Nedelsky’s in that he also makes the distinction between legal limitations on the majority’s power and the “moral force” that limiting values hold in people’s minds. Kirk’s legal prescription for American society is based around what he calls “prudence”—values and institutions based on precedent, which he contrasts these with the “theoretic dogma” and “abstract” values prescribed by “closet philosophers” (1991: 396, 398, 400). The principles that Kirk has in mind are “inherited” from the past—Kirk agrees with Patrick Henry, who said that “‘I have one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging the future but by the past’” (1991: 398, 401). Kirk promotes “circumstances, not books” as responsible for the structure and success of the United States’ limited democracy (1991: 426). The situation within a society—its “unwritten constitution”—must regulate the institutions that are created for any community; he disparages theoretic idealizations “designed to make the world over” as the basis for any limited government—democracy or otherwise (Kirk 1991: 399, 416).

America’s laws and institutions, Kirk notes, are steeped in precedent. He argues that the American Revolution was really a defense of “inherited rights” and “liberties gained over the centuries” (1991: 398). In this view, the revolutionaries merely sought to defend the “old [English] order” from the new encroachments of the British Parliament and Crown, including but not limited to their arbitrary taxation of the colonies without their consent (1991: 395). The Americans “simply preserved and continued the English institutions of representative government and private rights” and built upon them to create America’s political infrastructure (1991: 398). The new structures included “federalism”—the dividing of governmental power among the national, state, and local governments—and the “separation of powers,” which further divided power at the national level in and amongst the executive, legislative, and judicial branches (1991: 421-423, 427-430). This new infrastructure restrained majoritarian power; Kirk claims that “there were virtually no weak points” in the separation of powers system, and that federalism helped “moderate the despotism of the majority” (1991: 427, 447). The “centralization” of a “pure democracy,” he argues, would be monstrous in its majoritarian disregard of “local rights” (1991: 424, 463).

Thus, to Kirk, such legal institutions helped to insulate individual rights from the avarice of the majority. But like Nedelsky, Kirk claims that they function not primarily because they and the Constitution were “far-sighted,” but because they supplemented and facilitated the functioning of values held and important in American society at large. Without “a source of moral knowledge”—that “sanction for justice and order”—time-tested American laws and institutions inherited from previous generations would mean little (1991: 459).

That essential “source of moral knowledge,” Kirk claims, is Christian religious belief (1991: 459). Quoting Alexander Hamilton, Kirk writes that “morality overthrown (and morality must fall with religion), the terrors of despotism can alone curb the impetuous passions of man”—there can be no morality without religion, and there can be neither order nor limited government without shared morality (1991: 433). America has always been a Christian nation; the Founders never intended a “‘wall of separation’ between State and [Christian] Church,” Kirk argues. Rather, they saw forbidding the state from “creating a religious establishment” as necessary to prevent conflict between Christian sects (1991: 437-438). Kirk agrees with Tocqueville, who wrote that Americans see religion as “indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions” (1991: 433). “‘While the law permits the Americans to do what they please,” Tocqueville claimed, “‘religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit what is rash or unjust,’” and thus acts as a tempering limit on majorities’ desires to violate the rights of individuals (1991: 439).

Kirk’s optimistic prescription for maintaining limits in American government has its roots in his view of material goods’ importance in Americans’ minds. He claims that continuity in American values and institutions, supplemented by firm, moral leadership, is needed to uphold order and perpetuate restrained democratic government. “The success of this just government,” he writes, “will be dependent upon those men of superior ability who alone can provide for the progress of humanity and the preservation of the wisdom of our ancestors” (1991: 465-466). If Americans deviate from their shared moral tradition and feelings of disunity pervade American society, “self-sacrificing men of order” must rise to restore feelings of solidarity and their complement, shared moral values (1991: 449). Kirk points to ideal leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, whose unceasing devotion to God’s “providential order,” and corresponding dedication to America’s legal institutions and moral order, kept the “passions of the American democracy” from literally tearing the country into two (1991: 455-456). The values that Kirk holds so dearly—unity and “order”—are embodied by such leaders, and these values, in turn, are enhanced and preceded by a divided political structure and common moral values, respectively. These “permanent things”— not American materialism, and not the vagaries of historically contingent material well being—maintain a continuity of “order” and limits in American society and government.

Kirk emphasizes legal precedent and moral values because, he argues, a veneration and appreciation for the wisdom of previous generations is essential to maintaining “order” in any society. Without a sense of community among the living and a feeling of connection with the “roots” of the past, there can be no happiness, no peace, and no limits in the present (1991: 405, 472-473). The importance he attaches to this sense of permanence—of belonging to something greater, wiser, and more far-reaching than oneself—leads him to prescribe continuity of morals and of unity as preventive guards against majority tyranny. This is in direct contrast to Nedelsky, who sees Americans as more focused on the present—common property ownership, rather than common values, holds people together. She fears for American constitutionalism because, in her view, changes in the material world and the emergence of “legal [non-material] technicalities of property” (such as government grants of “property-like entitlements”) will erode the tangible limiting value of property, which has for so long inhibited the power of American democracy through its mythic, moral force (1988: 252, 257). As a result, unlike Kirk, Nedelsky advocates nothing less than the radical change of redefining property to sustain the boundaries that constrain majorities. Their opposing recommendations result from their differing views on the importance and effects of material goods in Americans’ minds—views that ultimately mean the difference between radical change and continuity in American values and institutions.


Kirk, Russell. (1991). The Roots of American Order (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway.

Nedelsky, Jennifer. (1988). American Constitutionalism and the Paradox of Private Property. In J. Elster and R. Slagsted (Eds.), Constitutionalism and Democracy (241-274). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1.) Since only two texts are used in this essay, instead of listing each author's last name in each citation I use only the year of publication to indicate which text I refer to − 1988 for Nedelsky, and 1991 for Kirk.

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