Conservatism

An Imaginary Edmund Burke

May 22, 2008

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It seems everyone wanted to be on the side of progress in the Seventies, but today everyone’s a Burkean.  Gay marriage advocates, Barack Obama supporters, and defenders of the welfare state all identifiy themselves as the rightful heirs of Edmund Burke, the grandfather of conservative philosophy.  This is a strange development.  Burke and the conservatism he preached have long been relegated by respectable modern opinion to the realm of curiosity, at best.  After all, the “times are a changin’,” and the opponents of change are, in the words of a typical liberal engaged in “elitist tomfoolery since they are not on the receiving end of racism, sexism, and adoptionism [?] in the US.”  In other words, conservatism, Burkean or otherwise, was not what the cool kids were wearing until very recently.

Part of the increased interest in Burke stems from the sharp contrast of his rhetoric of prudence with the extremely imprudent ideological campaign that Bush has undertaken in Iraq.  If older veins of conservatism find their inspiration in Burke, Bush and the neoconservatives look to FDR, seeing in him moral clarity and the “national greatness” of America’s campaigns in World War II and the Cold War.  Where Burke campaigned against the explicitly ideological violence of Revolutionary France, Bush and his neoconservative advisers see something romantic and providential in the application of massive violence against the Axis powers.  In particular, neoconservatives regard any collateral damage to have been atoned for in the more or less successful American reconstruction of the once troublesome nations of Germany and Japan. 

For mostly the same reasons, Lincoln looms large in the neoconservative vision because he is a figure that marshaled power, applied violence, and sidestepped the restrictions of tradition and positive law in the service of a grand philosophical vision of natural right.  If only Lincoln had been around in 1939, the thinking goes, there would never have been a Holocaust.  The superficial pacifist opponents of Vietnam were something of an anomaly. The more abiding liberal tendency remains one of comfort with necessary revolutionary violence to bring about an egalitarian vision of social justice.  It started with Robespierre, continued with Lincoln, and culminates today in the far less technically capable crew in the White House.  In times like these—times of never-ending ideological wars and incompetence in their prosecution—some prudential restraint is naturally quite attractive to a wide variety of observers weary of remaking the world in our own image.  

Burke’s latest fans, however, misunderstand something important about Burke and his philosophy by abstracting from his ouevre only the following two ideas:  (1) criticism of ideological fanaticism, particularly the concern with uniformity, and (2) Burke’s promotion of gradualism under the rubric of “organic change.”  Burke had many more themes, all of which find echoes in conservative thinkers today.  For example, Burke also defended the necessity of social inequality, political authority over moral matters, organized religion (including state support of the same), sound money, chivalry and traditional sex roles, and traditional political institutions, most notably in the form of hereditary monarchy.  Burke was neither a libertarian, nor a Classical Liberal.  He famously sparred with Thomas Paine, who penned his obnoxious work, The Rights of Man, as a criticism of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France

Modern “Burkeans,” who defend such varied matters as universal healthcare and gay marriage in Burkean terms, effectively cut Burke’s philosophy in half, focusing exclusively on his concerns for procedure and the pace of political action, while distorting or ignoring Burke’s more controversial treatment of the substantive ends of political activity. 

Consider by way of illustration a representative argument from Dale Carpenter, writing at Volokh.com,

It is possible that, from a Burkean perspective, it is some of the opponents of gay marriage who operate on abstract theories that have little to do with real human lives. Some, but not all, opponents of gay marriage appear to cling to an anachronistic view of gay people that is increasingly divorced from all learning, law, life, and experience. . . . Gay marriage is a proposal to change an entrance rule, to let more people in. There have been many changes in marriage entrance rules over our history: interracial marriage, age requirements, consanguinity requirements, to name a few. I am not aware of any evidence that a change in marriage entrance rules has ever harmed marriage as an institution. And gay marriage does not directly affect every marriage, since every other marriage remains heterosexual. To believe gay marriage affects every marriage is to rest on very abstract theorizing about present “social meaning” or wild speculation about distant future social meanings. A traditionalist conservative should distrust such reasoning.

 

Notice how the burden shifts from those who counsel change to those wary of its unforseen consequences.  Andrew Sullivan echoes this narrow and upside-down view of Burke when he says, “Doubt-based conservatism, in other words, is not just Burkean and English. It is Madisonian and American. This reckless era of big government fundamentalism is exactly the time to recover and celebrate it.”.  Burke never said institutions must change in a particular liberal direction over time or that existing institutions should themselves be treated by citizens with doubt and timorousness.  Indeed, he defended sentimental attachments to the inherited order and was skeptical of change and liberal rhetoric in general, arguing instead:

The people of England will not ape the fashions they have never tried, nor go back to those which they have found mischievous on trial. They look upon the legal hereditary succession of their crown as among their rights, not as among their wrongs; as a benefit, not as a grievance; as a security for their liberty, not as a badge of servitude. They look on the frame of their commonwealth, such as it stands, to be of inestimable value, and they conceive the undisturbed succession of the crown to be a pledge of the stability and perpetuity of all the other members of our constitution.

Burke is even more out of step with modern tendencies in his treatment of religion.  Burke defended the established Church of England—hey, no one’s perfect—but, more important, Burke made nearly all of his arguments with reference to an austere vision of Christian truth:

We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.

In short, Burke’s philosophy is far more robust and particular and undeniably conservative than the gradualist liberal skepticism championed by Sullivan et alia.

Today, Burke is being employed to support what should more properly be called “Fabian” change, i.e., deliberate but cautious movement towards a preordained liberal, ideological goal.  Burke and the Fabians both rejected revolutionary change.  Burke rejected revolutionary change because he thought the goals it pursued were bad or unlikely to achieve the promised results, colored as they were by an uncompromising ideological filter.  The 19th Century Fabian Society socialists, by contrast, opposed revolutionary socialism, not because they thought the end result was a bad one, but because they thought revolutionary means would be less effective, might harden opposition, and otherwise presented tactical problems to the achievement of socialism.  The Fabians were clearly onto something, judging by the steady increase of government power and socialist thinking in the once free market oriented Anglo-American regimes.

For the pseudo-Burkeans, the goals are almost always liberal in nature, based on the modern and very un-Burkean idea that the justice of any society consists of the equal treatment and provision of equal political power to people in very unequal situations, i.e., same sex couples and traditional married couples, foreign immigrants and native citizens, the educated and the uneducated. Burke was no egalitarian.  In particular, he argued that it was unhelpful to emphasize our “common humanity” in discussing political matters, because group identities and the associated differences in station demanded different treatment in proportion to those differences:

The legislators who framed the ancient republics knew that their business was too arduous to be accomplished with no better apparatus than the metaphysics of an undergraduate, and the mathematics and arithmetic of an exciseman. They had to do with men, and they were obliged to study human nature. They had to do with citizens, and they were obliged to study the effects of those habits which are communicated by the circumstances of civil life. They were sensible that the operation of this second nature on the first produced a new combination; and thence arose many diversities amongst men, according to their birth, their education, their professions, the periods of their lives, their residence in towns or in the country, their several ways of acquiring and of fixing property, and according to the quality of the property itself — all which rendered them as it were so many different species of animals. From hence they thought themselves obliged to dispose their citizens into such classes, and to place them in such situations in the state, as their peculiar habits might qualify them to fill, and to allot to them such appropriated privileges as might secure to them what their specific occasions required, and which might furnish to each description such force as might protect it in the conflict caused by the diversity of interests that must exist and must contend in all complex society; for the legislator would have been ashamed that the coarse husbandman should well know how to assort and to use his sheep, horses, and oxen, and should have enough of common sense not to abstract and equalize them all into animals without providing for each kind an appropriate food, care, and employment, whilst he, the economist, disposer, and shepherd of his own kindred, subliming himself into an airy metaphysician, was resolved to know nothing of his flocks but as men in general.

Burke defended gradual change as an exceptional matter, not a general principle of political activity.  The au courant Burkeans obscure that Burke’s more abiding tendency is skepticism and hostility to change, particularly change based on the Enlightenment idea of remaking society “rationally” to fit a particular philosophical vision of consistency and justice. For Burke, the goal of social life was not the “rights of man” or equality, so much as it was the prosaic concerns of order, wealth, stability, and happiness.  A commitment to these limited and reactionary goals is usually at work when Burke defends a particular change, such as the so-called Glorious Revolution, which Burke identified as restorative of the principle of hereditary monarchy.

Burke was skeptical of change because, for him, the basic problems of social life have always existed.  Institutions that somehow survived deserved extreme deference because they represent the accumulated wisdom of other men dealing with the same problems with the same resources and, if the inherited balance were somehow disturbed, society might spiral into oblivion and its leaders may be unable to restore the status quo ante. He thought ill-advised change more dangerous than the alternative, just as he thought most promises of change were either overly optimistic or constituted matters of deception, in which would-be reformers would succeed only in shifting the locus of political power from the old guard to themselves, acting in the name of “the people”:

Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real good. You would not secure men from tyranny and sedition by rooting out of the mind the principles to which these fraudulent pretexts apply? If you did, you would root out everything that is valuable in the human breast. As these are the pretexts, so the ordinary actors and instruments in great public evils are kings, priests, magistrates, senates, parliaments, national assemblies, judges, and captains. You would not cure the evil by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils. You might change the names. The things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community in some hands and under some appellation.

Burke thought happiness and authentic political justice consisted not in equal access to power, nor in certain procedures of political action, so much as they resided in preserving the inherited society as a whole and each person’s distinct role in it. He was particularly skeptical of calls to equalize participation in government simply for the sake of making the rough, but workable, edges of society more consistent.  Consider his point here:

The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science, because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation, and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens: and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself and intended for such practical purposes — a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be — it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.

  
Burke was, needless to say, no Fabian and no great fan of ideological equality.  Nonetheless, his sense of justice frequently compelled him to defend the voiceless, such as the hapless Indian subjects mistreated by Warren Hastings and his defense of his oppressed co-ethnics in Ireland, put down by a short-sighted British concern for power.  Indeed, imperialism everywhere seemed unnatural to Burke and a natural object of his condemnation precisely because it forced unlike peoples to associate with one another when they would otherwise proceed on their natural courses, guided by the ancient rhythms of their societies.   Burke seemed particularly concerned about the corrupting effect of maintaining an empire in the Third World:  “[W]e have not feared any odium whatsoever, in the long warfare which we have carried on with the crimes, with the vices, with the exorbitant wealth, with the enormous and overpowering influence of Eastern corruption.”

One might hazard the guess that because of his high regard for Christianity and long-established English liberties that Burke was only a conservative in liberal England who would welcome more revolutionary changes among unlucky peoples inheriting less effective and more oppressive social structures and mores.  This is easily refuted by the main theme of his magnum opus: it opposed revolution in a society that Burke himself admitted was corrupt and in need of reform.  The argument about some societies being “too bad to conserve” is a very familiar excuse to deviate from the core teachings of Burkeanism.  But there is little hint of this situational approach in his writings; even in pagan India, Burke counseled against imposing English social order in the name of either English superiority or the alleged beneficial influence of British civilization upon the Indians themselves. 

Burke was strongly anti-change, not merely skeptical or in favor of gradualism.  Major change was a last resort.  Consider his vivid comparison of the potential costs and benefits of political change:

To avoid, therefore, the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution, that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion, that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds and wild incantations they may regenerate the paternal constitution and renovate their father’s life.

Conservatism must by necessity vary with time and place.  It is chiefly an attitude about change, and what change means depends in part upon how an existing society is structured.  But Burkean conservatism does not concede the goals of liberalism, goals which ultimately counsel un-Burkean methods precisely because of liberalism’s uncompromising account of he good.  Our modern era is in many ways the heir of the French Revolution and its ugliness.  Modern liberalism’s methods and ideals—uniformity, equality, ahistorical liberte, purifying violence, secularism—find echoes in everything from Bolshevik Communism to the forceful imposition of “democratic capitalism” on the ancient peoples of the Middle East.  Burke’s defense of gradualism and social diversity have certain merits standing alone.  But standing alone, such ideas are not Burkeanism, nor are they sufficient for guiding political action in a society thoroughly suffused with recent revolutionary change.  Burke expressed his concerns for gradualism and diversity as part of a unified view in which these intermediate political goals acquired value only in relation to Burke’s substantive concerns for legality, necessary inequality, Christian justice, peace, order, legitimacy, and preserving a known and workable English Christian way of life.  Burke’s later writings in favor of counterrevolution and restoration of the French Monarchy give us some insight into how he would address those that would defend gay marriage or affirmative action or some other artifact of modern liberalism in his name.

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