There's been a lot of hype lately about a new biography of Edmund Burke. So thought it was about time I read something by the Father of Conservatism. Read the short work Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents and the longer and more famous Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Burke essentially defined the nature of traditional conservatism. He wasn't a complete reactionary: He believed that nations should change; but only slowly, gradually and one part at a time. His view of the Glorious Revolution was that "they regenerated the deficient part of the old constitution through the parts which were not impaired". His view was that long-established systems and institutions have evolved a complex and beneficial order. A complete replacement of the system is likely to be worse, and to fail in complex and unforeseeable ways. It should only be improved gradually and piecemeal, after carefully examining the actual results of the last change.
While Burke was an early supporter of the American tax protests, and home rule for Ireland, he opposed the French Revolution on these grounds, and was widely regarded as vindicated by the eventual outcome of it.
That part of his philosophy is actually quite compelling: even if you're not convinced that rewriting from scratch is always bad, there's no doubt that it's often bad.
It's particularly appealing in the present day, when to a degree the political labels have reversed themselves. Today, people labelled "conservatives" are often proponents of huge and sudden changes driven by ideology. This seems especially true if you've been reading about radicals of the 16th to 18th century who claimed their complete uprooting of society was just a return to an "ancient constitution".
On the other side, left/liberal/progressive politics seems to be largely on the defensive, struggling only to hold on to some vestiges of their previous success. It might be possible for them to use Burkean ammunition in this defence. In particular, the radical upheavals of the NHS in the UK would seem to be bad ideas in Burkean terms, in which a complete overhaul is likely to result in disaster.
However, Burke is most appealing this way when he's at his most general. Particularly in the Reflections, when he gets specific, his arguments start to seem a bit absurd in the cases he applies them to. For instance, he defends real powers for the Monarchy, such as the power to declare war, pointing out that might prevent foreign powers bribing mere representative government. He defends the highly unequal "rotten borough" system of Parliament. He asks rhetorically "Cornwall elects as many members as all Scotland. But is Cornwall better taken care of than Scotland?" to which I think many would say "yes". He defends the aristocracy, and is particularly scathing about the ideas that the commoners of the French assembly could be as good a men as the nobles who dominate the English parliament.
Burke is also fond of pointing out that experience is crucial to a statesmen. This seems appealing in the present day UK where people with no experience of running anything at all are suddenly placed in charge of vast budgets and organisations. However, at Burkean extremes it essentially means that old power bases can never be overturned: the old ruling class will always have the greatest experience.
Overall, I would say Reflections is worth reading for its eventual impact, but the detailed criticism of French policy can safely be skimmed or skipped completely.
Some Burkean extracts here.
A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views.
If an assembly is viciously or feebly composed in a very great part of it, nothing but such a supreme degree of virtue as very rarely appears in the world, and for that reason cannot enter into calculation, will prevent the men of talents disseminated through it from becoming only the expert instruments of absurd projects.
What is it we all seek for in an election? To answer its real purposes, you must first possess the means of knowing the fitness of your man; and then you must retain some hold upon him by personal obligation or dependence.
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that the stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.
Your politicians do not understand their trade; and therefore they sell their tools.
Upon any insolvency, they ought to suffer who were weak enough to lend upon bad security, or they who fraudulently held out a security that was not valid.
Believe me, Sir, those who attempt to level never equalize. In all societies consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. The levellers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things: they load the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground. The associations of tailors and carpenters, of which the republic (of Paris, for instance) is composed, cannot be equal to the situation into which, by the worst of usurpations, an usurpation on the prerogatives of Nature, you attempt to force them.
The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade or totally negligent of their duty. The simple governments are fundamentally defective.
The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together. The same lazy, but restless disposition, which loves sloth and hates quiet, directs these politicians, when they come to work for supplying the place of what they have destroyed. To make everything the reverse of what they have seen is quite as easy as to destroy. No difficulties occur in what has never been tried. Criticism is almost baffled in discovering the defects of what has not existed; and eager enthusiasm and cheating hope have all the wide field of imagination, in which they may expatiate with little or no opposition... At once to preserve and to reform is quite another thing.
I should tell you, that in my course I have known, and, according to my measure, have coöperated with great men; and I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business. By a slow, but well-sustained progress, the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series. We see that the parts of the system do not clash. The evils latent in the most promising contrivances are provided for as they arise. One advantage is as little as possible sacrificed to another. We compensate, we reconcile, we balance. We are enabled to unite into a consistent whole the various anomalies and contending principles that are found in the minds and affairs of men. From hence arises, not an excellence in simplicity, but one far superior, an excellence in composition.
Old establishments are tried by their effects. If the people are happy, united, wealthy, and powerful, we presume the rest. We conclude that to be good from whence good is derived. In old establishments various correctives have been found for their aberrations from theory. Indeed, they are the results of various necessities and expediences. They are not often constructed after any theory: theories are rather drawn from them. In them we often see the end best obtained, where the means seem not perfectly reconcilable to what we may fancy was the original scheme. The means taught by experience may be better suited to political ends than those contrived in the original project. They again react upon the primitive constitution, and sometimes improve the design itself, from which they seem to have departed. I think all this might be curiously exemplified in the British Constitution.Links
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