The Trouble With Burke
The fight for liberty must be radical, not counter-revolutionary
By: George Hawley
Edmund Burke, the late 17th-century British statesman who denounced the French Revolution, has long been a towering figure in the conservative pantheon. Burke has recently been especially favored by those few conservatives who opposed America’s messianic social-engineering effort in the Middle East and who wish to return to a more humble, humane foreign policy. It is easy to see why Burke is so much beloved by antiwar conservatives and many libertarians: his blistering critiques of the Jacobins and their “metaphysical dogma” can be just as easily applied to modern-day ideologues (such as the neoconservatives) who wish to remake the world in the image of their own abstract ideas.
Nonetheless, advocates of liberty and peace do themselves a great disservice by holding fast to Burkean principles. In the May 2008 edition of The Atlantic, liberal columnist Jonathan Rauch, no friend of conservatism, compared the perpetually belligerent Sen. John McCain, who was then running for the Republican presidential nomination, to Burke. Rauch may have been closer to the mark than most self-described Burkean conservatives would care to admit.
To most antiwar conservatives and libertarians, Rauch’s argument must seem patently absurd: war-mongering Republicans eager to spread democracy at gunpoint are far more intellectually and temperamentally similar to French revolutionaries like Condorcet and Robespierre than to the traditionalist Burke. Many traditional conservative arguments against neoconservative madness are, after all, built on appeals to Burkean principles of prudence and order. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss Rauch’s point cavalierly. McCain and other mainstream Republicans represent Burke’s principles better than most pro-liberty, anti-war conservatives and libertarians would like to acknowledge.
I should first note that there is nothing conservative, and certainly nothing inherently Burkean, about the irresponsible bellicosity and governmental aggrandizement we experienced during the Bush years. Russell Kirk, arguably Burke’s most prominent American expositor, noted long before they directed American foreign policy that the neoconervatives “have been rash in their schemes of action, pursuing a fanciful democratic globalism rather than the true national interest of the United States.” Kirk based his opposition to the neoconservative ideology of “democratic capitalism” on Burkean principles.
But if Kirk was right, and the neocons are not really authentic conservatives, how did they come to control the Republican Party and the American Right? Part of the answer can unfortunately be found in the defects of Burkeanism itself, particularly that form of Burkeanism promoted by Kirk.
The notion that American conservatives follow an intellectual tradition begun by Burke has become axiomatic. But this was not always conventional wisdom. The American Right’s fascination with Burke can largely be traced back to 1953, when Kirk published The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. This work, like many since, rooted the origins of modern Anglo-American conservatism in Burke, who provided a framework for “the politics of prescription.”
Kirk noted that Burke’s political conservatism was based on prudence and convention, rather than on abstract principles. Burke believed public policies should be founded upon tradition, but he chose not to speculate as to any specific tradition’s origin, declaring, “There is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginnings of governments.” Conservatives can find much to admire in Burke’s work, and his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics)—a literary assault on the Jacobins—remains one of history’s finest attacks on political radicalism. What we must remember, however, is that in Burke’s time, the status quo in England was culturally conservative and the government was comparatively limited in its powers. That being the case, his defense of tradition and precedent was also a defense of civilization and liberty.
Yet even if we admire Burke for what he said and did in his time, an important question remains: does Burke provide advocates of liberty with sound guidance today? To answer that, it is useful to look back to those conservative writers who disputed Burke’s indispensability. Richard Weaver, a contemporary of Kirk’s and like him one of the most important postwar conservative writers, was disturbed by the American Right’s Burkean turn. Weaver presciently noted that adopting Burkean principles and rhetorical techniques would eventually rob the Right of its coherence. Burkean rhetoric, according to Weaver, can be properly described as the “argument from circumstance”:
This argument merely reads the circumstances—the “facts standing around”—and accepts them as coercive, or allows them to dictate the decision. If one should say, “This city must be surrendered because the besiegers are so numerous,” one would be arguing ... from present circumstances. The expression “In view of the situation, what else are you going to do?” constitutes a sort of proposition-form for this type of argument. Such argument savors of urgency rather than perspicacity; and it seems to be preferred by those who are easily impressed by existing tangibles.
This form of argument was Burke’s hallmark. It has also been the most commonplace style of argument among American conservatives. In the past 60 years, the Right has “prudently” abandoned one city after another to besiegers on the statist Left. American conservatives may still have a political army on the field, but, in the name of prudence, expedience, and a “big tent,” they have surrendered every great citadel and now find themselves with precious little to defend. In The Betrayal of the American Right, Murray Rothbard noted that the Right in America once stood fast against the welfare-warfare state. Conservatives have since abandoned that position. At the close of Bush II’s administration, mainstream conservative Republicans stood for nothing but perpetual war and imperialism and had lost all interest in combating government growth. Regrettably, their positions can now be justified on Burkean grounds.
Since World War II, the American Empire has steadily expanded. The “foreign entanglements” the Founding Fathers warned us against have become a fixed part of the political landscape, and there are few living today who can remember when this was not the case. At home, despite a half-dozen Republican presidents expressing devotion to vague ideals of “limited government,” Leviathan has inveigled its way into every aspect of our daily lives. A new explosion of state power during the Obama administration will not represent a radical break with tradition—it will be as American as baseball and apple pie.
Deference to precedent was a key component of Burke’s political philosophy, and in that regard, McCain and the other ineffectual mainstream Republicans are far more Burkean than small government, antiwar conservatives and libertarians. As Rauch noted when praising McCain for refusing to challenge the status quo:
The best way [to balance individual rights with social order], for Burke, was by respecting long-standing customs and institutions while advancing toward liberty and equality. Society’s traditions, after all, embody an evolved collective wisdom that even (or especially) the smartest of individuals cannot hope to understand comprehensively, much less reinvent successfully.
One may argue with Rauch as to the degree to which Burke desired “equality,” but the rest of his description is accurate. The bloated government spawned by the New Deal and a century of hot and cold wars is now a long-standing institution. Is anyone therefore surprised that the Left now appeals to Burke when discussing domestic policies, and the neoconservative Right invokes Burke when excusing and expanding our empire? The neoconservatives may be dangerous ideologues, and liberal Democrats may be power-hungry socialists, but can anyone honestly say that they break with American political conventions?
Russell Kirk warned American conservatives to be wary of ideologies, preferring instead the Burkean reliance on vague principles and tradition. It is time to acknowledge that Kirk’s advice is useless to us. If we want liberty and peace, we cannot rely on tradition, prudence, or arguments from circumstance to provide them for us. We need rhetoric founded on first principles, and true advocates of liberty must be committed to winning and governing on those foundations.
Congressman Ron Paul has provided an example of this kind of leadership and rhetoric. Paul and his supporters stand on their principles, tradition be damned. Unlike Burke or contemporary mainstream Republicans, he is not “easily impressed by existing tangibles.” He unashamedly declared his most recent book a “manifesto,” a word historically embraced by revolutionaries. Traditional conservatives, who, like Kirk, instinctively bristle at such rhetoric, had better get over their horror if they sincerely wish to regain lost liberties. Paul’s outspoken extremism, not Burke’s thoughtful discretion, is the American Republic’s only hope for revival. Tradition now only serves tyrants—we need a revolution.
George Hawley [email@example.com] is a student at the University of Houston.