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The Usefulness of Edmund Burke: Tuesday Hoisted from Comments

In the comments to A Question About What I Do Not Get About Michael Oakeshott...: invhand asks:

There is a lot of energy in these posts!

Conservatives have a problem. They are arguing tradition has a value which resists rational analysis. Hard to analyze what resists analysis! They are making a heuristic argument for slowing change down on the grounds that more is thrown away when we abandon traditional practice than we understand. But as many of the posters above have pointed out, this is also a way of telling the excluded and oppressed, "Be patient."

So there is no analytical work to compete with Rawls and Nozick. Is there anyone who tells good stories about what was lost?

And I reply:

Well, there is Edmund Burke, who--in striking contrast to Michael Oakeshott--does talk about what valuable things are thrown out in the spring cleaning of revolution. From Reflections on the Revolution in France:

We [in Britain] procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age; and on account of those from whom they are descended.... You [in France] might, if you pleased, have profited of our example, and have given to your recovered freedom a correspondent dignity. Your privileges, though discontinued, were not lost to memory. Your constitution... suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations....

In your old [E]states [General] you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed; you had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe.... Through that diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities as there were separate views.... [B]y pressing down the whole by the weight of a real monarchy, the separate parts would have been prevented from warping and starting from their allotted places.

You had all these advantages in your antient [E]states [General].... If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom.... Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. You would not have chosen to consider the French as... a nation of low-born servile wretches until the emancipating year of 1789.... [Y]ou would not have been content to be represented as a gang of Maroon slaves, suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage....

Would it not... have been wiser to have you thought... a generous and gallant nation, long misled... by... fidelity, honour, and loyalty... that you were not enslaved through any illiberal or servile disposition... [but] by a principle of public spirit, and that it was your country you worshipped, in the person of your king? Had you made it to be understood... that you were resolved to resume your ancient [liberties,] privileges[, and immunities]... you would have given new examples of wisdom to the world. You would have rendered the cause of liberty venerable in the eyes of every worthy mind in every nation. You would have shamed despotism from the earth...

Burke's argument is not that France in 1789 should have followed its ancestral traditions because they were ancestral--it is not Oakeshott's clowning about how of course female suffrage is silly and pathetic.

Burke's argument is, instead, that France in 1789 should have dug into its past until it found a moment when institutions were better than in 1788. It should then have drawn upon that usable past in order to buttress its present revolution.

This isn't an intellectual argument that past institutions are good.

This is a practical-political argument about how to create good institutions and then buttress and secure them by making them facts on the ground.

What are good institutions? When we turn to that, Burke sounds a lot like Madison: checks-and-balances, separation of powers, rights of the subject, limitations on the state, the proper balance of voice from below, command from above, respect from above, and obedience from below. Burke's views on what good institutions are Enlightenment views--that branch of the Enlightenment that took people as they are and politics as a science, that is, rather than the branch that took people as Rousseau hoped they might someday be and politics as the striking of an oppositional pose.

Because Burke finds that in the English past there are elements that are usable as a support for his Enlightenment-driven moral-philosophical views about how to establish a good political order, Burke makes the conservative argument in Reflections that one should conserve that usable past.

But whenever conservative arguments lead where Burke doesn't want to go--to Richelieu or Louis XIV or the plunder of Ireland or the Star Chamber or Warren Hastings or imperial centralization--Burke doesn't make them. They have no purchase on him. England's inheritance of institutions and practices is to be respected wherever it supports Burke's conception of properly-ordered liberty. England's inheritance of institutions and practices is to be ignored wherever it does not.

For Burke, conservatism is a sometimes useful rhetorical and practical-political weapon, not a set of principles. Burke is, I think, best understood as and is useful and worth reading precisely because he is not Oakeshott: Burke is Whig measures in Tory guise......"