Edmund Burke’s Conservatism

notes from The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
by Yuval Levin (2014)

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion -- Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)



Thomas Paine’s Liberalism


For Thomas Paine, Burke’s great antagonist in the debate between liberalism and conservatism, the original state of nature serves as the just foundation upon which society, and then government, is based. Men are all created to be equal individuals with basic rights. Public good is measured by the accretion of good for individuals. Society, while un-necessary to the individual’s existence, is necessary for his happiness. Natural society existed at first without government, but over time, vice resulted from the relaxation of the constant demands of necessity, so government was created. We enter into society and create a government to protect those rights which we do not have the power to protect as individuals alone. We become citizens by accepting the obligation to protect the civil rights of others. In so doing, we protect our own. Above all society protects our right to choice: the freedom to shape our own future un-coerced. Government is a compact, not between the ruler and the ruled, but between the people themselves. Power willingly granted is legitimate and only government by consent is just. All delegated power is trust; all assumed power is usurpation. Monarchy and aristocracy both originated from usurpation and are prolonged by the root of evil: hereditary right.


Revolution, according to Paine, results not in the dissolution of society but in its restoration to the purity of nature for the purpose of forming a new, more just government. The new physics describes a nature consisting of distinct and separable forces acting on distinct and separable objects according to rational and therefore discernable rules. Nature can be understood by breaking it down to its simplest parts and tracing it to its beginning. Society is a function of nature, government of art.  


Paine’s faith in universal principles insists that he under emphasize patriotism and duty to the homeland. The universal cause of freedom is at the centre of his philosophy. “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” He envisioned a universal society unburdened by national prejudices. His obligation was to his fellow man, not to community or country.


Edmund Burke’s Conservatism


Burke does not deny the natural equality of man, but this quality does not necessitate social equality. Instead, nature makes necessary some inequality via time, custom, succession. “All men have equal rights but not to equal things.” To Burke, equality should not be the goal of politics. Social peace, prosperity and stability are more important for everyone. Attempts to level society never equalize. Instead the great middle will tend to predominate, and their leaders will provide only a disorderly rule of the unfit. Leveling removes respect for authority and social obligation. The idea of eliminating social distinctions is a monstrous fiction which only serves to embitter a necessary inequality which has naturally evolved over time. Distinction should go to those best suited for power. One component of that suitability has to do with property and leisure which both tend to be inherited. Social mobility is possible in English society, but raw intelligence and financial power are not as important to leadership as knowledge of history and tradition, a sense of people and, above all, prudence. Everyone is born with the seeds of leadership in them, but cultivating these seeds requires a natural aristocracy.  


Societies should seek to be well governed rather than playing out the implications of abstract political equality whose society would elevate those poorly qualified to govern. The division of society into classes composes a strong barrier against the excesses of despotism by establishing habits of restraint in the ruler and the governed. Removing these traditional social restraints would force government alone to maintain the peace by brute force. Parchment principles are not nearly as powerful as the restraints of habit and custom that grow from group identity and loyalty. Our goal in life should be to seek the happiness found by virtue, no matter the condition into which we are born. Social connections are essential to liberty. Breaking them apart leaves the individual subject to the brute power of the state and to each other. Leveling eliminates respect for authority and social obligations. Looking past conventional institutions and accepting only abstraction as a source of authority would corrode political and social life.


Government does not derive its legitimacy from its origins. It develops through time along lines which benefit the people and therefore point towards the good. Society originated in barbarism, but over time society developed a more mature form in its ongoing response to the exigencies of the moment. It mellows into legality.  


Burke on Man in the State of Nature


Rejection of the importance of beginnings separates Burke from most political thinkers in the Western tradition who believe that foundation is a crucial political moment which shapes the future character of a regime. Burke argues that a regime takes shape over time. What is important is not the origin but the current shape and function of government. Burke blurs nature and artifice. Art is man’s nature. By denying Paine’s distinction, he closes off the reversion to the original state of nature. Burke respects nature and society as elements of a single human society. Regimes are built on conventions and are natural because humans use art.


By looking past history in search of nature, the radicals ignore their best possible sources of wisdom and instruction. Man has always been a social creature, living together with others in an organized society with government.  Institutions of society are often the contrivances of deep wisdom, not the rights of man.


A people are joined in a single corporation which is wholly artificial and made by agreement. When that compact is broken, they cease to be a people.  A good patriot always considers how to make the most of the existing materials of a country. It is beyond our power to make the world anew. Working with existing materials requires knowledge of the history and character of one’s own society. Statesmanship is not geometry or physics. It is an experimental science only pursued with prudence. Learning from experiments takes time. History offers lessons no statesman can ignore. 

Burke rebukes Enlightenment philosophes for over emphasizing reason and forgetting the sympathies and sentiments of a people.  We must tend to our moral imagination or it will direct reason towards violence and disorder. We can be deterred from vice by love of our neighbors, habits of peace, and pride in our community. Communal traditions play to our sentimental attachments and help prevent political violence.


However, when natural revulsion to mob violence is overcome, a catastrophe is surely at hand. We revert to our original naked, shivering nature.  Triumph of the rights of man leads to the loss of all natural sense of right and wrong. The system of chivalry once championed these sentiments, these illusions which make power gentle and obedience liberal.


Burke and Social Evolution


Burke denies that any political system is somehow natural to man, but we can best guide political change by looking to nature, not to the realm of physics as Paine’s system does, but to a system of inheritance whereby biological organisms pass traits on to the next generation. Just as in nature, we pass on a ‘permanent body composed of transitory parts’: a model of species, a people embedded in a larger context, not mere individuals. This cultural transmission accounts for the life cycle. We don’t reinvent the wheel each generation. Most innovators are usually imprudent. Political institutions and practices are a charge, a gift from the past owed to the future. These institutions have pedigree and illustrious ancestors.


Change is inevitable. It is the most powerful law of nature, but evolution should be imperceptible-- just as it is in our own nature: gentle, gradual change; evolution, not revolution. Prescription is the art of adapting established practices to changing times.


The Citizen’s Freedom of Choice and Obligation to the State


Paine argues that we enter into society and create a government to protect those rights which we don’t have the power to protect as individuals alone. We become citizens by accepting the obligation to protect the civil rights of others, and in so doing, we protect our own rights.


Above all society protects our right to choice: the freedom to shape our own future un-coerced by the power of the state. Government is a compact not between the ruler and the ruled but between the people themselves.


How central should choice be to political life? Richard Price had argued that the Glorious Revolution had established the fundamental rights of the people, acting through Parliament, to choose their own governors and frame government for themselves. Burke attacked the theory of rule by consent which lay at the heart of Enlightenment liberalism. To Burke, The Glorious Revolution had not established the right of a people to govern themselves; instead, England had avoided the establishment of a republic and preserved the ancient constitution of government which had secured laws and liberties.


Burke defends representative institutions as part of the regime, not as the whole. The people have a voice, but a means exists to subject the public will to prudent leadership. Pure democracy carries no principle of restraint and would result in a tyranny of the majority and the danger of arbitrary rule.


For Burke, the focus on choice amounts to a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition. People join a society not through choice but through birth into a family, station and nation which all exert inescapable demands on him. The place of every human determines his duty. Human obligations involving family, community, the nation, and religious faith are not chosen. Political and social life begin from these, not from an act of choice. We enter a world that already exists. The basic facts and character of human procreation demand obligations from parents and subsequently the child as well. There is a pre-disposed order to things which begins with the family, not the individual, and moves up towards society. So the family itself becomes the target of genuinely radical liberal revolutionaries.


Through prescription, the slow adaptation of a government to existing conditions, the species, not the individual, nor the majority, acts wisely. The most important facts about society are not the result of anyone’s choice.


The Social Contract


For Burke, the social contract is not an agreement made between people but a description of binding relations: “a great arrangement”. The strongest moral obligations are never the results of options. The contract does not establish the grounds on which society may be dissolved. It describes the relations of parts.


Burke’s conceptions of the rights of man are practical rights for the benefit of society. Some benefits actually limit freedom. We cannot live in a society if we follow our desires and passions without restraint. So society guarantees some liberties but also issues some restraints, the balance of which is a matter of prudence, not absolute principle. Rights are relations, not individual entitlements. The purpose of government is not to protect the rights of the individual but to supply the wants of the people. The representative is not simply the voice of the majority, but he owes the people his judgment as well. In so doing, a prudent government makes sure that each man has the right to have his needs served by the action of the state.


The Citizen’s Duty and Patriotism


Burke emphasizes patriotism as a key aspect of the social and generational context of politics: just as we feel loyalty and a duty to protect our family, so do we shoulder responsibility for our community and nation. The impetus to duty issues from these feelings of love and responsibility. Reform should begin from a position of gratitude for what the nation provides us. The statesman must sustain these vital attachments of the people to their country. In Paine’s utopia every country would be more or less the same if all abided by principles of freedom and justice. Burke argued that a nation’s historical experience defines its forward path. The nation builds on its past accomplishments. The nation is not a mere locality but the ancient order into which we are born.


On Capitalism and Our Obligation to the Poor


Paine believed that free trade would uproot traditional social and political relationships and allow men to pursue their material well-being free of the obstacles of prejudice. Burke believed in free trade because regulation by the government interferes with an economy in ways which are beyond the understanding of legislators. To Burke, the laws of commerce are similar to the laws of nature themselves. A free economy sustains social stability and therefore its wealth, some of which should be used to help the poor, but this is a private obligation, not a government responsibility. The pursuit of profit is the grand cause of prosperity for all. Poverty is the result of economic dislocations made worse by government attempts to regulate the economy. Let society restrain the vices which result from free trade through moral and legal opinion. The statesman must strive to preserve the dynamism of the economy with all its imperfections. The cost of remedying the situation of the impoverished would do worse damage to society as a whole and result in far worse suffering for the poor. The needs of the poor should be addressed instead through charities amply supported by the wealthy and the noble. The government’s actions would never work and would disrupt the social order in the process. (Adam Smith read and heartily approved of Burke’s opinion.)


Paine argued that free trade and capitalism would do much to disrupt established order. He also made the case for something like the welfare system. The government had the obligation to provide for old age, post natal care, education, pensions, even funeral expenses which could be financed by ‘ground rent’ on property. He argued that private charity could not hope to remedy the extent of the misery.


Burke argued that obligations are functions not of our choice but of our deeply embedded place in the social order. The duty for the care of the poor belongs to the rich, not the government.


Reason and Prescription


According to Paine, insights into political science enable citizens to free themselves from countless ancient prejudices, but Burke would argue that governing human communities is far too complex a task to be simplified into pseudo-scientific questions and resolved through logical thought experiments.


Due to the complexity of human nature and the insufficiency of choice, reason’s potential is limited. By ignoring sentiments and attachments that move people in politics, statesman must confront the most difficult challenges when coping with the people’s irrational moods. Conclusions should be drawn from experience, so politics is an experimental science. Practice trumps theory. Politics must not be mistaken for metaphysics. Governing is not about proving a point;  rather, it is about advancing the interests and happiness of the nation.


The abstract precision of physics, the schemes of visionary politicians anatomizing the doctrine of free government is less helpful than making choices based on simple moral prudence. Political wisdom is incapable of precise definition outside of the social context of the situation. Effective choices can be wrong in theory but correct in practice, combining theory with an appraisal of the specific circumstances. Politics is particular: concrete and particular. “I must see the thing. I must see the man.” Human nature and citizens in civil life come in a wide variety of conditions and in specific situations. They have “crucial differences and attachments.”


Burke ridicules the French radicals’ decision to divide the provinces into precise departments, crushing all attachment to the community. Burke’s moderation rejects anarchy as well as tyranny. Any radical re-arrangement of society lays the seeds of extremism. Extremists are perfectionists, and there is no perfection in politics. In practice their rule becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, justifying extremes that ignore anything that doesn’t fit their theories.