Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism

I’ve been reading, since it became available the other day, The Great Debate by Yuval Levin. I won’t attempt a review until I’m finished with it. For the time being, let me use a particular point as a jumping off point.

Levin, in introducing the lives of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, writes (Kindle Location 163):

IT MAY SEEM STRANGE to seek philosophical arguments in the words of two men so deeply involved in day-to-day politics. We are not used to political actors who are also political theorists. Such actors were certainly a bit more common in Burke’s and Paine’s era— when in both Britain and America we encounter some politicians who wrote and thought like philosophers— but they were still very much a rare breed even then. And because nearly all of Burke’s and Paine’s pamphlets, speeches, letters, and books were written with some immediate political purpose in mind even as they made larger arguments, scholars of both men’s views have battled over some very basic questions through the centuries.

Part of the problem is that both of these people were political actors rather than political philosophers. Both were seeking to change the social world around them. This seems even more central for Burke who was first and foremost a life-long professional politician. Raised by a father who was a lawyer for the Irish government, Burke was raised in a political family. Burke never had to learn a trade like Paine, never personally experienced poverty, homelessness and hunger like Paine. Burke wasn’t part of the English aristocracy, but he was very well off compared to most British people at that time.

One major point is that the worlds in which Burke and Paine were living were vastly different. Levin makes a false portrayal when he claims that, “Each was a man of humble origins” (Kindle Location 239). To Burke, the prospect of revolution threatened his class privilege and socio-political position. To Paine, the prospect of revolution offered him rights and freedoms he was being denied. They were hardly responding to the same situation and so it is unsurprising that their responses were so different.

As I explained it in a comment to a review of this book:

Historical context is everything.

A person would be entirely clueless about Paine’s position if they didn’t know this historical context: the Commons (as it relates to the Charter of the Forest, common law, the rights of Englishmen, and pre-Lockean land rights) and land enclosures (privatizing the benefits of public resources while externalizing the costs); populations being pushed from their homes and communities in the countryside and forced into concentrated cities where they experienced desperation and rampant disease; growing rates of unemployment, homelessness and poverty; protests and the formation of the first labor unions in London; starvation and food riots while the poor were being hung for simple crimes like stealing a loaf of bread; massive numbers of the destitute being imprisoned, put in workhouses and sold into indentured servitude; et cetera. All of that was what was the background to what was going on when Paine came of age.

Before Paine was a revolutionary, he was a civil servant of the British government seeking gradualist reform within the system. Understanding the historical context that made Paine a revolutionary would also help one understand why Burke transformed from a moderate progressive who supported revolution to a reactionary conservative who opposed revolution. It wasn’t necessarily inevitable that these people would become who they became. Paine was no more inherently a revolutionary than Burke was inherently a reactionary. They were products of their times and of specific environments, especially large rigid class divisions with Paine coming from the working class and Burke coming from the upper class.

When Paine was growing up and becoming and adult in England, the government wasn’t open to being reformed. If it had, Paine might have lived a long contented life as a civil servant. The British government only took reform seriously after it was humbled from its loss during the American Revolution. It is unfair and unreasonable to compare Paine’s response to a reform-resistant pre-revolutionary British government and Burke’s response to a reform-accepting post-revolutionary British government.

Unfortunately, Levin apparently (from what I can tell by my reading of his book so far) doesn’t discuss this historical context and doesn’t give evidence that he understands it.

So, they were both political actors. However, they were acting in response to and toward very different life experiences. If Burke like Paine had been raised working class and had been treated dismissively by the British government, he wouldn’t have developed into the same person. That is an important thing to keep in mind, assuming one desires genuine understanding of historical figures instead of trying to force them into ideological boxes.

As Levin continues (Kindle Location 169):

In Burke’s case, the leading question has been whether he had a consistent set of views throughout his life or whether the French Revolution transformed him somehow. As we will see, Burke spent the first two decades of his political career championing various sorts of reform: of the British government’s finances, its treatment of religious minorities, its trade policy, and more . He spent much of this time pushing against the standing inertia of English politics. But after the revolution in France, which he was concerned might be imported to Britain, Burke was above all a staunch defender of Britain’s political traditions. He strenuously opposed all efforts to weaken the power of the monarch and the aristocracy and warned against fundamental political reforms (like moves toward greater democratization) that might unmoor the nation from its long-standing traditions. He has sometimes been accused, therefore, of changing his most basic views and turning against his former co-partisans and friends. The charge could first be heard in his own lifetime (voiced by Paine, among others) and has been repeated by some of Burke’s biographers and interpreters ever since.

Consistency is more of an issue of theory than of subjective human nature in the context of the messy details of living. Both Burke and Paine changed over their lifetimes. And so neither, in that sense, is ‘consistent’. Understanding why Burke changed is not unlike asking why Reagan switched loyalties from the New Deal Progressivism of the Democratic Party to the Neocon-ruled movement conservatism of the Republican Party. Burke, like Reagan or like Paine, changed because the social and political conditions changed around him.

Few if any people remain unchanged during drastically changing times. Furthermore, no one knows who they might have become under different life conditions, with different events and experiences, in response to different opportunities or oppressions. We all have endless lives not lived, potentials not manifested, roads not taken.

Still, we all want to think we are consistent, that we are morally principled rational actors. So, we try to make sense of what we have become. It is hard for us to know what is genuine insight and what is mere rationalization.

This is also something Levin doesn’t consider, instead taking Burke at his word (Kindle Location 177):

But such a charge miscasts both Burke’s earlier and later views, neglecting the arguments he offered both as a reformer and as a conserver of Britain’s political tradition. Those arguments were always about finding a balance between stability and change— the quest that, as we will see, was at the core of Burke’s ambitions. In the concluding words of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, clearly foreseeing the coming charge of inconsistency, Burke described himself as “one who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.”

This image of the man seeking to balance his ship—or to balance his country in a sea of troubles—against various threats to its cherished equipoise, is fitting, in light of Burke’s varied causes and arguments throughout his eventful career. He was a reformer when some elements of the English constitution threatened to suffocate the whole. He was a preserver when it seemed to him, as David Bromwich has put it, “that revolution is the ultimate enemy of reform.” Equipoise, for Burke, is not stagnation, but rather a way of thinking about change and reform, and about political life more generally. As we will see, it was a central metaphor of his political thought.

Of course, no person, especially no professional politician, wants to be seen as inconsistent. That is the dreaded waffling and flip-flopping for which conservatives like to blame liberals. Conservatives pride themselves on supposedly being principled whereas liberals get characterized as moral relativists. As such, Burke the father of conservatism can’t be a moral relativist. God forbid! Burke was more noble than that. He was seeking ‘balance’ and ‘equipose’. Could you imagine a politician today trying to rationalize away charges of inconsistency with such highfalutin language and getting away with it?

I don’t know Burke’s writings all that well. From Levin’s explanations, Burke seems to have been, if anything, a bit wary of being too principled for in that direction lies radicalism (Kindle Location 312):

Burke argues that human nature relies on emotional, not only rational, edification and instruction— an idea that would become crucial to his insistence that government must function in accordance with the forms and traditions of a society’s life and not only abstract principles of justice. “The influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed,” Burke writes. 5 We are moved by more than logic, and so politics must answer to more than cold arguments.

Having “stark and fundamental principles” (Kindle Location 499) from which one reasons toward political action is what a radical like Paine does, not Burke. “Universal principles” (Kindle Location 543) are dangerous for all worthy values must submit to and serve the social order rather than the other way around. The danger of being too principled is that way lies the extremes of revolution (Kindle Location 120): “the French Revolution launched in earnest the modern quest for social progress through unyielding political action guided by uncompromising philosophical principle.”

This Burkean conservatism sounds like moral relativism to me. Indeed, Levin argues that Burke was fundamentally a utilitarian in that he supposedly didn’t believe humans could know natural law. Moral principles were only to be invoked as they were useful or, as I’d say, when convenient to his purposes.

Even so, Burke wasn’t even consistent in this. When it was inconvenient to limit himself to tradition and established order, he would invoke abstract universal principles as needed (Kindle Location 1453):

Because he had very little positive law to appeal to in making his case, he grounded his passionate and powerful appeal in a higher law. “I impeach him,” Burke told the lords regarding Hastings, “in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated. I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured, and oppressed, in both sexes, at every age, rank, situation, and condition of life.”

The accusation of the radical left by the likes of Burke was that they were essentially too principled; yet the left, radical or otherwise, continuously gets accused of being unprincipled. Which is it? Talk about inconsistency. We can’t even determine the problem, much less the proper stance that would offer a solution. It seems to be that this Burkean stance allows for whatever is convenient at the moment, convenient that is for maintaining the social order and maintaining the power of those who already have it. Burke, in justification, uses yet another fancy term — ‘prudence’ (Kindle Location 1573):

Prudence is not the opposite of either principle or theory. Prudence, rather, is the application of general experience to particular practical problems. In Burke’s view, the prudent person believes that the experience of our society generally points to underlying principles of justice (and of nature) and so offers more reliable, if less specific, guidance than do abstract theories like the natural-rights liberalism that Paine would import wholesale into practical politics.

“History is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles,” Burke writes; it does not offer us direct knowledge of precise or abstract rules. But it does give us general rules, which are certainly good enough most of the time.

Prudence isn’t immoral. It is just morality that is relative to human experience (i.e., moral relativism). The practice of prudence doesn’t deny theory. Rather, it is the theory of the practical (i.e., utilitarianism). I guess it was relatively moral and practical for a conservative like Burke to support monarchy and anti-democratic oppression and yet conservatives today would find that less relatively moral and practical. That is as close to consistency as this kind of conservatism gets.

The descriptive is the normative and hence the prescriptive, or in the words of Levin: “For Burke the resort to history is the model of nature’ (Kindle Location 1623).

The problem with this was explained by the author of another book I was reading the other day — Racecraft by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields (p. 128):

All human societies, whether tacitly or overtly, assume that nature has ordained their social arrangements. Or, to put it another way, part of what human beings understand by the word “nature” is the sense of inevitability that gradually becomes attached to a predictable, repetitive social routine: “custom, so immemorial that it looks like nature,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote.

An additional problem is that even conservatives like Burke don’t consistently seek to defend all traditions and in fact they will even actively attack traditions when they don’t like them. Their vision of tradition is dependent on cherrypicking. Liberals like Paine, on the other hand, often find themselves in the position of defending tradition against the attack by conservatives:

Someone like Paine wasn’t simply attempting to create something new. He was trying to save what was being destroyed, the commons along with the rights of Englishmen. This relates to a long English tradition going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Liberalism arose not just in envisioning new liberties but in defense of old liberties. Such things as the commons are what modern conservatives would like to conveniently forget. Conservatives want to pick and choose what they want from the past and discard the rest.

So, is there anything consistent to conservatism besides, as Corey Robin argues, reaction? If the seemingly inconsistent Edmund Burke is the father of conservatism, then what is this conservatism?

Let me lead into my conclusion with one last quote from Levin (Kindle Location 824);

Paine’s book was the most significant reply to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, though it was by no means the only one. Indeed, dozens of counter-pamphlets soon appeared, mostly from English radicals and dissenters accusing Burke of abandoning both Whig principles and his own principles. They charged him with a profound inconsistency, given his support for the American Revolution and his earlier assertion (in his 1770 pamphlet Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents) that the deep disgruntlement of an entire population is proof that the state requires serious reform. Thomas Jefferson spoke for many when, upon reading the Reflections, he remarked that “the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.” 56 This theme of inconsistency would follow Burke for the rest of his life and indeed well beyond his life, among historians.

This charge of inconsistency, with Burke as their ideological father, continues to plague conservatives to this day. As far as I can tell, they have no better justification to offer to refute this charge. Conservatives barely even acknowledge it, much less try to explain it.

Maybe conservatives need to look for a better foundation.

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