The Burke-Buckley Divide

Carl Bogus examines it:

At the most fundamental level, Burke was a communitarian. It is institutions — governmental, professional, religious, educational, and otherwise — that compose the fabric of society. … For the Burkeans of the 1950s, emphasis on community was at the heart of a properly conceived conservatism. [Russell] Kirk wrote: “True conservatism … rises at the antipodes from individualism. Individualism is social atomism; conservatism is community of spirit.” Robert Nisbet titled his book The Quest for Community.

Though it may surprise people who have been taught that Edmund Burke is the father of modern conservatism, the Burkeans were, in fact, defeated by a rival group with a nearly diametrically opposed view. The leader of that group was William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review. When, in 1952, Buckley first articulated his philosophy in God and Man at Yale, he called it “individualism,” though the nearly absolute laissez-faire philosophy he advocated became better known as libertarianism.

He wonders if modern conservatives might find their way forward by looking back:

Maybe Buckley’s was the necessary path in the 1950s. Conservatism then needed to differentiate itself starkly from the prevailing liberalism. Burkeanism would have made that difficult because, as Kirk often observed, Burke was both a conservative and a liberal. But if conservatives today are looking for wisdom — and maybe even a less truculent partisanship — they might consider the path not taken.

The Buckley wing is perhaps best illustrated by Margaret Thatcher’s famous pronouncement that “there is no such thing as society.” I think that phrase has been a little distorted from its context, as David Frum has noted. Here’s the full context:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

You can see it’s an attempt to restore a better balance between the individual and the society as a whole – because in her time, the collective had become culturally enervating. It was a provisional correction to an emergent social problem (i.e. a Tory argument) rather than some kind of sternal philosophical pronouncement (the Randian approach).

I favor a balance between Burke’s Whig instincts (that was his party, after all) and his Tory understanding of the centrality of culture and history. Society does not begin with the individual; it begins with the household and extends outward to civil society, Burke’s “little platoons” of associations and communities, and then to a strong government fair and limited enough to allow the individual, if he or she chooses, to forge his or her own path. Individualism is itself a product of a particular social achievement in democratic liberalism. It is the end of the great Anglo-American experiment in ordered liberty. It is not the beginning – and a failure to understand that can undermine liberty entirely.

Hence the notion that extreme social and economic inequality – although defensible on abstract libertarian grounds – is actually a threat to individual liberty. Because it threatens the legitimacy of the system that made individual liberty possible.

No man is an island, Senator Paul. Including you.

I think some libertarians’ blindness to the social underpinnings of individual freedom does them a disservice. Perhaps America’s newness allowed the forgetfulness. But England’s conservative tradition cannot forget. Which is why, in the grand sweep of Tory history, Thatcher was the exception – a particularly strong strain of Whiggery in the Conservative elixir.