Burke and Conservatism


Brad DeLong, a writer consumed with hatred of conservatism in any form, argues that even Burke just made it all up as he went along, supporting tradition when it agreed with his principles and junking it when it didn’t. Money quote:

What are good institutions? Burke sounds like Madison: checks-and-balances, separation of powers, rights of the subject, limitations on the state. Burke’s views on what good institutions are 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 he finds that the English past is usable as a support for his Enlightenment-driven views, Burke makes conservative arguments in Reflections. 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. England’s inheritance of institutions and practices is to be respected wherever it supports Burke’s conception of properly-ordered liberty, and ignored wherever it does not.

Well, yes and no. Burke’s fundamental point is that everything in society is contingent and that change must always begin with what came before and is most successful when it works inferentially from that tradition rather than being imposed from outside according to abstract theories or texts. Tradition is also a very expansive term. An American can reach back deeply into the American past and resurrect an ancient tradition and make it fresh again – thus appearing to be quite radical, while still fitting into the definition of a Burkean conservative. It is always up to the statesman at any period of time to make a prudential judgment about what change is good and what isn’t.

Hence, to a liberal who wants a clear and timeless theory about what makes something just or unjust, right or wrong, Burke looks unprincipled. To a conservative, however, he seems, well, prudent. Conservatives in the Anglo-American tradition have many strains to draw on – Schmittian and Burkean, among many others. Increasingly, it seems to me, there is a divide between conservatives who look to Madison and Burke, and those who look to more authoritarian impulses. The crisis in American conservatism came to a head when the South took over. The South has never been fertile soil for Madisonian or Burkean conservatism. And I doubt whether any party based in the South will ever be conservative in the manner I admire.