Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Saturday, August 16, 2014 1:52 pm

Economist: You can’t vote for a sane conservative because there aren’t any; or, Caution: Contents may have disappeared during shipping..

Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong:


You can see this most clearly if you take a close look at Edmund Burke. Edmund Burke does not believe that Tradition is to be Respected. He believes that good traditions are to be respected. When Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France makes the argument that Britons should respect the organic political tradition of English liberty that has been inherited from the past, he whispers under his breath that the only reason we should respect the Wisdom of the Ancestors is that in this particular case Burke thinks that the Ancestors–not his personal ancestors, note–were wise.

Whenever Burke thought that the inherited political traditions were not wise, the fact that they were the inherited Wisdom of the Ancestors cut no ice with him at all. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that they would conquer, torture, and rob wogs whenever and wherever they were strong enough to do so. That tradition cut no ice with Edmund Burke when he was trying to prosecute Warren Hastings. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that all power flowed to Westminster. That tradition cut no ice with Burke when he was arguing for conciliation with and a devolution of power to the American colonists. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that Ireland was to be plundered and looted for the benefit of upwardly-mobile English peers-to-be. That tradition, too, cut no ice with Burke.

Even in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke doesn’t argue that Frenchmen should build on their own political traditions–the traditions of Richelieu and Louis XIV, that is. He argues–well, let’s roll the videotape:

Burke: 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. 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, and drawn upon that usable past in order to buttress the present revolutionary moment. This isn’t an intellectual argument about how to decide what institutions are good. It is a practical-political argument about how to create good institutions and then buttress and secure them by making them facts on the ground.

So Edmund Burke, among the most revered conservative thinkers in Western thought, would have no truck with stupidity, insanity, or even counterproductivity. Point me to a single conservative political leader in the United States today about whom we can say the same. Go on. I’ll wait.

By the way, DeLong reposted this on Friday. He originally posted it in 2008. Plus la change …


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