Saturday, March 30, 2013

Return to the Planet of the Burkes

Edmund Burke presents something of a problem for many people given to studying political theory and philosophy. Today, most surveyors of past theorists tend to refer to Burke as a conservative thinker, if not the intellectual founder--unintentionally--of modern conservatism, proper (we're speaking here of political theory, not social issues). At the very least, he is looked upon as one of the originators of the British conservative tradition.

And all of this is understandable. Burke--as a leader of the Whigs during the eighteenth century--supported the American Revolution for the most part, but then opposed the French Revolution. The dichotomy of his views in this regard is simple: while Burke stood for liberty, he feared too much liberty; in Burke's view, the aristocracy, the class system, had a necessary and proper function in this regard.

For Burke believed tradition was not something to be ignored or torn apart, simply for the sake of change. In many ways, Burke was a classical liberal; he argued for religious toleration, against any sort of absolutist rule, for the open markets of Adam Smith, and against pure democracy. There were balances to be achieved in Burke's mind. Thus, the excesses of the French Revolution were a consequence of its leaders' attempt to do away with the old order en total, though there were certainly aspects of that order which needed to be changed.

Thus, what really makes Burke a conservative thinker is his approach: change for the sake of change is simply a non-starter for Burke. Yet, there are those in libertarian circles who also find value in Burke's thinking, since Burke insists on liberty as a primary goal and sees laws--bad laws--as one of the great impediments to this goal.

For many in both schools of thought--conservatism and libertarianism--it is still Burke who most clearly and concisely explained why direct democracy was a danger to the liberty of minority interests, for as he noted in assessing the consequences of the French Revolution:
The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny. If, as society is constituted in these large countries of France and England, full of unequal property, I must make my choice (which God avert!) between the despotism of a single person, or of the many, my election is made. As much injustice and tyranny has been practiced in a few months by a French democracy, as in all the arbitrary monarchies in Europe in the forty years of my observation.
A scathing indictment, to be sure: Burke would prefer the rule of an absolute monarch to that of the demos, the people as a whole. It's a difficult pill to swallow for many, the idea that the people are incapable of self-rule, that constraints must exist as a matter of course. And yet it is very much the basis of theories of limited government, it is why mixed government--republicanism--has become the preferred form, as opposed to pure democracy.

In the classic film Planet of the Apes, the apes refer a number of times to their "Elder Scrolls," the basis of their society, as compiled by "the Lawgiver" many ages before. The most prominent quote from these scrolls is of course the First Law: "Ape Shall Never Kill Ape." And indeed, such a law--if changed to a human perspective--is foundational in many belief and philosophical systems, including libertarianism.

But more interesting is what the Elder Scrolls say in reference to man:
Beware the beast man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport, or lust, or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.
There's a lot of truth here in my opinion. As a brief assessment of man's proclivities and fundamental character, it is overly harsh (and clearly Hobbesian) but nonetheless captures what it means to be human from the standpoint of the worst side of humanity. There is another side to be sure, one of charity, honor, and virtue, but it is the worst side that tends to manifest itself if the opportunity is given.

Burke, I think, would agree with this assessment in general with regard to mankind, with the caveat that social institutions--like religion and even nobility--serve to mitigate the tendencies of man in this regard. And that caveat is--again--the key aspect of Burke's thought that distinguishes it as conservative thought. Fundamentally, it is where conservatism and libertarianism part ways as well. Both philosophies recognize the baser aspects of man, both take it as a given that such behaviors will manifest themselves in government as a matter of course, which is exactly why government authority--any authority really--needs to be carefully circumscribed.

But unlike libertarians, conservatives see such behaviors as something to be concerned with when it comes to the population in general; thus, the demos--as much as the government--needs limitations. It's not enough to simply have checks and balances in government, these need to exist in society at large as well.

And again, those limitations are the constraints imposed by social institutions. Not all such institutions are "good things," not all need to be maintained. At the same time, dismantling them all simply because they are not perfect is a dangerous road. In the moment, justice may be served. But across time, the end result may be very, very different.

The people in France, the masses as it were, prior to the French Revolution had very valid reasons to rise up against the French monarchy and the structures it had created. And in this sense, the French Revolution was very much about Justice and Liberty. Yet the worm turned very quickly, the idealism of the moment became something dark and unforgiving because all manner of societal constraints were being ripped away, for the principle reason of their existence under the monarchy, nothing more.

Man--in the form of the people at large--need not be shunned or driven back. But neither can man be given free reign; tyranny is at the end of both roads, yet as Burke notes it is the tyranny of the many that is the most dangerous, the most destructive. And the rise of such tyranny can be identified I think: the destruction of social institutions for the sake of such destruction, alone. Be wary.

Cheers, all.

1 comment:

  1. "the idea that the people are incapable of self-rule"

    Democracy is NOT self-rule; anarchy or perhaps a malum in se-bound minarchy might be considered such. Pure democracy is rule of the minority by the mob. Absent power over others, stupid decisions by an individual are severely limited in their impact on others. Hand the mob the power to dictate society's direction under threat of force, and you get bread and circuses and fewer people supporting the rest every year.

    Self-rule is a threat only to the individual; pure democracy,OTOH, is unfettered collectivism, a threat to the free association and exchange necessary for self-rule, and referring to it as self-rule ignores the fundamental difference between the individual and the collective.