Religion & Liberty Online

Edmund Burke Can Still Inspire the American Right

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Does rereading the great 18th-century statesman, political philosopher, and economic thinker hold the key to resolving the tensions within American conservatism today?

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It’s no secret that the modern American conservative movement is divided today. Issues like the role of government, the place of the nation-state, and the extent to which free markets should prevail in economic life have become major points of fracture across the right that seem unlikely to be resolved soon.

In times of such division, one way in which political movements seek to achieve clarity about what they are and why they exist is by returning to their primary sources of inspiration. Sometimes that involves rereading important texts. On other occasions, the focus turns to how particular individuals in the past thought about their world and the issues they confronted.

These were the references in my mind as I made my way through a short book, edited by the George Mason economics professor Daniel B. Klein and the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute, Dominic Pino. In Edmund Burke and the Perennial Battle, 1789-1797, they have brought together extracts from some of the more important later writings penned by the man widely regarded as a major inspiration for modern Anglo-American conservatism. These texts, Klein and Pino believe, illustrate that Edmund Burke was someone who believed that “he had a duty to the present and a duty to the future . . . a duty to liberty in policy and a duty to stability in polity.” A modern American conservative movement that embodied these axioms would surely be one less wracked by the internecine conflicts that bedevil it today. 

Hard Times

The period covered by this collection not only marks the last eight years of Burke’s life but also encompasses a tumultuous decade in British and European history. The French Revolution sparked immense social and political change throughout much of Europe as well as widespread violence inside France and war abroad. Having recovered from its defeat in the War of American Independence, Britain found itself drawn back into military conflict with its old enemy, albeit one now pushing a specific ideological agenda. With two very short intervals, this war would not end until 1815.

For Burke, the 1790s were exceptionally difficult years. Views of the French Revolution forged new alliances in British politics but also broke long-standing friendships. Burke’s dim view of the French Revolution meant that he lined up more often with Prime Minister William Pitt (about whom he had expressed reservations in the past) and found himself at odds with his old friend Charles Edward Fox. This split with Fox mirrored the new division between self-styled “Old Whigs” like Burke and the “New Whig” enthusiasts about what was happening across the Channel.

These stresses form much of the background to Klein and Pino’s edited collection of extracts from Burke’s writings in these periods. Not surprisingly, selections from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France comprise the largest set of writings reproduced in this book. But extracts from eight lesser-known writings (Letters on a Regicide Peace, An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, “Letter to William Elliot,” to name a few) also show Burke working through his long-standing commitments to liberty as well as the importance of tradition in an atmosphere quite different from that of pre-revolutionary Europe.

The French Revolution purported to be all about liberty. Yet this was difficult to square with the social and political chaos that erupted throughout France in the Revolution’s wake and the eventual use of state terror against large segments of the population. Radicalism (which assumed its most virulent form in Jacobinism and its penchant for using terrorist methods against its opponents), Klein and Pino point out, became a major force in European politics. Individuals like Burke who were attached to Enlightenment methods of inquiry but also believed in the accumulated wisdom often embodied in enduring tradition (whether in formal documents, long-standing conventions, or social and religious institutions) had to work out how they responded to these new circumstances. What did it mean, for example, to be a reformer in these times of immense change?

Thinking About Change

Some of the best parts of this collection of Burke’s thoughts concern his attention to the nature of change. “Change for the sake of change” was something Burke found illogical and dangerous. But he made a distinction between change and reform. For Burke, the French Revolution was not, at least in the minds of its increasingly radicalized leadership, about reform. Change for them involved a parting with (if not wholesale condemnation of) the past. More generally, those pursuing change are, as Burke wrote in his 1789 “Letter to Charles-Jean-François Depont,” often inclined to “underate the evils that may arise in obtaining it.”

Reform, however, was something quite different. In many cases, it involved restoring something to its proper place in the political, economic, and social order. An example might be an instance in which the “natural rights of mankind” (Burke’s term) have been glossed over or denied to specific groups or individuals. That word “natural” is important because it implies that certain things are owed to human beings and are not up for debate—save for how such rights are to be organized and made coherent with respect to each other in complex social conditions.

Therein lies the importance of prudence. The master of the cardinal virtues features explicitly and implicitly throughout these Burke texts, especially in terms of why, how, and when reforms are carried out. It is not enough to identify a problem or even abuse. Burke argued that you needed to consider a range of factors to ensure that the cure was not worse than the disease. Nor should reform, Burke thought, be the occasion of a wholesale overturning of the social order. Generally, remedies should be sought from within the existing order rather than outside it. That position explains much of Burke’s very negative view of the Revolution.

Liberty Ordered by Reason, Custom, Truth, and Virtue

Burke’s stance on the French Revolution is consistent with his understanding of liberty. Burke is clearly a founding father of modern Anglo-American conservatism, and what makes that conservatism different from, say, continental European traditionalist and nationalist movements is the high premium it attaches to freedom.

In Burke’s case, that translated into a strong connection to things like constitutionally limited government and the type of economic system outlined in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Burke’s only explicitly economic text, “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity” (which I was surprised not to find in this collection of Burke’s writings), breathes the spirit of economic liberty contained in Smith’s world-changing book.

Nonetheless, the texts highlighted by Klein and Pino also illustrate how Burke’s conception of liberty is not one of a freedom that somehow floats above and beyond human reason, the demands of morality, and the conventions and traditions of society. Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution, Klein and Pino show, was undergirded by his awareness that the men in Paris held to a vision of liberty that abstracted itself from social reality.

This wariness of excessive abstraction on Burke’s part didn’t mean that he regarded liberty as a relative thing. Burke’s use of the language of natural rights (which he denotes as “sacred things”) and his invocation of natural law shows that this is not the case. Burke does not regard our capacity to know the importance of liberty (or truth, for that matter) as utterly impossible outside certain traditions. Rather, Burke had in mind the notion that freedom itself and the gradual extension of liberty is very dependent upon ensuring that the necessary supports of that freedom—which, for Burke, meant things like orthodox religion, a strong civil society (his “little platoons”), the prevalence of good manners, and a reverence for the post–Glorious Revolution British Constitution—were not undermined, let alone trampled upon.

A Message for Our Time

That, I would suggest, is a message that the modern American conservative movement needs to hear again today. For Burke, liberty is a major value, and a commitment to growing the sphere in which freedom can be exercised is one of the things that should resonate with American conservatives. It also puts a huge gulf between Burke and, say, the streams of continental European authoritarian conservatism associated with figures like the German political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt (a primary legal apologist for the National Socialist regime) to whom some national conservatives and many integralists presently look for inspiration.

At the same time, Burke does not think that liberty somehow operates beyond human reason and outside the social institutions in which we are all embedded. “Tradition,” “natural law,” and “virtue” are the type of “conservative” adjectives that Burke attached to the “classical liberal” noun liberty. This combination is key for understanding many thinkers, ranging from the 19th-century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville to the 20th-century German ordoliberal economist Wilhelm Röpke, whose ideas influenced the postwar American conservative movement. It helped shape what came to be called fusionism, or, to use my own elongated descriptor, “conservative classical liberalism, American-style.”

Perhaps it is always the case that long-standing tensions between conservative and classical liberal thinking, or at least particular expressions of these political philosophies, are bound to resurface from time to time, including our own. But the writings of Burke brought together by Klein and Pino show that a genuine integration is possible. The caveat, I’d suggest, is that guidance on this matter needs to be furnished by prudent and subtle minds, and that such guidance must be listened to. In an age of demagoguery and populism like our own, such minds and listening are rare. Therein lies much of the American conservative movement’s dilemma today.

Samuel Gregg

Samuel Gregg is the Friedrich Hayek Chair in Economics and Economic History at the American Institute for Economic Research, an affiliate scholar at the Acton Institute, and author, most recently, of The Next American Economy: Nation, State, and Markets in an Uncertain World.