March 21, 2014 columns

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Edmund Burke, Intellectuals, and the French Revolution, Part 2

After criticizing Murray Rothbard’s interpretation of Edmund Burke’s first book, Smith summarizes Burke’s primary objections to rationalistic intellectuals.

I will begin this part with a brief discussion of a controversy that is relevant to Edmund Burke’s rejection of abstract reasoning in politics. In his first book, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), Burke, writing anonymously, presents himself as a disciple of the deist Lord Bolingbroke. As such, he applies to political theory the same rationalistic method of analysis that Bolingbroke had used against Christianity. The result—a spirited critique of political society in favor of a “natural society” without government—has been construed by some readers as a serious defense of anarchism, whereas Burke wrote it as a reductio ad absurdum of political rationalism.

The argument that the premises of John Locke and other individualists (natural rights, government by consent, etc.), if consistently applied, will strand us in the anarchistic “state of nature,” with no logical way out, had been a popular method of criticizing liberal individualism for many years; and a young Burke transformed this method into a sophisticated satire. But some modern libertarians believe that the Vindication was originally written as a serious defense of anarchism, and that only later did the youthful radical retreat into conservatism.

This interpretation is wholly implausible. Much of the misunderstanding among some libertarians may be traced to an early article by Murray Rothbard, “A Note on Burke’s Vindication of the Natural Society,” published in the Journal of the History of Ideas (January 1958), Rothbard wrote:

The Vindication was published anonymously when Burke was 27 years old. Nine years later, after his authorship had been discovered, Burke found himself about to embark on his famous Parliamentary career. To admit that he had seriously held such [anarchistic] views in earlier years would have been politically disastrous. His only way out was to brush it off as a satire, thereby vindicating himself as an eternal enemy of rationalism and subversion.

At the conclusion of his article, Rothbard asks: “If the work were really a satire, why only proclaim it as such when a rising political career was at stake? Why not announce it shortly after publication?”

There is a simple answer to Rothbard’s questions: Burke did in fact announce the satirical intent of the Vindication shortly after its initial publication in 1756. The second edition with the new preface was actually published in 1757, just one year after the original edition—not nine years later, in 1765, as Rothbard asserted. And in 1757 Burke was not running for any political office.

It is quite possible that Rothbard got the incorrect year from John Morley’s biography, Burke (2nd ed., 1888, p. 19). Although Morley, a classical liberal historian who was usually reliable, understood that Burke wrote the Vindication as satire, he mistakenly gave the year of the new preface as 1765: “It is significant that in 1765, when Burke saw his chance of a seat in Parliament, he thought it worthwhile to print a second edition of his Vindication, with a preface to assure his readers that the design of it was ironical.”

I should note, with some embarrassment, that I also got the year of the second edition wrong in my recent book, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism. Relying on Morley’s account, as Rothbard probably did, I gave 1765 as the year of the new preface, though I have never believed that Burke intended the Vindication as anything other than satire. My mistake was curious in a way, since I had previously read the correct account by Peter J. Stanlis (Edmund Burke and the Natural Law, 1958, p. 126) and had even bracketed his correction of Morley; nevertheless, I somehow allowed the correct year to disappear into the recesses of my mind.

The notion that a young Burke, within a year after publishing the Vindication, converted from a hyper-rationalistic anarchist (and anti-Christian deist) to an anti-rationalistic conservative (and devout Anglican), while attempting to disguise his conversion with a deceitful preface, is, in a word, preposterous. There is not a scintilla of credible evidence to support this interpretation. The real point of the Vindication, as Burke explains in his Preface, was to show that “the same Engines which were employed for the Destruction of Religion, might be employed with equal Success for the Subversion of Government.” Years earlier, in 1726, Bishop Butler had taken a similar approach in his Analogy of Religion, which maintained that the same arguments used by deists against Christianity could, with equal force, be turned against deism itself. Thus the logical terminus of such rationalistic arguments, according to Butler, is atheism, which the deists vehemently opposed—just as they would never embrace the anarchistic conclusions in Burke’s Vindication, however logically compelling they might be. This type of reductio argument was very effective during a time when both atheism and anarchism were regarded by the vast majority of readers as absurd on their face.

The Vindication, when understood as the satire that Burke intended, clearly embodies a number of fundamental themes that Burke later elaborated upon in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and other writings. One of these themes is Burke’s disdain for rationalistic intellectuals who believe that their abstract theories may reasonably be applied to the real world of politics. In his explanatory Preface to the Vindication, Burke ridicules those thinkers who dwell in the “Fairy Land of Philosophy.” Such intellectuals, uncomfortable with the uncertainty and compromise that are part of life, seek refuge in simplistic theories. These intellectuals, rather than exert the difficult and “sober” labor demanded by practical reasoning, which must take “a great variety of considerations” into account, are instead “charmed and captivated” by abstract theories that dazzle their imaginations with “ingenious falsehoods.” Although such theories have an “air of plausibility” that appeals to people with limited intelligence or who are outright lazy, they are grossly inadequate when we attempt to apply them to complicated social and political problems.

Let us now turn to Burke’s more extensive comments about abstract theories and rationalistic intellectuals in Reflections on the Revolution in France. I shall explain Burke’s criticisms apart from his particular objections to the French Revolution. I do this because Burke’s arguments, generally considered, frequently have been resurrected and used by modern conservatives and neoconservatives against libertarians who defend a theory of natural rights. And this is the relevance of Burke for the modern libertarian movement.

Defenders of abstract rights, according to Burke, contemptuously repudiate traditions and conventions that do not conform to their notion of justice.

Whilst they are possessed by these notions, it is vain to talk to them of the practice of their ancestors, the fundamental laws of their country, the fixed form of a constitution, whose merits are confirmed by the solid test of long experience, and an increasing public strength and national prosperity. They despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men; and as for the rest, they have wrought under-ground a mine that will blow up at one grand explosion all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of parliament. They have “the rights of men.” Against these there can be no prescription; against these no agreement is binding: these admit no temperament, and no compromise: any thing withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice. Against these their rights of men let no government look for security in the length of its continuance, or in the justice and lenity of its administration. The objections of these speculatists, if its forms do not quadrate with their theories, are as valid against such an old and beneficent government as against the most violent tyranny, or the greenest usurpation. They are always at issue with governments, not on a question of abuse, but a question of competency, and a question of title. I have nothing to say to the clumsy subtilty of their political metaphysics. Let them be their amusement in the schools….But let them not break prison to burst like a Levanter, to sweep the earth with their hurricane, and to break up the fountains of the great deep to overwhelm us.

According to Burke, the “liberties and restrictions” suitable for a given society “vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, [so] they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.” Although political reforms should be undertaken when needed, this is “a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill [and] requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities.” But the defenders of abstract rights ignore these essential factors and simplistically call for greater freedom, without taking into account how that freedom will probably be used and the impact of more freedom on the cultural fabric of society. Burke continues:

The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.

Burke’s appeal to unintended consequences is the reverse of the version normally used by libertarians. Whereas libertarians usually emphasize the unintended consequences of government intervention, Burke appeals to the unintended and possibly deleterious consequences of reforming a government to achieve greater individual freedom. Ironically perhaps, Burke also employs what may be called the conservative model of spontaneous order. Whereas libertarians (such as Thomas Paine) typically invoke the theory of spontaneous order to explain how a society can exist and prosper without the coercive hand of government, Burke argues that traditional institutions, including political institutions, were not designed from scratch. Rather, they developed, bit by bit, as practical remedies for specific problems. Such institutions, in evolving gradually to their present form, embody a wisdom that no single person can fully understand or appreciate, so it is sheer folly to evaluate them by abstract principles that fail to take complex historical circumstances into account.

Although I had originally intended to complete my discussion of Burke in this part, that will not be possible—especially since, after completing my exposition, I wish to criticize Burke’s critique. So stay tuned for Part 3.

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