Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Whither classical conservatism? Part II: The origins of classical conservatism

In Part I of this series on classical conservatism, I wrote about what classical conservatism is, and observed briefly that I don't really see much classical conservatism in American politics today.  I actually think that's rather unhealthy at a systemic level, and in fact, I think that liberals should want classical conservatives in the system.  Policy-making must be a deliberative process, and the classical conservative has a necessary role to play in that deliberative process.  The absence of classical conservatism, and the GOP's abandonment of it, is creating the kind of mess we see with the current healthcare non-debate.

As we (or at least, I) marvel at the total absence of classical conservatism from modern American politics, it is worth taking a look back at the origins of the philosophy, and at Edmund Burke.  Edmund Burke was a Member of the British Parliament fondly remembered by certain Americans for his position on the treatment of the colonies, and to quote Dave Alvin, hey, baby, it's the 4th of July!  But you know which revolution he didn't like so much?  The French Revolution.  I made a snarky remark a few posts back about the French Revolution (actually, I've made more than a few...), and let's be blunt.  Neither revolution was a pure struggle for freedom.  If you are thinking about Mel Gibson with his face painted blue, then think about him yelling racist, anti-semitic remarks until his face just turns blue naturally, and that's really a more appropriate image.  In America, you've got that whole slavery problem, and no, I'm not glossing over that today-- just because it's the 4th doesn't mean I'm going to pretend that history didn't happen, and the French Revolution?


Reign of Terror.  Not only did you have the nobles beheaded, in the aftermath, you had Robespierre running around the country with his merry band of fucking psychopaths creating one of the great nightmares of the pre-industrialized world.  Remember Hobbes?  Remember Leviathan?  Here was the basic argument.  There is this hypothetical world called the "state of nature," which is the absence of social systems, in which life is, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," because everyone just preys on each other.  Life fucking sucks because people are scum.  So, out of the depths arises government, like some beastly... leviathan.  See how that works?  Clever guy, that Hobbes.  We sacrifice our rights in exchange for order, and we are, in turn, protected from the chaos and horror of that state of nature.

Like Robespierre's Reign of Terror.

So, a few years earlier, Edmund Burke looked on in horror as a bunch of unwashed masses organized to topple the monarchy in France.  Burke was kinda-cool with a bunch of American aristocrats setting up their own semi-aristocracy in the colonies, but a bunch of fuckin' peasants in France totally overthrowing the order of society?  Nope, Eddie didn't like that.  Whatever problems there may have been, our boy Eddie thought that French society was a basically properly organized one, and if it were overthrown, with what would it be replaced?  Imagine the chaos and instability.  It would never work.  Society runs on tradition, and when you abandon tradition, Burke thought, you sow the seeds of your own destruction.

Well, how'd that work out?  I guess it sort of depends on your time frame.  Those who suffered and died in Robespierre's Reign of Terror, or those who watched it play out, while in contrast watching the American colonies develop into stability, might take it as vindication of Burke's ideas.  Then again, monarchies have almost all either fallen or become symbolic anyway, and France is one of the world's stronger countries now.  There's that whole Napoleonic up-and-down stuff, but they're in pretty good shape now, and hey, they didn't elect Le Pen, so they've got one up on us.  Still, the French Revolution and the brutal aftermath give a sense of how Burke viewed radical change and revolution.  They are bloody, ugly, dangerous, and to be viewed with some serious skepticism at best.

Burke gave us a template, then, for classical conservatism.  Existing systems exist because, at some level, they work.  Capitalism works, communism doesn't.  That's why we won, and the Soviet Union lost the Cold War.  North Korea is trying, and maybe succeeding in building a long-range ballistic missile because they can't build a working economy.  Why?  Because communism doesn't work, can't work, and never has worked.  Capitalism works.  When you think about changing a system, then, the classical conservative says, "no."  This system works.  Stop messing with stuff.  You don't know what you are doing.  You may think you do, but you don't.  What could happen?  When Edmund Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France, he didn't know specifically all of the fallout of the Revolution.  He didn't see the contours of the Reign of Terror.  He didn't need to.  All he needed to know, from his perspective, was that a system that preserved order was being overthrown, and that was dangerous.

Of course, the French monarchy did a lot of vile, evil shit, and by defending it, Burke was defending a system of vile shit.  Would you rather live in a system of modern-day France, or as a peasant under Louis XVI?  Not a hard question, is it?

Actually...  Never mind.  Anyway, therein lies the challenge to the classical conservative.  As I said in yesterday's post.  The classical conservative is definitionally on the wrong side of every positive change in society, but definitionally on the right side of every monumental fuck-up that has ever happened.  In the case of the French Revolution, you can argue that it may be a matter of the time frame, given the Reign of Terror.  Still, Robespierre helps us understand the mentality.

Unless you really want to live under a monarchy, though, it is important to understand how this translates to modern thinking, so that's where I'll be going next, barring big events.  With North Korea's missile tests, and healthcare, and Trump's propensity to continue doing stupid shit, I expect this series to be interrupted a lot, but I've got a lot to say here, so the series will go on...


  1. No comment on political scientists being kinda Burkean by temperment?

    1. Are you telling me you don't know a bunch of fucking Marxists and other such anti-Burkeans? They just don't tend to be very quantitative.

    2. Burkeans are WAY more common, especially among Americanists. Even the non-quants.
      Maybe you know too many theorists.

    3. I think Oakeshotters are really more common than Burkeans if I'm being picky, but even then, I've seen fewer anti-goo-goos the further away I get from the Institute for Bad Government (formerly known as the Institute of Governmental Studies).

    4. Fair point about Oakeshotters, and really what I was driving at.
      But I stand by the observation that most of us are firm believers in the law of unintended consequences.