As the Western world now seeks to reset its political and economic course, whilst searching for its moral compass, it seems it is the Burkean vision of human possibility and renewed social value that may prove to be what is required to guide us to a better world.
As Roger Scruton* notes, Burke was a great writer, a profound thinker and a high-ranking political practitioner, with a keen sense both of the damage done by the wrong ideas, and the real need for the right ones. Political wisdom, Burke argued, is not contained in a single head. It does not reside in the plans and schemes of the political class, and can never be reduced to a system. It resides in the social organism as a whole, in the myriad small compromises, in the local negotiations and trusts, through which people adjust to the presence of their neighbours and co-operate in safeguarding what they share. People must be free to associate, to form "little platoons", to dispose of their labour, their property and their affections, according to their own desires and needs.
But no freedom is absolute, and all must be qualified for the common good.
Until subject to a rule of law, freedom is merely "the dust and powder of individuality". But a rule of law requires a shared allegiance, by which people entrust their collective destiny to sovereign institutions that can speak and decide in their name. This shared allegiance is not, as Rousseau and others argued, a contract among the living. It is a partnership between the living, the unborn and the dead – a continuous trust that no generation can pillage for its own advantage.
Burke, as Jesse Norman+ has reminded us, came to prominence in the age of Dr Johnson, David Hume, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon. Over his long career he fought five great political battles: for more equal treatment of Catholics in Ireland; against British oppression of the 13 American colonies; for constitutional restraints on royal patronage; against the power of the East India Company in India; and most famously, against the dogma of the French Revolution. Their common theme is his detestation of injustice and the abuse of power.
According to Norman, Burke foresaw some of the greatest discontents of the modern era, including its extreme liberalism and individualism. Various disasters have gravely undermined conventional beliefs in the primacy of the individual will, in the power of human reason alone to resolve political and economic problems, and in the capacity of unfettered individual freedom to deliver personal or social well-being.
Thus the White House under John F Kennedy gathered together one of greatest assemblages of expertise ever seen in American politics, yet they took their country into Vietnam. Western policy towards Russia in the Nineties all but ignored the country’s low levels of trust and social capital, and actively assisted the loss of public assets at fire-sale prices to the new oligarchs. The euro was introduced, and has been sustained, as an elite project that deliberately ignored, and ignores, long-standing concerns about the huge differences in the societies of the various nations involved, and the legitimacy of the euro’s own surrounding institutions.
Yet Burke also reminds us of threats within Western societies themselves. For there is increasing evidence that extreme liberalism causes people to lose sight of the true sources of human well-being and to become more selfish and individualistic, by priming them with ideas of financial success and celebrity.
In his own time, Burke regarded as his greatest achievement his campaign to restrain the crony capitalism of the East India Company, and to insist on the accountability of private power to public authority. In effect, he offers a profound critique of the market fundamentalism now prevalent in Western society. Markets are not idolised, but treated as cultural artefacts mediated by trust and tradition. Capitalism becomes not a one-size-fits-all ideology of consumption, but a spectrum of different models to be evaluated on their own merits.
As Burke shows us, the individual is not simply a compendium of wants; human happiness is not simply a matter of satisfying individual wants; and the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now. It is to preserve a social order which addresses the needs of generations past, present and future.
In his own life, Burke was devoted to an ideal of public duty, and deplored the tendency to individual or generational arrogance, and the “ethics of vanity”. His thought is imbued with the importance of history and memory, and a hatred of those that would erase them. He insists on the importance of human allegiance and identity, and social institutions and networks.
Let us hope that the current neo-liberals, abusing the world today, can learn a thing or two from Burke, that extreme liberalism promotes arrogance and selfishness- which has brought us all, nothing, but a very bitter harvest.
'Tory leaders have forgotten what Edmund Burke understood: true conservatives are driven by more than economics.'
Edmund Burke – the great conservative who foresaw the discontents of our era
The philosopher Edmund Burke reminds us of the threat to society from rampant individualism
For further readings see the links below:
(This Blog was updated on 8 Dec 2022)