Misappropriating Burke

One of the most tiresome and repeated tricks I see in political discourse is right-leaning moderates using Edmund Burke’s name in justifying big government conservatism. The latest to use Burke’s name to justify political moderation is Peter Berkowitz in his book Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation. Here’s a blurb from the book.

The first entrenched reality is that the era of big government is here to stay. This is particularly important for libertarians to absorb. Over the last two hundred years, society and the economy in advanced industrial nations have undergone dramatic transformations. And for three-quarters of a century, the New Deal settlement has been reshaping America’s expectations about the nation-state’s reach and role. Consequently, the U.S. federal government will continue to provide a social safety net, regulate the economy, and shoulder a substantial share of responsibility for safeguarding the social and economic bases of political equality…..the attempt to dismantle or even substantially roll back the welfare and regulatory state reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities.”

And here’s a blurb from Harvey Mansfield.

Peter Berkowitz makes a match between Edmund Burke and the American Founders to give ‘political moderation’ a good name on our partisan battlefield. A short, effectual book with shining prose, a telling argument, and a lasting message. –Harvey C. Mansfield, Harvard University

Jeffrey Lord takes on Berkowtiz as well as Jennifer Rubin, Joe Scarborough and others who are preaching the value of capitulation moderation. As usual, Lord does a fantastic job of eviscerating the case for moderation. First, addressing the blurb quoted above, Lord writes:

So the New Deal is now the Founding principle of America? And attempts to “dismantle or even substantially” roll back the New Deal “reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities”?


Even Bill Clinton waxed Reaganesque when he said in that famous 1995 State of the Union message that “the era of Big Government is over.”

Berkowitz’s thinking — which Rubin shares — is a pluperfect example of what led a couple generations of American leaders to believe the Soviet Union was here to stay. Those were the folks rolling their eyes in their supposed sophistication when President Reagan insisted the Soviets were headed to the “ash heap of history.” Only to watch astonished as the Berlin Wall came down followed shortly thereafter by the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. Precisely as Reagan predicted.

Lord further examines how this bedrock principle and the programs created by the New Deal are crashing around us. As he writes:

The fact of the matter is that the New Deal is imploding all around us. With all manner of experts repeatedly warning the U.S. is being relentlessly driven towards a financial cliff, with entitlement spending on track to eventually consume first the defense budget before polishing off the entire federal budget. The fact that Democrats are tying themselves to the equivalent of an unexploded political IED is their decision.

But what, pray tell, is moderate, Republican or conservative about accepting the idea that America is headed irrevocably to bankruptcy and chaos?

There’s much more at the link as Lord explains how the social consensus keeps moving the left. “Moderation,” therefore, will only lead to more government control and, eventually, less freedom.

Jeff Goldstein also discusses Lord’s article and has more insights as well.

Lord and Goldstein both do great jobs of explaining the problems with Berkowitz’s position, but I want to focus on the admittedly more academic point, and that’s Berkowitz’s misappropriation of Burke.

Those who urge a more “moderate” approach to politics think that Burke is a model for their point of view. After all, Burke preached the values of prudence and political temperance. Indeed one of the guiding principles handed down by Burke is the rejection of hasty change. As he wrote:

But one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated is, lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were their entire masters, that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society, hazarding to leave to those who came after them a ruin instead of an habitation – and teaching those successors as little to respect their contrivances as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than flies of a summer.

But citing Burke’s prudence as the center of his philosophy is a severe mistake. Berkowitz is divorcing Burke’s innate conservatism and fear of change from the context in which they developed. Burke advocated a conservative approach to governance precisely because he believed that the nation he lived in and the system of governance it inherited were basically good. Burke was a loyal patriot, and his writings ring with glowing words for the nation he loved. He lamented what happened in France and the revolution because he feared the same thing would happen to Great Britain if the radicals carried the day. As he wrote in the Reflections:

They [the British people] look on the frame of their commonwealth, such as it stands, to be of inestimable value, and they conceive the undisturbed succession of the crown to be a pledge of the stability and perpetuity of all the other members of our constitution.

Therefore Burke’s prudential politics was essentially preservationist. One can’t simply rip that aspect of his philosophy from its context and apply it to the current situation. Burke was trying to preserve the blessings of liberty that he believed the Great Britain of his time promoted and celebrated. He repeatedly warned about schemers who would rip apart the edifices of society in attempt to create some kind of utopian social order. Would Edmund Burke have countenanced or approved of leftist social engineering? Would Edmund Burke have countenanced a leviathan government that interfered in almost every aspect of life? Moreover, would Edmund Burke have tolerated an expansive federal government that overawed the state and local governments? This is the man who wrote,  “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” That Edmund Burke would have been okay with the New Deal and massive growth in the government it wrought?

As was written of Burke by an astute scholar:

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is the work of a Whig who cherished freedom and, in the name of individual liberty, sought throughout his long parliamentary career, in battles with the Tories as well as with fellow Whigs, to limit the political power of throne and altar. But to limit is not to abolish, and can be consistent with cherishing, as it was in Burke’s case. He saw that within proper boundaries, religious faith disciplined and elevated hearts and minds, and monarchy upheld the continuity of tradition, reflected the benefits of hierarchy and order, and provided energy and agility in government. Both institutions, in his assessment, encouraged virtues crucial to liberty’s preservation.

Indeed. And the author of that paragraph – Peter Burkowitz – is spot on.

Unfortunately Berkowitz sees Burke’s innate political conservatism as the guiding principle without seeing that Burke’s political conservatism worked to serve a larger cause. Burke feared the French radicals not simply because they were radicals, but because they were destroying a system of government he felt was superior to the one they erected, and because they were completely overthrowing the social order. The idea that Burkean conservatism can be applied today as a means of critiquing the tea party movement or, dare I say “extreme” conservatives is a terrible misapplication of Burke’s guiding philosophy.

Further, as Lord says, the New Deal edifice is crumbling. We can’t afford to simply stay the course or veer it just a little bit more to the right. We have reached the point where it will take significant change to preserve our society and our constitution. As Burke himself wrote, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. . . Without such means it might even risk the loss of the part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve.” Burke didn’t preach stasis, and he certainly would not have advocated moderation if moderation meant the slow death of the nation.

It’s disappointing that someone as astute as Berkowitz whiffed this badly. Jennifer Rubin and Joe Scarborough are intellectual lightweights with no hint of being able to think beyond conventional wisdom. Berkowitz, on the other hand, should know better. It’s unfortunate seeing him enlist Edmund Burke in a cause he undoubtedly would have shunned.

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Dante alighieri


  1. whenever Burke or Kirk are cited today (and they seem to be cited interchangeably by select people,) 99% of the time what follows is “I’m for the liberal position, and here’s a conservative-sounding reason why” only maybe taking it a bit slower. In that case, what’s the point — why should liberals agree that society should move slower toward the goal if you’re accepting their conclusion anyway, and why should conservatives accept the conclusion.

    Political ideologies should have come to a defined set of things that they either do/don’t accept, period, although obviously some issues are a little more complex depending on the situation. Maybe this makes politics too much like religion but far as I can see it’s the only way conservatism can avoid playing perennial catch-up to liberalism, and looking stupid protesting a change but later conceding to it.

  2. Those seeking to use Burke as a defense of Big Government need to ponder this section of Burke’s speech on Conciliation With America:

    “For, in order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties, we are every day endeavouring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own. To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself; and we never seem to gain a paltry advantage over them in debate, without attacking some of those principles, or deriding some of those feelings, for which our ancestors have shed their blood.”

  3. Midge Decter used to chide Richard John Neuhaus thus: “you don’t think low enough”. Consider the possibility that Scarborough is doing what he was hired to do. (One might suggest the same of Rubin, but the Washington Post Writers Group was at one time (still?) the home of George Will as it was for the two most capable liberal opinion journalists of the last three decades, Henry Mitchell and Richard Cohen).

    Betwixt and between, Dr. Berkowitz alludes to something true. In 1929, public expenditure amounted to 9.5% of gross domestic product. Reproducing the sort of political economy congenial to a metric like that would be the sustained work of a generation or more. What that metric would incorporate would be allocations to the military of Canadian dimensions, paying down most of the public debt, reducing public expenditure on law enforcement and the courts to shares found in 1980 or thereabouts (when the homicide rate was twice what it is today), limiting welfare spending to foster care and nursing homes, quite possibly ending public education, &c.

    Dr. Berkowitz sketched out some of his ideas years ago in an article and the whole project sounded inane, something I would be far to lazy to attempt to digest if distended to the length a 250 monograph. Could one of you with patience and a head for political theory give us a summary of just how Edmund Burke’s writing justifies the budget of the USDA or HUD, or covering Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac deficits for a half generation, or putting sometime lawyer Barack Obama and lapsed academic Steven Chu in the venture capital business?

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