John McCain and Edmund Burke

Jonathan Rauch argues that John McCain is a true conservative, in the mold of Edmund Burke–and that “movement” conservatives aren’t. Rauch starts with a nice precis of an aspect of Burke’s thought that influenced, among others, Freidrich von Hayek:

Burke is the father of modern conservatism, and still its wisest oracle. Tradition-minded but (contrary to stereotype) far from reactionary, he believed in balancing individual rights with social order. The best way to do that, for Burke, was by respecting long-standing customs and institutions while advancing toward liberty and equality. Society’s traditions, after all, embody an evolved collective wisdom that even (or especially) the smartest of individuals cannot hope to understand comprehensively, much less reinvent successfully.

That much is basically right, though “advancing toward liberty and equality” is simplistic, from Burke’s point of view, for there are many other values we should uphold and advance toward, including virtue, religion, stability, civility, prosperity, strength, peace, and happiness.

Rauch continues:

The Burkean outlook takes individual rights seriously, and understands that civic order serves no purpose if its result is oppression or misery.

It’s important to realize that Burke does not share the view of Locke, Madison, and Jefferson that some rights are natural–independent of government–and inalienable. He sees rights as granted by government for various purposes. Contemporary conservatives, who owe much to Burke, owe even more to Locke and the founders, and maintain with them that rights to life, liberty, and property are natural and inalienable. From that perspective, the Burkean outlook doesn’t take rights seriously enough.

But let’s move on:

It also understands that social stability, far from being endangered by institutional change, positively depends upon it. Burkeans no more believe in a golden past than they do in a perfect future. For them, the question is not whether society should change, but how.

I’d prefer to put this, somewhat anachronistically, by saying that, according to Burke, society should evolve. Burke’s model is fundamentally evolutionary. It isn’t hostile to change, but it has no sympathy with “Change we can believe in” either. Changes may be adaptive or maladaptive. And most of us are poorly positioned, at the time, to judge which.

If Burke were around today, he might paraphrase Reagan’s famous witticism about the Democratic Party: Burke didn’t leave the conservative movement; it left him. Starting with Barry Goldwater’s campaign of 1964, American conservatism repositioned itself as a revolutionary movement, intent on uprooting illegiti­mate and ineffective liberal structures. Partly this grew from a canny assessment that Eisenhower-style Republicanism had played into liberals’ hands, consolidating instead of confronting the welfare state. Partly, however, it grew from narcissism: no less than their left-wing peers, right-wing Baby Boomers liked to suppose it was their destiny to reshape the world.

And so conservatives came to associate themselves with a romantic narrative of radical change—a narrative of counterrevolution, but revolutionary all the same.

This is misleading. The question, for Burke, is not revolution–as Rauch notes, he favored the American Revolution, but opposed the French Revolution. Why? It isn’t just that the latter was more “radical,” as Rauch puts it, but that the American Revolution respected the past. The colonists sought to reclaim their rights as Englishmen, the rights they had been guaranteed by the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Rights of 1688 but were now being denied. The French Revolutionaries, in contrast, were utopians, who sought not to reclaim their long-recognized rights but to define new rights and even a new conception of rights and implement it in practice. From Burke’s point of view, then, the contrast between a utopian revolution and a restorative counterrevolution could hardly be more significant. Just as the American founders sought to reclaim their ancient rights, contemporary conservatives seek to reclaim theirs–almost exactly the same rights as those the founders fought for, actually, but transgressed now not by a tyrannous King but by an overreaching Congress empowered by the Supreme Court, which began in 1937 a long process of dismantling the Lockean conception of general rights and substituting a Rousseau-inspired conception of positive rights in its stead.

I don’t mean to deny one of Rauch’s main theses, that McCain is, in many respects, a Burkean conservative.  But I do deny the other.  Contemporary conservatives hold a political philosophy that combines Lockean and Burkean elements.  Far from clashing, these most often support each other.  Locke provides a theory of the ancient rights described in the Magna Carta, the 1688 Declaration, and the Bill of Rights, but ultimately inhering in us as human beings and defining our dignity.

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