The (liberal) E. J. Dionne discusses Edmund Burke: The First Conservative by British lawmaker Jesse Norman. In doing so, he gives a useful summary of what the 18th century statesman and political theorist was all about. So how is this different from some of the things that pass for conservatism today?
Burke’s conservatism was based on a proper understanding of that word. He believed in preserving the social order and respecting old habits. He persistently warned against the destructive character of radical change. He was wary of ideology and grand ideas, rejecting, as Norman puts it, “universal claims divorced from an actual social context.” Burke saw the well-ordered society as a “partnership of the dead, the living and the yet to be born,” a nice formula for a forward-looking traditionalism — and not a bad slogan for environmentalists.
His critics (Tom Paine was among the fiercest) saw Burke as an apologist for the privileged and an enemy of free individuals. Norman vigorously defends Burke against these charges, emphasizing his fundamental moderation and support for reform as an alternative to revolution. Burke believed not so much in small government but in what Norman labels “slow government,” rooted in modesty and humility about what politics can achieve.
It’s to Norman’s credit that he recognizes how “Burke also clips the wings of many contemporary conservatives.” While he “helped establish modern conceptions of nationhood and national allegiance,” he “rejected military adventures.” He “celebrated religious observance, but despised moral absolutism.”
Norman also sees Burke as implicitly offering “a profound critique of the market fundamentalism now prevalent in Western society.” He thinks that Burke would “note the extraordinary greed and self-dealing seen over the past decade by the modern nabobs of banking and finance in a series of cartels disguised as markets.” And a Burkean conservatism would be wary of any ideology that “causes people to lose sight of the real social sources of human well-being and to become more selfish and individualistic, by priming them with ideas of financial success and celebrity.”
Edmund Burke is both the greatest and the most underrated political thinker of the past three hundred years. A brilliant 18th-century Irish philosopher and statesman, Burke was a fierce champion of human rights and the Anglo-American constitutional tradition, and a lifelong campaigner against arbitrary power. Revered by great Americans including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Burke has been almost forgotten in recent years. But as politician and political philosopher Jesse Norman argues in this penetrating biography, we cannot understand modern politics without him.
As Norman reveals, Burke was often ahead of his time, anticipating the abolition of slavery and arguing for free markets, equality for Catholics in Ireland, and responsible government in India, among many other things. He was not always popular in his own lifetime, but his ideas about power, community, and civic virtue have endured long past his death. Indeed, Burke engaged with many of the same issues politicians face today, including the rise of ideological extremism, the loss of social cohesion, the dangers of the corporate state, and the effects of revolution on societies. He offers us now a compelling critique of liberal individualism, and a vision of society based not on a self-interested agreement among individuals, but rather on an enduring covenant between generations.