Don't Trust Anyone Calling Themselves Burkean

One thing I have to clear the air on is the good name of Edmund Burke, the father of conservative thought, whose name is regularly used by conservative beltway denizens to justify their socially liberal, fiscally conservative ways (the least popular combination of the words “fiscally”, “socially”, “liberal” and “conservative” among the population at large). It is a term used by the type of conservative that thinks academia is overrun by left-wing radicals, but who also scoff at the idea of leveraging government power to do something about it. You know, the type of conservative that is wary of corporate censorship on the internet, but says that its a free market issue, and then never supports those free market alternatives.

The thing these people get wrong about Burke, is his philosophy wasn’t about maintaining and defending the status quo, whatever it happens to be this decade, like these respectable members of the conservative movement do. I would distill Burke’s political thought into three key ideas, each rejected by so-called “Burkean conservatives”.

The first idea that Burke repeats over and over again, that on its face goes against the types of analysis a conservative writer suckling six-figures off the teat of a beltway non-profit(sic) might provide is the idea that different forms of governments and their institutions are specific to the group of people who founded them. Constitutions and institutions can’t just be taken from one place and imposed onto another. That’s because forms of government and the institutions that support them grow and evolve over time and rely on each other’s presence to maintain themselves. Mexico and Liberia both adopted the US Constitution in the early 19th century, hoping to re-create the miracle of the US’s breathtaking development and rise. It didn’t work.

This flies in the face of the establishment idea that, as the demographics of the country are purposefully reconfigured, our existing institutions would be well maintained and that those institutions would represent the type of governance suited for the new arrivals. I think the evidence of the past 50 years is in Burke’s favor, not the beltway right’s.

Another core idea of Burke’s that runs contrary to the beltway right’s view of things is not being burdened by ideological baggage. Now the beltway right loves to condemn the ideological leanings of others, but they are often blind to their own dogmatic commitment to things like laissez-faire economics, Trotskyist foreign policy, unlimited immigration, and a utilitarian approach to profligate libertinism.

In Burke’s mind, ideology leads to breaking things that don’t need fixing, and throwing out good institutions and policies for the sake of conforming with a small set of fixed principles. When you hear things like “We can’t fix that problem, that’s against the free market”, that’s ideology talking. All of the major free marketers: Smith, Hayek, Friedman, etc. have long lists of exceptions and reasons why a laissez-faire approach isn’t a panacea; but “don’t interfere in markets” is what they get reduced to in people’s minds, and that’s how ideological commitment can mean blindness to a good policy.

The last place that the beltway right leaves Burkean thought is that Burke was very much a reformer. He wanted to keep institutions focused on their goals, and for them to act in the benefit of the country. While his distrust of ideology won him no friends with the Whigs, his commitment to reforming the things which weren’t working bothered the Tories. The beltway right today is much more in the vein of the Tories than they are of Burke. The beltway right is consistently on the side of opposing the latest innovation and then opposing that same innovation’s repeal, once passed. (see: Civil Rights Act, Obamacare). There’s no desire to take stock of what institutions are failing and either fix them or retire them; it is just a desire to keep doing what we’ve been doing and maybe pass a tax cut every few decades.

All and all, I understand why people label themselves as Burkeans — it is easier than saying you’re a conservative progressive and makes you sound like you actually bothered to read Letter to a Noble Lord in college. They believe the axioms of the dominant neo-liberal order, but they are hesitant to radically push forward with the conclusions one must draw from those axioms. The consequences of this insight will have to be left for later.

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