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Edmund Burke and the Dead Consensus

When Russell Kirk wrote his 1967 one volume biopic of Edmund Burke, the “dead consensus” was very much alive. Barry Goldwater had championed the cause of classical liberalism in 1964 that carried against the ossified New Deal and its coterie of attendants hoping to pick apart what remained of the carcass. Ronald Reagan offered Americans a time for choosing between individual liberty and the social welfare state. Giants such as William F. Buckley pronounced the old populism championed by the John Birch Society — that odd fusion of “America First” and Huey Long populism — as persona non grata.

Yet for the political apex of the modern American conservative movement to be considered properly, it is worth observing the great minds who helped get us to such heights in the first place. Men such as Russell Kirk, Eric Vogelin, Richard Weaver and Milton Friedman — men who did not always agree on what an American conservatism was trying to conserve. These men too stood on the shoulders of other giants: Orestes Brownson, John Randolph of Roanoke, John Marshall and Daniel Webster. These men stood on the shoulders of others who defined the task of preserving “English liberties” in the face of empire: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay respectively.

Conservatism has long been argued to be an anti-ideology. In this much, against the agitators and the political religions of the world, one can heartily subscribe. What precisely we are conserving has always been the heart of the question. In years past, conservative Democrats would attempt to conserve an outdated and unjust segregationist order. To be called a “conservative” in the Soviet Union of the late 1980s was to be counted among Gorbachev’s opposition — not his supporters.

Yet as George Will reminds us, the secret of America is that we are not — in the European sense of the word — a nation. One can never go to Germany or France and become authentically German or French. To become a good American? One only need to come to this country, conform to the laws, and assent to a basic creed outlined in the Declaration of Independence — that our Creator has endowed us with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The French revolutionaries baptized their uprising in blood, radically altering their form of government and devising a new system altogether. This uprising is what horrified men like Burke in the first place, for unlike the American revolution (where it was the British who were changing their form of government) and the British oppression of India where the rights of men were being trampled for mere gain, the French revolution implied something far more dangerous to social ordering.

Burke understood the danger that the French revolutionaries represented in contrast to the British constitution. In the former, the British tradition understood that rights and liberties were foregone conclusions protected and defended by the “little platoons” of society — churches, social clubs and family — whereas the French sans-culottes represented an undoing of all these things in favor of manufactured rights. Thus two diametrically opposed ideas of nationhood emerged; one that sprang from the natural law tradition of the scholastic, the other from the principles of the so-called Enlightenment.

Government is not made in virtue of human rights … Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these awants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, our of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions … This can only be done by a power out of themselves; and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.

— Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790)

Thus the concept of rights springing from a dead political order and rights as a predication for political ordering becomes stark. The former needs some sort of integration with a value system; the latter views this alliance as dangerous to human liberty and an inherently vicious master.

The point of this drawn out exposition is that rights as Burke understood them were not the rights cum privileges of the French nation state. In fact, this entire idea of nationalism is anathema to the Burkean traditionalists precisely because it treats the concept of rights as an extension of social privilege.

Thus the state is able to concoct a whole series of so-called ‘rights’ for the masses: privacy, education, voting, marriage, abortion and so forth. None of these are inherent rights; some of them are not rights at all. One might very well desire a vocation in the law, but one does not have the right to be a lawyer. The same is true of marriage. One does not have the right to another person; marriage is a condition we seek as a basic good, not a privilege extended by the state and recognized in law as a form of social evolution.

Therein lies the integralist trap. The French revolutionaries adhered to a secular creed and demanded fealty. The nation states that followed in the wake of 1848 adopted the same vices that plunged the world into not one but two global conflagrations. For certain tribes of human beings, this newfound sentiment could cloak intolerance as moralism, yet in the end the body count was simply too much for the civilized West to bear.

Yet there remains the spirit of totalitarianism that lurks behind these arguments. Nationalism suffers no rivals. If one rejects the pluralist enterprise, the alternatives become a totalizing rejection of any standard or a totalizing imposition of a specific one. Either way, a sacred or a secular creed is required.

Critics of the American experiment revel in conflating modern liberalism with the classical liberalism of Jefferson and Randolph and the libertarianism of the postmodern age. Burke’s response to both would perhaps mirror that of Kirk’s, who was no friend to anarchy yet saw immense value in the classical liberal enterprise of the Founding Fathers.

If there is a consensus to be made, it is not in the old fusionism of the Goldwater and Reagan era where the libertarian side of the equation carried the day fifty years ago, but the new fusionism that unites a Chestertonian reverence for tradition with a Buckleyite disdain for the utopian eschaton. In short, simply because European liberalism has died a natural death, we shouldn’t allow American liberalism to collapse for want of a dictionary.

The old integralists have everything in common with their French revolutionary counterparts, precisely because nationalism is an invention of the sans-culottes. The American War of Independence was no revolution at all. Instead, it was a fight for the preservation of inherited American liberties, not the invention of new ones in the light of Rousseau and Voltaire. Americans, unlike the French, chose to preserve a natural order. The revolutionaries of European continent fell into the false choices of right and left, and thus adopted their sins.

Eric Voegelin understood the trials of the times better. Philosophy, he would assert, is the love of wisdom — not the possession of knowledge. This is what separates the philosopher from the political gnostic. The secret to political ordering, as Hamilton and Madison understood, was balance and not utopia. Happiness in the Aristotelian sense could be pursued, but it could not be possessed in the manner Pontus Pilate demanded from Jesus Christ at the Fortress Antonia.

Philosophy springs from the love of being; it is man’s loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it. Gnosis requires dominion over being; in order to seize control of being from the the gnostic constructs his system. The building of systems is a gnostic form of reasoning; not a philosophical one.

— Eric Voegelin, “Science, Politics & Gnosticism: (1968)

If there is to be a dead consensus, let it be in the death dance between right and left. They’re both wrong. Their approaches in resolving political conflict have only created more of human suffering, whereas what ends human suffering have been the very forces Jefferson fought to preserve in the Empire of Liberty: free minds, free trade, free speech and a free society.

Edmund Burke was correct to condemn the integralists of his time as antithetical to the concepts of tradition and good government. They may cloak themselves, but they are no different than any Soviet commissar or Spanish falangist. We can thank them for reminding us why the radical bet on human freedom still endures, as the Jeffersonian dictum of the inconveniences of too much liberty are far superior to the inconveniences of too small a degree of it still rings clear in the American mind.

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