Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a British statesman whose opposition to the abuse of power led him to author several works of political philosophy whose influence is still being felt. Jesse Norman has written a helpful biography entitled, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative (Basic Books, New York, 2013). He wrote a treatise rejecting Lord Bolingbroke’s arguments for atheistic rationalism, demonstrating their absurdity. Present day atheists have not improved their case. As a Member of Parliament he argued strongly against the executive authority of the King and for the importance of political parties as a legislative counter-balance. As an Irishman he worked for Catholic Emancipation – the vote for Catholics and their ability to trade and do business as well as attend the universities. He abhorred the abuse of power of the Protestant aristocracy in Ireland. He supported the grievances of the American colonists and opposed the use of force to collect taxes without representation. He led the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor General of Bengal, on the grounds of his corruption and abuse of power at the expense of the Indian population. When the French Revolution occurred he wrote his famous Reflections of the Revolution in France which was an immediate bestseller in Great Britain and in France. He contrasted the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 with its reassertion of the power of Parliament against the abstract, metaphysical rights of man in France which led to the destruction of French national tradition and eventually to the Terror.
Jesse Norman gives us a condensed biography and then a review of Burke’s thought. His great contribution is pointing us to Burke’s emphasis on man as a social animal.
We become human by immersing ourselves from earliest consciousness in human institutions of language and love. But institutions are not merely good for their members; they are good for society itself. …Institutions are grounded in the human desire for connection with others, and in economic and social exchange and reciprocity. In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, ‘If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.’ (p.266)
He discusses the need for social capital: the importance of family and friends, personal ties and institutional networks as social resources worthy to be ranked alongside a nation’s financial capital and economic strength. The basic task of politics is to preserve social capital and moral community.
Norman draws six key lessons to be drawn from Burke.
The first is that extreme liberalism is now in crisis. Various disasters have gravely undermined conventional beliefs in the moral primacy of the individual, in the power of human reason alone to resolve political and economic problems, in the redemptive value of individual consumption, and in the capacity of unfettered individual freedom to deliver personal or social well-being. Human happiness is not simply a matter of satisfying individual wants, and the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of individuals living now: it is to preserve an evolving social order which meets the needs of generations past, present and future. Extreme individualism appears to promote arrogance and selfishness.
Second, projects which seek to abolish national identities and allegiances are likely to fail because they ignore the local circumstances, traditions and religions, and impose conformity.
Third, Burkean leaders believe in slow government. They fear to sacrifice the interests of future generations at the altar of present popularity. They do not regard politics as a subset of economics and are not obsessed with passing laws, interfering in private concerns or tampering with working institutions. They are skeptical about official expertise, radical schemes and ambitious government.
Fourth, Burke was driven by a hatred of excessive power, and the arbitrary use and abuse of power. He would be appalled by the crony capitalism, the greed of the modern nabobs of banking and finance and the expenditure of so much money on political campaigning.
Fifth, Burke reminds us of the foundational importance of protecting representative government and the rule of law as a bulwark against the abuse of power. Good stable government demands effective political parties.
Sixth, Burke insisted on the importance of human culture, and the ideal of public service. He deplored the tendency to individual or generational arrogance. He emphasizes the human self as an active social force, not the passive vehicle for happiness of the utilitarians. He gives us the lost language of politics: a language of honor, loyalty, duty and wisdom. He highlights the importance of moderate religious observance and moral community as a source of shared norms.