Edmund Burkes Conservatism
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On Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Writing after the revolution but before the terror, Burke was alarmed at intellectual fads in England that paid homage to the principles driving what happened in France: the right of people to choose their own government, to elect their leaders, and depose those that violate citizens' rights. So, given that these principles have won the day, why would we possibly care about what a reactionary monarchist had to say against them? Why is Burke revered as an intellectual grandfather to modern conservatism?

Well, first, given what happened in France with the terror, Burke's worries were warranted. While he thought that revolution was justified in extreme circumstances (when "necessity" dictates), the ground for such a revolution (as with the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England) should be an appeal something more ancient, more well-grounded by tradition. The idea should not be to treat the revolution as an excuse to devise a new, ideal government from scratch based on abstract principles. Live, flesh-and-blood people and their real concerns are more important than these abstract ideals, and societies are not laboratories for experimentation.

While we equate political freedom with rights and well-being, Burke thinks that democracy leads to mob rule and the suppression of rights, and that an emphasis on abstract rights can prevent the government from protecting what he considers our real rights as citizens for protection by the state. While he thinks that people's interests need to be represented, and that corruption needs to be remedied and beneficial reforms adopted, the most important thing is stability, and society's wisdom built up over the ages is our best guide to this.

Burke thinks that law and culture are intertwined, and while it's possible to change laws on a dime, this will have negative consequences unless supporting social structures, created through tradition and maintained through religion and mores, provide necessary support. Liberty needs the support of wisdom and virtue, and Burke admires the honor-based motivation of a noble class that already has enough money, whereas he thinks that the merchant-types put in charge of the French assembly have been incentivized to use the government for their own financial gain.

Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan cogitate on Burke's lush, highly repetitive prose and try to figure out what this text has to teach us about good government today. For example, Burke thinks too much idealism leaves us indifferent to real and present (e.g., Trumpian) danger, so DON'T EVEN THINK OF NOT VOTING. [Part One ]

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