Thursday, February 5, 2015

How to think about politics

...[A]nyone hoping to understand Burke is confronted with an array of historians and philosophers of aesthetics, politics, and political theory; social conservatives and free-market liberals; and even closet radicals—all claiming that they hold the key to the “real” Burke. Undaunted, Bromwich sets out to demonstrate “the originality and continuities” of Burke’s thought. The result is an intellectual biography of the best kind. Bromwich seeks to convey “what it meant to think like Edmund Burke” and to demonstrate the coherence and relevance of Burke’s moral and political vision. .... In Bromwich’s hands, Burke offers better lessons about how to think than about what to think.

He rejects the view of Burke as “an anti-theoretical critic of modern politics, a ‘pragmatic’ adapter to local needs.” According to Bromwich, Burke was no mere improviser but rather “cherished certain abstract ideas unconditionally.” To unearth those ideas and to recover Burke’s thought processes, Bromwich performs sincere, disciplined readings of Burke’s work

.... If there is one underlying principle that Bromwich seizes on, it is Burke’s oft-repeated claim that “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.” This does not mean that Burke was interested in simply reconciling moral principles and political practices. For Burke, knowledge of human nature (and culturally acquired “second” natures) set limits on what people could reasonably demand of themselves and others. Political theorists and politicians should not try to close the gap between lofty moral goals and the mundane, grubby reality of everyday politics but rather work within that very space, recognizing it as the realm of the possible. As Burke remarked in 1782, “The touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men [is,] Does it suit his nature in general? Does it suit his nature as modified by habit?” Radical revolutionaries, he complained, “are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgotten his nature.”

Despite Burke’s own insistence that he mistrusted abstract ideas, Bromwich draws attention to Burke’s understanding of their power and the way they operate—especially ideas Burke considered wrong or misunderstood. For example, Burke was less interested in whether such a thing as a “natural right” existed than in understanding why someone would believe in such an idea and what would follow from that belief. ....

...[Burke] pushed for what people today might call “good governance.” At its most basic, this means considering whether policies are suitable to the customs and nature of the people to whom they apply and considering the likely effect of any particular policy before establishing it. To prevent abuse, Burkean good governance requires constraining political power, even—perhaps especially—the influence of majorities. And it requires regularity, consistency, and predictability when it comes to interpreting and enforcing laws. 

This vision of government is difficult to turn into anything resembling a rule; it might sound like mere common sense. But for Burke, such objectives—and not more abstract quests, such as maximizing equality, liberty, or wealth—represented the important stuff of politics. ....

Burke’s fundamental objection to revolutions inspired by rationalistic ideals was their arrogance. As he wrote in Reflections, “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” In Burke’s view, knowledge is held not individually but collectively—in institutions, in customs, and even in shared prejudices. Maintaining a population’s allegiance to and trust in such institutions is a more important goal than promoting efficiency or rationality. Almost any theory, even those espoused by self-proclaimed conservatives, can be held in an absolutistic way such that it poses a threat to institutional and political stability. That is perhaps the most crucial lesson Burke has to offer modern politics. [more]
Iain Hampsher-Monk | Edmund Burke and Conservative Politics | Foreign Affairs

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