Thursday, July 28, 2022

"A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve"

The current print edition of National Review includes an article by Daniel B. Klein and Dominic Pino, editors of a recent book about Edmund Burke's politics. From the article, "Edmund Burke’s Conservative Liberalism":
“Conservative liberalism” is a suitable name for Burke’s outlook. In that expression, “liberalism” is the noun. It is primary. It communicates something about the house people are to make their homes in. The adjective, “conservative,” curbs the enthusiasm of liberalism but enhances its wisdom. Conservatism makes liberal principles more practical, pertinent, and robust. It grounds the arc of liberal civilization; it spans continents; it can endure. ....

When thinking of liberty in policy, it’s helpful to consider what we’ll call the “liberty principle”: In a choice between two reforms (one of which may be no reform at all), the one that rates higher in liberty should be adopted. But, like Adam Smith, Burke did not maintain the liberty principle as an axiom, as doctrinaire libertarians might. Burke gives liberty a presumption, which like any presumption can be overcome. ....

There are general arguments for polity conservatism: (1) Established ways and customs have been through a process of selection and survival and adaptation, reflecting goodness, however imperfectly. “Our patience will achieve more than our force.” (2) To some extent, goodness lies in familiarity. To some extent, customs are good because people are accustomed to them. (3) Knowledge is slight and highly conditioned by experience and practice. The consequences, even the true nature, of a proposed polity innovation are scarcely known. Rampant delusions bring hazards of collective foolishness and opportunistic abuse. (4) Happiness depends on tranquility, which depends on confidence. Confidence in living depends on rules, certainty, and stability. Every reformation arouses and inspires a next reformation, reducing certainty, stability, confidence, and the quality of life. (5) Bad reformations are not easily corrected: Their badness enjoys plausible deniability, and they breed interest groups that stoutly defend them.

Burke lamented of his age “that every thing is to be discussed; as if the constitution of our country were to be always a subject rather of altercation than enjoyment.” ....

Burke understood that tradition and just reform depend on each other and form an essential tension. “A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.”

Polity conservatism has a stark contrast in polity radicalism. “He that sets his house on fire because his fingers are frostbitten, can never be a fit instructor in the method of providing our habitations with a cheerful and salutary warmth.” ....

Factions working toward greater governmentalization of social affairs are a permanent feature of our world. The battle against them is perennial. Burke’s conservative liberalism is as relevant today as it was in the 1790s: “It is an obvious truth, that no constitution can defend itself. It must be defended by the wisdom and fortitude of men. These are what no constitution can give. They are the gifts of God; and he alone knows, whether we shall possess such gifts at the time we stand in need of them.”
I've ordered the book.

Daniel B. Klein and Dominic Pino, "Edmund Burke’s Conservative Liberalism," National Review, Aug. 15, 2022.

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