I am interested here in addressing Burkean conservatives — as opposed to yahoos, opportunistic Republicans, neoconservatives, protectionists, and isolationists, for example. Wikipedia says this about Burkean conservatism:
Some men, argued Burke, have more reason than others, and thus some men will make worse governments if they rely upon reason than others. To Burke, the proper formulation of government came not from abstractions such as “Reason,” but from time-honoured development of the state and of other important societal institutions such as the family and the Church. . . .
Burke argued that tradition is a much sounder foundation than “reason”. The conservative paradigm he established emphasises the futility of attempting to ground human society based on pure abstractions (such as “reason,” “equality,” or, more recently, “diversity”), and the necessity of humility in the face of the unknowable. Existing institutions have virtues that cannot be fully grasped by any single person or interest group or, in Burke’s view, even any single generation. . . .
Tradition draws on the wisdom of many generations and the tests of time, while “reason” may be a mask for the preferences of one man, and at best represents only the untested wisdom of one generation. In the conservative view, an attempt to modify the complex web of human interactions that form human society for the sake of some doctrine or theory runs the risk of running afoul of the iron law of unintended consequences. Burke advocates vigilance against the possibility of moral hazards. For Burkean conservatives, human society is something rooted and organic; to try to prune and shape it according to the plans of an ideologue is to invite unforeseen disaster.
Burkean conservatives are inherently skeptical of plans to re-model human society after an ideological model. They emphasise ‘continuity with tradition, which does [not] exclude changes within the framework of that tradition. They insist that political change should come about through legitimate political process, and oppose interference with that process, including extra-constitutional reactionary changes. So long as rule of law is upheld, and so long as change is effected gradually and constitutionally rather than [through] revolution, they are, in theory, content. Burkean conservatism is in principle neither revolutionary nor counter-revolutionary.
If it is fashionable today to minimize the importance of the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place, this is closely connected with the smaller importance which is now attached to change as such. Indeed, there are few points on which the assumptions made (usually only implicitly) by the “planners” differ from those of their opponents as much as with regard to the significance and frequency of changes which will make substantial alterations of production plans necessary. Of course, if detailed economic plans could be laid down for fairly long periods in advance and then closely adhered to, so that no further economic decisions of importance would be required, the task of drawing up a comprehensive plan governing all economic activity would be much less formidable. . . .
If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. . . .
The problem which we meet here is by no means peculiar to economics but arises in connection with nearly all truly social phenomena, with language and with most of our cultural inheritance, and constitutes really the central theoretical problem of all social science. As Alfred Whitehead has said in another connection, “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” This is of profound significance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.
Hayek sums it up in The Constitution of Liberty (1960):
[B]efore we can try to remould society intelligently, we must understand its functioning; we must realise that, even when we believe that we understand it, we may be mistaken. What we must learn to understand is that human civilisation has a life of its own, that all our efforts to improve things must operate within a working whole which we cannot entirely control, and the operation of whose forces we can hope merely to facilitate and assist so far as we can understand them. [Chapter 4, pp. 69-70]
In a postcript to The Constitution of Liberty (“Why I Am Not a Conservative“), Hayek tries to distinguish his brand of liberalism (that is, classical liberalism or what is now minimal-state libertarianism) from conservatism:
This difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes. . . .
In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others. The liberal, of course, does not deny that there are some superior people – he is not an egalitarian – bet he denies that anyone has authority to decide who these superior people are. . . .
Closely connected with this is the usual attitude of the conservative to democracy. I have made it clear earlier that I do not regard majority rule as an end but merely as a means, or perhaps even as the least evil of those forms of government from which we have to choose. But I believe that the conservatives deceive themselves when they blame the evils of our time on democracy. The chief evil is unlimited government, and nobody is qualified to wield unlimited power. . . . The powers which modern democracy possesses would be even more intolerable in the hands of some small elite.
Admittedly, it was only when power came into the hands of the majority that further limitations of the power of government was thought unnecessary. In this sense democracy and unlimited government are connected. But it is not democracy but unlimited government that is objectionable, and I do not see why the people should not learn to limit the scope of majority rule as well as that of any other form of government. At any rate, the advantages of democracy as a method of peaceful change and of political education seem to be so great compared with those of any other system that I can have no sympathy with the antidemocratic strain of conservatism. It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.
I must point out that Hayek’s disparagement of conservatism is not aimed at Burkean conservatism. One account of Hayek’s life and thought explains that his criticism of conservatism
was aimed primarily at the European-style conservatism, which has often opposed capitalism as a threat to social stability and traditional values. Hayek identified himself as a classical liberal, but noted that in the United States it had become almost impossible to use “liberal” in the older sense that he gave to the term. In the U.S., Hayek is usually described as a “libertarian“, but the denomination that he preferred was “Old Whig” (a phrase borrowed from Edmund Burke).
Burkean conservatism, contra other forms of conservatism, doesn’t insist on the political dominance of a certain class. It insists on a rule of law that doesn’t allow the state to impose change on society but, rather, allows change to come from within society. (A quaint notion that held sway in the United States until the advent of the New Deal.)
Having apologized for Hayek’s position on conservatism, I must object to Hayek’s defense of democracy, which is now quaint. Hayek was writing 45 years ago, when it still seemed possible that we might return to the limited government of the written Constitution. But the forces of democracy-for-its-own-sake have since prevailed. Democracy and unlimited government are now bound together so tightly that Hayek’s fine distinction between the two is no longer valid, if ever it was. With unlimited government now in the saddle, the affairs of Americans are run by inferior men and women who are able — through demagoguery, bread, and circuses — to capture the allegiance of the inferior masses.
The limited government designed by the Framers was conservative, in a Burkean way. It was meant to enable superior persons to thrive — for the benefit of all — not through political dominance so much as through social and economic leadership. That design has long since given way, through extra-constitutional legislation and adjudication, to unlimited government, which disables superiority — to the detriment of all.
Is there not now a viable conservative movement in the United States? How else could Republicans have won seven of the last ten presidential elections and prevailed in the last six congressional elections? The problem is that Republicanism, which was more or less Burkean until the middle of the 20th century, sold its soul when it chose Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon as its standard-bearers in 1952. From that point on, the GOP began to attract more than its share of yahoos, other cranks, and opportunists.
Barry Goldwater, the penultimate major politician of Burkean mien, lost resoundingly in the presidential election of 1964. And it has been downhill ever since. Nixon, an opportunist of the first rank, courted yahoos. Ronald Reagan, the last major politician of Burkean mien, was hampered by a Democrat-controlled Congress and his big-tent view of Republicanism. About Bush 41 and Bush 43, perhaps the best thing one can say is that they are not Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, or John Kerry.
The GOP is no longer reliably Burkean, though it certainly must attract far more Burkeans than the Democrat Party. The question is whether there are still enough Burkean conservatives (of any party) to constitute a viable political movement, one which might be influential if allied with those of us who choose to identify ourselves by other term, such as free-market capitalist or minarchist (minimal-state, Hayekian libertarian). As Austin Bramwell argues at The American Conservative,
one would think that [Russell] Kirk, Hayek, and others (including eccentric outsiders such as R.J. Rushdoony, L. Brent Bozell, and Ayn Rand) had left behind a commanding legacy. One would expect that, like Burke, they had articulated ideas so powerful that they can only be contended with, not refuted. . . .
Has conservatism achieved this exalted stature? If we are honest, we must answer no.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, conservatives sought not just to refute modern liberalism but to obliterate it. . . . Each conservative writer claimed to have uncovered the Holy Grail—the argument or principle that would expose the errors of liberalism (and communism, socialism, feminism, etc.) once and for all. . . .
Yet the Holy Grail has not been found. One can still find lapel-grabbing right-wingers who will argue late into the night that their favorite thinker has figured everything out for all time. (My personal favorite: certain libertarians believe that Alan Gewirth, a now forgotten philosopher of the 1970s, showed how the rightness of limited government derives ultimately from Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction.) This is not the place to take up the argument with them. I only wish to observe, as an empirical matter, that no one person’s ideas actually define American conservatism. If English conservatism is nothing other than Burkeanism, American conservatism is not Rothbardianism, Randianism, Jaffaism, or Hayekianism.
But Bramwell goes on to say that
[o]n the libertarian side, a small group of academics affiliated with the journal Critical Review [link added: ED] is quietly working a revolution. They forthrightly acknowledge that neither free-market economics nor moral philosophy have produced a comprehensive argument for libertarianism. Nonetheless, they argue, limited government is still preferable because it mitigates the problem of public ignorance.
The majority of voters in a mass democracy, they reason, are stunningly ignorant of even the most basic political information. Moreover, to the extent that their voting behavior can be rationalized, they employ heuristics of the most obtuse sort: “Candidate X cares about people like me.” As for the tiny but relatively well-informed elite, they too have limited intellectual resources for understanding current politics. Hence, they rely on naïve heuristics such as “Republicans are greedy, religious fanatics” or “liberals are hypocrites who only care about making themselves feel better.”
The reliance on such heuristics can perhaps be explained in terms of rational economic decision-making—in that there is not enough time in the day to bother to learn much about politics—but, more deeply, in terms of evolutionary psychology. The human mind is too primitive to understand the complexities of modern politics. Democratic politics thus present a choice between the ideological rigidity of the elites and the sheer incompetence of the masses. We can escape this predicament only by reducing the role of government in our lives.
In sum, if Austin Bramwell is a harbinger, the American conservative movement — the thoughtful branch of that movement, at least — is moving toward its natural ally: minarchist libertarianism. For, as I have tried to show here, Burkean conservatism and minarchism amount to the same thing. Would a working alliance of Burkeans and minarchists constitute an influential critical mass? That remains to be seen, but it’s a possibility to be encouraged.