Edmund Burke stands for the proposition that the status quo is likely better than any ambitious reform. Even if current institutions are based on unjust or foolish general principles, they have gradually evolved as a result of many people’s deliberate work, so that they now embody some wisdom. People have accommodated themselves to the existing rules and structures, learned to live with them and plan around them, and have woven more complex wholes around the parts given by laws and theories. Meanwhile, proposed reforms are almost always flawed by limited information, ignorance of context, and downright arrogance. In politics, as in medicine, the chief principle should be: “First, do no harm.”
In any debate, the Burkean conservative position is worth serious consideration. I come down on that side pretty often. And given the alternatives, I almost always vote for the Burkean political party in the United States, which is the Democratic Party.
It is the Democrats, after all, whose main goal is to defend the public institutions built between 1900 and 1960: neighborhood public schools, state universities, regulated capital markets, federal health programs, science funding, affirmative action, and the like, against untested alternatives based in the abstract theories of neoliberalism. Importantly, Democrats defend existing institutions without heartily endorsing them. A typical Democratic position goes something like this: Neighborhood public schools are inequitable and sometimes oppressive, but they need our support because lots of teachers and families have invested in them, they are woven into communities, and the radical critiques of them are overblown.
What about health care reform? The actual reform of act of 2010 is classically Burkean in that it weaves together existing private and public institutions in an effort to prevent change (in the form of cost inflation) and fill a fraying gap in the existing system. To be sure, many grassroots Democrats wanted a more radical reform, a single-payer system. But that was an official plank of the Democratic Party platform starting in1948; it is unfinished business from a time when the party was still “progressive” in the root sense of pushing for progress.
What about gay rights and the redefinition of marriage? First of all, this is one of very few exceptions to the general Burkean inclination of the Democratic Party: a case where the Party does want something new. But the President himself holds an almost perfectly Burkean position on gay marriage: It will be OK when it comes, he doesn’t have a principled objection to it, but he doesn’t want to push it from Washington because society needs time to adjust to it, state by state. Local norms vary and deserve some deference.
The Burkean conservatism of the Democratic Party is not merely tactical, a way of staving off undesired change by playing defense. It has philosophical roots. On the center-left, after all, is where you encounter the strongest endorsements of indigenous cultures and traditions, of deference to community norms and assets. It’s also on the Democratic side where “sustainability” (i.e., preserving something that is) seems most attractive as a guiding principle, and where people are highly sensitive to fragility, unanticipated consequences, human arrogance. Conservation, preservation, and respect for tradition are in tension with the technocratic inclinations of the Party, but they represent a powerful current in center-left thought.
The most reflective and consistent recent American Burkean was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He opposed the War on Poverty in the 1960s because he thought it would destabilize communities and was based on arrogant abstractions dreamed up in academia. He then opposed the Reagan-era cuts in those programs on the same grounds. Another politician might have been blowing in the political winds, but Moynihan wrote rather extensively against both reforms on Burkean grounds. In the 1960s, he was marginal as a Democrat, excoriated by liberals and hired by Nixon. By the time he voted against Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996, he stood right at the heart of a now-Burkean party.
Aren’t the Republicans also conservative, in a Burkean sense? Maybe some are at the grassroots level, but the national party’s leaders seem eager to revolutionize America by adopting libertarian experiments. They often characterize their reforms as a return to the American past, but they mean the relatively distant past and its forgotten principles. The Paul Ryan budget would take us back to before the New Deal. Rick Santorum would move us back to before the sins of the 1960s. Burke never argued in favor of radical backward steps or original principles. It was the messy status quo, not the distant past, that attracted his respect.
I do not mean this post as a critique of the Democratic Party. I am often inclined to support the Burkean side in an argument. I do lament that our two parties are (respectively) Burkean conservative and right-radical. We would be better off if an ambitious, reformist left also existed to press for change. At least, we would be better off if people realized how the current political spectrum is arranged and voted accordingly. The choice is not really between left and right but between Burke/Hayek/Niebuhr conservatism and Milton Friedman/Antonin Scalia/William F. Buckley conservatism.