RE: Burke and the Big Gulp Ban

Dan, I very much enjoyed your post from last night about Burke and the soda ban, and I think the question you raise at the end—about whether the fact that the champions of the liberal welfare state are now defending a status quo means that they can claim Burke and his disposition toward change—is an interesting and important question, and one that a consideration of Burke’s actual writings and speeches should lead us to answer in the negative.


I have to say, first, that I’m just genuinely confused by the point David Frum was trying to make in the passage you quoted. My impression from some of his past books is that Frum does know his Burke, but I can’t really see what he was getting at here. He cited a paragraph he had written earlier:

Human beings are not reasoning machines. We are animals who have inherited certain propensities not always well-adapted to modern urban life. We evolved in conditions of food scarcity. Our bodies have adapted to store food energy against famine; our subrational minds crave sweetness. The sugary beverage industry has invested massively to understand better how to use our very human natures against us.

And then he cited a paragraph from Burke’s Reflections which he suggested made the same point:

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 be better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages…

But these two passages don’t make the same point at all. Burke’s notion of human nature is not that we are animals that can be chemically manipulated and so must be careful what we ingest, and his idea of the limits of our rationality was not that we have sub-rational minds that crave sweetness. He certainly did argue that reason is not all there is to human nature—“Politics ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings but to human nature, of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part,” he wrote. But that crucial greatest part was our sentiments, not our animal urges and wants. In fact, in his French Revolution writings Burke suggests that a proper understanding of human sympathies and sentiments is the essential counterbalance to the revolutionaries’ simultaneous emphasis on human reason and our animal appetites, which hang very much together.

It is precisely when we make too much of the power of our reason that we also overemphasize man’s animality—coming to see ourselves merely as the only animal that knows it is merely an animal. Burke’s alternative was to emphasize the other not-simply-rational element of human nature, the sentimental intelligence that allows us to be the animal that is not merely an animal. This kind of intelligence expresses itself not in explicit principles of government but in ways of living that have served human happiness for generations even if what justifies them cannot be fully articulated, and that is why Burke thought we could learn something (though not everything) from the forms and structures of our society’s life that we could not hope to learn from geometrical reasoning about politics alone. This is the “general bank and capital of nations, and of ages,” and it’s hard to see where in that bank we would find support for the notion that people’s access to sugary beverages beyond a certain size should be limited by their city’s mayor. On the contrary, the forms and structures of our society’s life suggest that a significant measure of personal liberty—even when it amounts to the freedom to harm oneself to some extent—is essential to our happiness.

In fact, Burke himself understood this about the American people, and he criticized his own government’s treatment of the Americans not because he thought the British didn’t have a right to tax the colonies (in this sense, he disagreed with the basic claims of the American Revolution even while calling for American independence), but because he thought it wasn’t a good way to govern these particular Englishmen, who had developed over time a particular taste for personal freedom. “People must be governed in a manner agreeable to their temper and disposition,” Burke told the Commons in one of the debates about the American war, “and men of free character and spirit must be ruled with at least some condescension to this spirit and this character.” Mayor Bloomberg would do well to consider that prudent counsel.

This doesn’t mean that Burke thought societies shouldn’t change—on the contrary, he was first and foremost a reformer. But it means he thought that whenever possible change should flow through the channels carved out by a society’s own experience, that change should involve a society building on the best of itself to correct the worst of itself. And this gets to the second, and larger, point you raise. Since we now live with a social-democratic welfare state, isn’t the effort to retain that state more Burkean than the effort to change it?

I don’t think that actually considering this in terms of “what would Burke do today?” is terribly constructive. But I do think that the attempt by some on the left today (including President Obama at times) to claim Burke, and to accuse conservatives of failing to live up to their own traditions when they call for fundamental reforms of the welfare state is badly misguided, and is a very careless (to be charitable) reading of Burke.

The debate about whether to conserve or reform our existing welfare state is not a fundamental debate about conservation vs. reform, because our particular welfare state is not a force for conservation in society. We’re having a kind of second-order debate about political change—a debate about reforming a set of welfare-state institutions that are themselves intended to advance a certain vision of change. That vision is a progressive archetype that Burke would have recognized with some alarm: an egalitarian ideal of justice advanced through the application of explicit technical expertise regarding society within a liberal framework. Opposing it is a more conservative ideal that Burke would have found largely familiar: a case for addressing social problems through evolved institutions (like the family, civil society, religious groups, and markets) that tacitly contain and convey implicit knowledge within a liberal framework.

The fact that the American political tradition is a liberal tradition rooted in a revolutionary founding means that those who seek to conserve that tradition are bound to be more friendly to enlightenment liberalism than Burke was. And the fact that today’s welfare state embodies a progressive vision of change means that those who seek to advance that vision are bound to be in the business of defending existing institutions more than calling for revolution. But to understand the parties to the debate at the heart of our political life, we must look to the ends they seek, as much as to the means they employ. And at the level of ends, it would not be easy to argue that our welfare state advances a Burkean vision of political change, or political life.

There’s much more to be said about this. I’m in the final stages of writing a book on Burke’s great debate with Thomas Paine, and what it can (and can’t) tell us about today’s left/right divide, which should be out early next year, and which I suppose helps explain the undue length of this post. But I certainly agree with you, Dan, that we can learn a great deal about what underlies our politics by considering whether Burke’s ways of thinking have something to tell us.

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs, a quarterly journal of essays on domestic policy and politics. He is also the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy ...

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