The Corner

Edmund Burke and the Big Gulp Ban

David Frum thinks he has trapped Tim Graham of NewsBusters/MRC. It started when Frum, exasperatingly, came out in favor of Bloomberg’s Big Gulp ban on what he called conservative grounds. Graham wrote in response (quoting Frum):

David Frum is not a conservative. Look no further than his latest CNN opinion piece, “Bloomberg’s Visionary Plan Against Obesity.” Would a conservative write something like this?

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.

Here Frum leaps to claim the mantle of Burke, Conservative Godfather:

Good question, Tim!

And with the answer, may I introduce … Edmund Burke?

“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…”

I think Frum badly misinterprets the passage he’s lifting from here. Burke’s greatest criticism of the French Revolution was that it sought to replace the “wisdom of nations, and of ages” with the vogue of few radical dilettantes. He reserved his greatest scorn for “sophisters, economists, and calculators” who sought to govern — to coerce — according to the latest intellectual fad or table of numbers. In other words, Burke would have hated Mike Bloomberg’s guts.

He held higher hope for the interlocking framework of (what he called) “prejudices,” inculcated into individuals by families, communities, churches, and civil society. This is something I wrote about last year when I reviewed Edmund Burke for Our Time in the magazine. And since I use any opportunity I can to quote heavily from stuff behind the paywall, here’s how I summed it:

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Burke saw the substitution of a cold and unmoored rationalism, novel in the worst sense of the word, for the body of mores and morals that had long held French civil life together. Byrne’s Burke understands our moral faculty as an admixture of reason and sentiment. Healthy judgments of right and wrong come from an application of what he repeatedly calls “prejudices”–instincts, habits, virtues culturally inherited–aided by reason. White papers, eco­nomic models, and graduate seminars get you only so far. The rest requires the wisdom of “nations and . . . ages” (Burke’s words) that is all too often dismissed as (our words) “the conventional wisdom.”

We thirst for this conventional wisdom, for the common sense that can’t be gleaned from an Ivy League education but comes only from participation in a multigenerational order greater and more enduring that any passing ideo­logical fad.

#more#The problem with Burke — and the reason folks like Frum, who evince what is essentially a circumspect conventional liberalism, find him a convenient ally — is that he can be used in the defense of any set of prejudices whatever, so long as they have the right grounding in traditional sources of moral education. Burke, for instance, was defending the prejudices of a largely pre-industrial constitutional monarchy. American conservatives (like me) are interested in defending one version or another of the Judeo-Christian and American Constitutional traditions. But folks like Frum can, with some justice, use the notion of Burkean prejudice to defend the post-New Deal status quo. That’s a troublesome feature of Burke. Here’s what I wrote about it:

That Burke can be read as relativist or instrumentalist–whether or not he actually is one–gets to the core of the doubt that Burke should be considered a figure of the Right at all, and opens up space for his appropriation by liberals as well as conservatives (as we understand those terms today). When President Obama is described as “temperamen­tally conservative,” we may snicker, but in fact it is quite possible for a committed political progressive to prefer his progress gradual. The organizing prin­ciple of Fabianism, the late-19th- and early-20th-century social-democratic movement, was the slow, piecemeal introduction of socialism to the United Kingdom. It is hard not to see Burke’s fingerprints.

There is now a debate on the right that is not usually described in Burkean terms, but perhaps should be. It centers on the following question: If, the Reagan revolution notwithstanding, American political discourse has become pre­judiced, in the Burkean sense, toward progressivism and statism by the consoli­dation and entrenchment of the New Deal and the Great Society, does that make the Right’s political program itself radical? Does it make progressives in Washington conservative? (Consider the popularity of such books as Rules for Radical Conservatives.)

Why is fear-mongering on Social Security and Medicare reform such a potent tool for opportunists on the left? Is it because the idea of a world in which senior citizens rely even slightly less on the machinery of the state is now alien to people’s political prejudices? Or, to put it more forcefully: Is it because the old American political prejudices, including the emphasis on industriousness and self-reliance, and on a safety net that is at least as much familial and civil-societal as it is governmental, have been vitiated by the slow, steady progress of progressive liberalism?

And if this is the case, what of Burke’s usefulness to “conservatives” on the right? Byrne flutters in the general vicinity of this question only briefly, in a concluding section titled “Burke and the Twenty-First Century,” in which he wonders whether we have come to a point where we must choose between a “liberal order” in the sense Burke would have venerated, and “the sort of radical Enlightenment liberalism that undermines meaning and . . . exists in opposition to its cultural heritage.” But again, fear of “the C-word” prevents him from saying much of use here. So we must ask: Would Burke venerate the status quo and argue for a slow, cautious evolution? Or would he see the vitiation of our moral imagination at the hands of “this new conquering empire of light and reason” and call for something more drastic? If Burke’s legacy is as the Cassandra of Jacobinism, we may ask: What if the Jacobins have already won?

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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