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In Defense of Edmund Burke

I’m working on a piece for the magazine on the recent brouhaha about the Enlightenment being racist and whatnot. In the process I’m finally reading Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now. Let me say I’m generally a fan of Pinker’s, I find a lot of his work very useful, and his views track my own on many issues (though not really with regard to the Enlightenment — more about that in the pages of NR). But I was dismayed to read this:

Foremost is the conservative skepticism about the ideal of progress itself. Ever since the first modern conservative, Edmund Burke, suggested that humans were too flawed to think up schemes for improving their condition and were better off sticking with traditions and institutions that kept them from the abyss, a major stream of conservative thought has been skeptical about the best-laid plans of mice and men [Emphasis mine]. The reactionary fringe of conservatism, recently disinterred by Trumpists and the European far right (chapter 23), believes that Western civilization has careened out of control since some halcyon century, having abandoned the moral clarity of traditional Christendom for a decadent secular fleshpot that, if left on its current course, will soon implode from terrorism, terrorism, crime, and anomie.

This is simply not Edmund Burke’s position. Burke was not an opponent of reform nor change. He was an opponent of radical revolution because such explosions tended to destroy the very organs of government, civil society, and culture that made improvement possible. Hence his famous line, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Burke was on the side of Adam Smith when it came to economics because he understood that commerce tended to improve the plight of everyone, and that was worth it even if commerce was also threatening to the status quo.

Burke was sympathetic to the American revolutionaries but implacably hostile to the French ones for all of these reasons. Well before Hayek, Burke also recognized what Hayek would call the “knowledge problem.”

Here’s how one writer put it a few years ago:

According to Burke, no mortal is smart enough to design a society from first principles. A society is an organic system that develops spontaneously, governed by myriad interactions and adjustments that no human mind can pretend to understand. Just because we cannot capture its workings in verbal propositions does not mean it should be scrapped and reinvented according to the fashionable theories of the day. Such ham-fisted tinkering will only lead to unintended consequences, culminating in violent chaos.

Burke clearly went too far. … But Burke had a point. Unspoken norms of civilized behavior, both in everyday interactions and in the conduct of government, may be a prerequisite to implementing certain reforms successfully. The development of these norms may be the mysterious “historical forces” that Payne remarked on, such as the spontaneous fading of political murder well before the principles of democracy had been articulated, and the sequence in which some abolition movements gave the coup de grâce to practices that were already in decline. They may explain why today it is so hard to impose liberal democracy on countries in the developing world that have not outgrown their superstitions, warlords, and feuding tribes.

Who was that writer? Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of Our Nature. I’m not sure what’s happened in the world of breaking Edmund Burke news that would cause him to change his mind.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post identified the second Pinker quote as having come from The Blank Slate. It appeared in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

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