I’ve just begun reading The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt against the Liberal Elite by Lee Harris. We’ve had the book for a long time, and I think Dymphna may even have reviewed it in this space a few months ago. But I’m just now getting to it — I’m always behind in my reading.
The passage below, from Chapter 1 (pp 12-14), is striking for its lucid description of the difference between Burkean and Lockean concepts of human liberty. The “optimism” that the author is referring to concerns the enthusiasm with which American neoconservatives embraced the idea of bringing liberty to the despotisms of the Middle East:
Behind this optimism lies a long philosophical tradition that looks upon liberty as the natural birthright of all mankind, a tradition most closely associated with the seventeenth century’s John Locke and the eighteenth century’s Thomas Jefferson, one that has been enormously influential among English-speaking people, especially in America. When President George W. Bush argued that we all want the same things — among which he included liberty — he was echoing this philosophy of freedom. But there is another English tradition about liberty that takes a radically different view of the subject.
The eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish orator and political thinker Edmund Burke gave the classic formulation of a rival philosophy of liberty when he argued that the unparalleled rights and liberties enjoyed by the English people of his time were not the result of any vague or abstract natural right but were an inheritance from their ancestors. Against those who saw liberty as a universal right of all men, Burke argued that liberty could only flourish among those whose ancestors had fought for it, and who were themselves determined to preserve and cherish the rights and privileges that had been won for them by earlier generations. Liberty was not to be found in bold experimentation, which often destroyed it, but in a kind of political conservationism — that is to say, a careful and alert stewardship over those cultural, political, and religious traditions that were the indispensable condition of the preservation of a free society.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the American conservationist movement sought to protect America’s great natural treasures, such as Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone Park, from destruction through pollution and exploitation. A century earlier, Burke’s political conservationism aimed to protect Britain’s great national institutions, such as Parliament and the Church of England, from reformers who wished to tinker and tamper with them. Behind both conservationist movements, however, was the same insight. Great things that are the work of time, that have arisen organically and through the interplay of many contending and conflicting forces, must be conserved, because once they are gone there is no way of replacing them. For Burke, English liberty was like the Grand Canyon — a serendipitous gift of Providence that no amount of human contrivance could hope to recreate once human folly had allowed it to perish.
At first sight, these two conflicting paradigms of liberty — Locke’s and Burke’s — may appear to be two sides of a purely speculative dispute, without any serious consequences for the real world. Yet it was the triumph of Locke’s concept of liberty over Burke’s that was ultimately responsible for one of the longest, costliest, and most controversial of all the wars that the United States has ever fought. Had Burke’s view of liberty been dominant in White House circles, Saddam Hussein might still have been overthrown, but there would have been far less extravagant rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Middle East. Indeed, one might argue that the dampening of expectations for democracy in the Middle East reflects a revival of Burke’s emphasis on liberty as a specific cultural tradition prized by some societies but not by others.
We can’t revive Burke too quickly, from my point of view. If his insights don’t start guiding our policy soon, the United States will probably destroy itself trying to do the impossible in the Middle East.
I may run into other relevant passages in the book as I make my way through it. If I do, I’ll fire up the scanner and post some more excerpts here.