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Is Burke The Right Role Model For American Conservatives?


We’re honored to feature an excerpt of an interview of Yuval Levin by Charles Kesler. Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the editor of National Affairs, and author of, most recently, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right. Charles Kesler is a senior fellow at The Claremont Institute and editor of The Claremont Review of Books.

Charles Kesler: I have a question about the title of the book. This is a book about a debate between Burke and Paine. It’s not the usual sort of conservative book that looks at our champion, the conservative champion, Edmund Burke, in some sort of splendid isolation. Why the debate? Why focus on the debate, and how does Burke … What part does Burke play in that debate, I guess you could say?

Yuval Levin: One key reason to do that is that Burke spent his life engaged in debates. He was a politician as much as he was a philosopher or writer, and he would not have described himself as a political thinker first and foremost, even if we draw a lot of important ideas from him. Burke spent his time engaged in debates and did so at a time when British politics were embroiled in enormously consequential debates.

I think it’s important to understand him in that context and to see him as arguing with another side, another side that is also liberal, that is also a believer in a certain kind of democratic way of life, but that has a very different idea of what that means and where it’s headed, so Burke makes sense in the context of a debate.

I also do think that for conservatives, conservatives especially in America are not simply Burkeans. We also live in the context of the debate, and we also have within our thinking strands that are not Burkean at all and that are better represented in some respects by Burke’s conversation partners, including Thomas Paine. It’s important to see what those arguments are about and why they took the shape they did, so Burke in debate is to my mind the real Burke.

Charles Kesler: Now he was in many debates, of course, in his career, and one of the difficulties of interpreting Edmund Burke is it’s not clear that he switched sides, but it’s not clear that he stuck to the same side either, so how many Burkes are there? What is your Burke? What’s the key to your Burke, I suppose you could ask? Is it the dialectical or the debating quality of him?

Yuval Levin: No. I don’t think Burke switched sides. I think there is very much a consistency to Burke’s view of political life and political ideas. He lived through a very tumultuous time and found himself in debates that caused him to emphasize different things at different times, but I think throughout, he was a great believer in making the most of the given world and in building on what you find in the world rather than in trying to construct politics from abstract ideas.

At times, when he thought what was good and important about the given world was threatened by the power of the king, say, as in the 1760s, he could be described as almost the radical Whig arguing for limits on the power of the king. At other times, certainly, in the late 1770s and in the 1780s and around the time of the French Revolution, he was very much a conservative Whig, arguing for a defense of the same political and social order but from an attack that came from a very different direction.

But throughout he was concerned to defend what was good about the order of English life and English politics as he understood it and always believing, because Burke began from low expectations, and I would say this is essential to my understanding of Burke. He was much more impressed by what was working in political life than he was outraged by what was not, so he always wanted to build on the good that your society offers, to address the bad, rather than to try to throw away what you have and imagine that you can do better from scratch. That, to me, is the essential Burkean insight.

Charles Kesler: Yes, that’s a nice line, actually. One of the difficulties in pinning Burke down and the reason there have been so many different, if I may say so, conservative Burkes is that precisely the statesmanlike quality of his thought meant that he had to bend with circumstances, so there is a conservative Burke who is a sort of traditional natural law thinker.

There’s also a kind of conservative Burke who is a utilitarian, who is guided by the public good, but in a very concrete and not abstract way. There seems to be a bit of truth in each of these but [there is] something else to him that the others don’t get, right?

Yuval Levin: I think that’s right. I think part of Burke’s teaching is about how we can get to the principles of politics. He does not deny that politics answers the principles, and I think the utilitarian readers of Burke, including very sophisticated ones like Harvey Mansfield, don’t ultimately get to the bottom of Burke, at least as I understand him.

He was not a utilitarian and always defended himself from that charge when it arose, as it did arise in his own lifetime. I also don’t think that Burke was a natural-law thinker in the way we would now understand the term. He did believe that there was a law of nature to which all of life had to answer, including politics, but he did not believe that that could be accessible to us by direct, abstract thought.

He thought that it was only accessible through social and political life itself, and that means to me that when you see Burke struggling to divine principles out of experience, which is what a lot of the utilitarians point to, he is looking for those principles, and he says so. He’s not shy about it. But he doesn’t think that you can get to it in the way that Tom Paine and others thought you could, by abstract thought, by a kind of rational science of political principles.

He thought you had to study the history of your own society and of other societies and see what … In a sense, the life of society for him was a kind of rubbing up against those principles of natural law, and in that rubbing up against them, society took the shape of those principles, so you can learn something about the principles by the shape of your society, by what it has become over trial and error over many centuries.

Of course, English society was especially useful to this way of thinking since it did take shape very slowly over centuries. Burke thought that that shape lets you get at the principles, but he wouldn’t have denied that the principles were there.

Charles Kesler: In a way, there’s nothing new about being empirical or about looking at the concrete social reality, since we’re all sociopolitical beings. We all have a context of some kind. It wouldn’t surprise Cicero to spend his time reflecting on Roman history and the possibilities, the weaknesses of Roman regimes. What’s unusual about Burke and what it’s fair to be, I guess, one of his theoretical contributions is this notion that, beyond that, beyond the old-fashioned Aristotelian prudence, experience, and so forth, that there’s also what he calls prescription, as he also says, as a chief part of natural law.

He seems to be saying that there’s something in that formulation, that precisely only by looking at the slow adaptation of a society to its social environment and its challenges that one can find nature or one can find natural law or find some guidance for us in politics. That brings him closer to a kind of evolutionary reading, a kind of even historicist reading, to use that sort of term of art. Is that your Burke?

Yuval Levin: Absolutely, and I think evolution is a very good term to use to think about that. Burke is challenging to some conservatives because he believes that the present is better than the past in most respects. He doesn’t see human history as a fall from an original height where somehow we had a kind of perfect grasp of the truth and now we have to struggle to return to it.

He thinks, on the contrary, that societies that are functional societies, that seem to be serving the needs of their people well, are societies that are improving over time and coming closer to the truth about man and about politics and that the process by which that happens is a kind of evolutionary process, in the sense that it’s a trial and error process, where what is kept from that gradual slow experimentation is what works, and it works for a reason.

The what works part is what attracts you to Burke, but I think it’s crucial to Burke that that is only so because ultimately that society is growing closer to something that is true about human life, and about political life, and about liberty as he understands it. He has a kind of fuller liberalism. He doesn’t think of the liberal society as a discovery of the Enlightenment, as something that just became known 100 years earlier, as Paine and some others tend to think of it.

He thinks of it as an achievement of western civilization, so as something that’s both deeply rooted in a much longer history, he would not have been surprised, and I think he would have been humbled to think of himself compared to Cicero. He certainly saw Cicero as a great hero. I think he was an Aristotelian in some important respects. The only philosopher, real philosopher, that Burke ever quotes is Aristotle, but as you say, he was more than that because he did have a kind of more modern natural-law sense of what it was that all of history was pointing to. It’s not historicism. It’s just the difference of epistemology above all. It’s a difference about how we can get to the principles that ought to underlie politics.

Burke thought that because it was so difficult to get to them, the challenge for the statesman is to create a space in which society can live most of the time without having to resort to original principles, a space that answers to those principles and makes room for prudence so that most political questions are prudential questions, but there are exceptions.

There are times when you’re forced to think about the boundaries of that space as such, so in those times, you really do have to resort to principle. Burke thought that those times were especially times when Britain was confronted with problems abroad. The French Revolution was like that for him, but so was the treatment of the Irish Catholics, so was the treatment of the natives of India. Burke didn’t think that the American Revolution raised fundamental theoretical question.

He thought that that raised the prudential challenge and that the British government was making a mistake, but that it was not a fundamental philosophical mistake. It was a prudential mistake.

Charles Kesler: Am I incorrect in detecting some Hayek in your Burke?

Yuval Levin: I think it’s fair to say that there is some Burke in Hayek, as Hayek himself would have said and did say. If you think about the first four chapters of “The Constitution of Liberty,” which is I think is Hayek’s great book, are very Burkean and call on Burke quite a lot. They quote Burke quite a bit. Hayek likes Burke’s epistemology. He likes his approach to how we can answer questions.

He’s not ultimately a Burkean because he really is a utilitarian, and I think he would acknowledge that, too, but there’s certainly something to Burke’s approach to knowledge that I think is present in Hayek. It appeals to me, because I think it speaks to our challenges now. It’s not all there is to Burke by any means, but I think that in thinking about the limits of technical knowledge applied to political life, it’s extremely important and very instructive.

Charles Kesler: Of course, it is a question, then, if whether you can confine the innovation, as it were, to epistemology without it bleeding over into the substance of justice or into the political sphere…

Yuval Levin: I think you can only do that by a constant struggle, by knowing that you have to. It doesn’t contain itself. Utilitarianism has this way of overtaking everything else, and there’s no question that that danger is implicit in Burke, and the people who read him that way are not crazy, but I think that he himself struggled to keep it within those bounds. I think that the way to read to him that is useful to our kind of liberal democracy would keep him in those bounds.

Charles Kesler: To what extent is he useful to our kind of political democracy? He obviously wrote for a different constitution, for one with great establishments, as he called them, the church, the land, and nobility, many things that would strike you as foreign to us both as a democracy and as a modern twentieth-century country and not an eighteenth-century one.

Yuval Levin: I don’t think that Burke is ultimately only useful in his own time. I think that he is in that sense a genuine philosophical thinker. He guided something that’s important and true and, therefore, timeless too, and it’s especially useful for us living in liberal democracies. I think that that’s so … For a couple of reasons.

First of all, his basic disposition, his attitude that we should start by being grateful for the good rather than by being outraged at the bad is a very important corrective to a lot of more radical liberal thinking. Burke was a liberal. He was a Whig. He was not a Tory. He believed that the present was better than the past, and he believed that improvements were being made to the English in his own time.

He was part of a lot of those. He was a reformer.

Charles Kesler: But he didn’t think it was inevitable that the future would be better than the present.

Yuval Levin: No, not at all. He wasn’t a believer in inevitability in politics at all. He didn’t see some wave of history sweeping things over. He felt that it was the challenge of politicians and of statesmen to think about where things should go, but that disposition, which set him apart from a lot of other Whigs, and from a lot of radicals, and from Thomas Paine and many others, the idea that we should begin with gratitude for our inheritance, I think is extremely useful to any liberal democracy.

His approach to knowledge is also very useful to us. His sense that we can learn from the history of our own society is extremely important to us. Even though we live in a society that was founded in a revolution, in a sense, it is nonetheless a society that has a history before that revolution.

I think it’s important to understand the American founding as taking place in the context of exactly the debate that Burke was part of, so that in trying to understand something of American life by looking to that debate, I don’t want to suggest that American conservatives are who we are because of Burke or because we read Burke.

It’s not a genealogical explanation. Rather, the idea is that these two dispositions that Burke and Paine so well represented arise in almost any liberal democracy. They arise naturally in response to the circumstances of our way of life and of our thinking about politics, and they are distinct. They are one of the reasons why we tend to have two parties in our country and why there is a Left and Right.

They are recognizable in almost every period of American life, including in the founding. The founding itself contained them both. You can find them both in the Declaration of Independence. There’s certainly a great radical and philosophical opening. It’s followed by a much more conservative list of grievances, most of which are about longstanding privileges being denied, longstanding institutions being undone.

There’s conservatism and there’s radicalism in it, and almost immediately after the founding, those divisions broke out again, and American politic was divided in half. In fact, one of the reasons for that was the French Revolution, which was the scene of the Burke-Paine debate, if you will. I think it’s very useful to us, and I think it has a lot to do with the American experience, including the American founding.