Monday, March 17, 2008

Burke on St. Patrick's day - a few thoughts

The best way to describe Edmund Burke's nationality is "English, British, Irish," according to this very interesting article by Joseph Morrison Skelly. With his Dublin heritage, Anglican father, Catholic mother and sister, and royalist philosophy, Burke was able to navigate through English political life by embracing this complex identity. It is not a mistake to refer to him as a 'great Irish statesman,' then, as long as one remembers how many layers there really are to that cake.

Reflections has so much in it to discuss and praise, but I will confine myself to a couple of observations. First, his defence of England's limited franchise against Revolutionary France's more general one. He remarks that the revolutionaries harboured real contempt for the masses that sometimes seeped through their statements in support of full representation. At the same time, the architects of the new system and those like-minded sneered at the English voting laws, saying they produced only partial liberty. Burke's rejoinder is that England's process had been proved "perfectly adequate to all the purposes for which a representation of the people can be desired or devised."

Elsewhere, the author is most skeptical about the ameliorative power of 'pure' democracy. Could one argue, then, that the great Irishman is not really a model for conservatives today, who are forever arguing that power should be in the hands of the many, the people, the masses? I mean, in opposition to the appointed judiciary, the unaccountable bureaucrats, or heads of huge conglomerations like the European Union, many of whom are not tested at the polls. I think that, read together with other statements in the book, we can understand his position on the franchise in another way.

Was Burke just reactionary in his condemnation of 1789? No, but he was a man of prudence. There is almost a presumption (rebuttable, but still there) in his thinking that an innovation is worth one-half or less of whatever is impugned. "Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years." It is easy to point out flaws and to tear down, but "to preserve and to reform is quite another thing." The point is that the way democracy evolved - slowly, cautiously - is exactly what Burke had in mind.