March 02, 2007


Caption: This amphibian considers reptiles to be reckless innovators.

FIRST THE GOOD NEWS: The Employee Free Choice Act passed the U.S. House by a margin of 241-185. Among WV's delegation, only Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito voted against it. There's a good post about that at West Virginia Blue. See the item "Capito spins anti-union vote as pro-union."

WHAT THE? While you're at WV Blue, scroll on down to the post "Tax Breaks for the Rich" for info on the WV Senate's proposal to drastically cut corporate taxes. This would mean drastic cuts in education, services, and infrastructure. At this moment, the Gazette reports that it doesn't seem likely to pass the house, which is a good feature.

THE HORSE'S MOUTH. Check out Jim Lewis's new Notes from Under the Fig Tree for an account of his arrest at Congresswoman Capito's office over her Iraq position, his hearing, and other interesting items.


If there is an Achilles' heel of conservatism, it is it's historic tendency to side with with politically and economically dominant groups. When this happens, there are pretty simple reasons for it: nearly any society consists of winners and losers. The winners want to keep their winnings, whether they were gained by fair means or foul.

(In fairness, it could also be said that the Achilles' heel of radicals is the belief that a major transformation of society by peaceful or violent means would bring about an improvement for the majority of people outside the ruling elites. To put it mildly that's not always the case and often such changes make things worse for everyone.)

But I'd say the best conservatives can transcend this weakness. The British statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797) is a case in point.

Born in Ireland, Burke served for many years in Parliament where he was spoke eloquently and effectively against abuses of power. He defended the American colonists and recommended a conciliatory policy in the 1770s and later exposed English crimes against the people of India.

He was, in other words, a progressive conservative, i.e. one who recognized that society should be prudently reformed and that abuses should be corrected, but he was realistic enough to know that most human actions have unintended consequences.

He parted company with some of his former radical allies, including his former friend the Anglo-American revolutionary Thomas Paine, over the French Revolution. His 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France is one of the best books of political theory ever written.

Burke had no doubts that the excesses of the French monarchy needed to be corrected. But he was convinced that one should seek to reform past abuses in a way that respected a people's history and tradition and that trying to start again with a blank slate would lead to violence, chaos, war, and tyranny...which is pretty much what happened. While El Cabrero intends no disrespect to the French Revolution, it was, well, a goat rope.

Here's are some sample quotes:

The science on constructing a not to be taught a priori... The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature, or to the quality of his affairs...The rights of men in governments are...often in balances between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil...

So when and how should good people deal with abuses of political power and when should patience give way to resistance?

The speculative line of demarcation where obedience ought to end and resistance must begin is faint, obscure, and not easily definable. It is not a single act, or a single event, which determines it. Governments must be abused and deranged, indeed, before it can be thought of; and the prospect of the future must be as bad as the experience of the past. When things are in that lamentable condition, the nature of the disease is to indicate the remedy to those whom nature has qualified to administer in extremities this critical, ambiguous, bitter potion to a distempered state. Times and occasions and provocations will teach their own lessons. The wise will determine from the gravity of the case; the irritable, from sensibility to oppression; the high-minded, from disdain and indignation at abusive power in unworthy hands; the brave and bold, from the love of honorable danger in a generous cause; but, with or without right, a revolution will be the very last resource of the thinking and the good.

He also had a long-term view of society as a partnership "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." That's an insight we could use today given the disastrous impact of this generation on the earth's resources.

Sometimes he could go too far, as for example, when he referred to the mass of lower class English subjects as "the swinish multitude."

Thomas Paine responded to his former ally's Reflections with Parts I and II of The Rights of Man, where he accused Burke, with some justification, of pitying the aristocracy and ignoring the sufferings of the lower classes: "He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird."

Actually, the world needs both its Paines and Burkes in proper measure. In the end, both were right. As Craig Nelson wrote of British political history in his recent Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations,

In the end, Burke's Reflections accurately predicted that the French Revolution would finish in bloodshed and tyranny, while Paine's Rights just as brilliantly anticipated, two hundred years ahead of its time, the style of government for close to half the world's nations today. The great irony of this epic struggle in British political history is that, when it came to dear old Albion, both would be right. The English polity over the coming decades would glacially reform itself, just as Burke proposed, but into a structure not all that different from the one envisioned by Rights of Man.

It would be nice to think they are somewhere now arguing about who was right...



hipparchia said...

It would be nice to think they are somewhere now arguing about who was right...

i had to smile at that image. thanks for that, and for your disquisition on conservatism.

El Cabrero said...

Thank you! One would hope that T.P. and E.B. would have cooled off enough after 200 years to have a genial discussion...