Saturday, April 16, 2011

Burke, Veblen, and the New Feudalism: Part I -- Reflections on Edmund Burke


Almost every great lesson and important truth I have ever learned was not by direct rational argument. I either learned it obliquely, for example by encountering it unexpectedly while in pursuit of something completely unrelated, or by some experience or anecdote that I happen to run across. Rarely have I found another's arguments persuasive enough to convince me of anything important which I did not already believe, though I suppose they do serve the purpose of 'planting seeds' that flower later. Serendipity, in other words, has been a least as great a part of my adult education as anything I have rationally undertaken, and its direction seems to have been due as much to random chance or acts of God as any kind of direction I have tried to give them.

Probably the first important truth I so discovered (at least, that I can recall clearly) was that one absolutely cannot trust modern accounts, even from highly respectable sources, of the writings of ages past. If you want to know what some famous historical figure really had to say you absolutely have to read his writings for yourself. When you do, you will invariably find that the modern 'pop-culture' versions are horrible distortions of the original. Sometimes they are so bad as to be unrecognizable.

In my case, it was Robert Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principles of Population, horribly mangled versions of which I had repeatedly encountered in college. Why this book? Because it struck me as silly that people would still be making fun of something a man said two centuries after his death. If he really was such an idiot, why were people still talking about him? Why would anybody remember him among so many others?

As it turns out, his book is primarily an economic argument against contemporary schemes for the collective ownership of property, not a biological thesis on the behavior of populations. He did not predict that the population would explode and then humanity would starve to death, and from what I can tell, he's largely been proven correct with respect to the main points of his argument. But you wouldn't know it if you listened to practically any modern recounting. Almost every mention you will encounter today will twist his arguments in knots and make him out to be either a devil or a clown.

This book is also where I got my first inkling that people of the past, and in particular the eighteenth century, were more 'developed' in many respects than we are today. I had never encountered a comparable modern work at the time, and that really made an impression on me, given how much I had read from present times as compared to the past. I still haven't seen anything by a modern author that compares, with the possible exception of C.S. Lewis, who hardly qualifies as modern.

Repeated encounters of superior work from earlier days had convinced me that somehow the nineteenth century was some sort of Western human pinnacle. However, two recent 'encounters' have convinced me that I need to rethink that idea, as well as quite a few others.

One was Edmund Burke. Shortly after reading his Reflections on the Revolution in France, I began writing notes for this essay, but for whatever reason, I got sidetracked and took up a seemingly unrelated second book, The Theory of Business Enterprise by Thorstein Veblen. That would prove to be the second shattering encounter.


Reflections on Edmund Burke

Reflections on the Revolution in France is a critique of the French Revolution written as it was happening. It was harshly critical of the ideals and behavior of the revolutionaries, and condemned the revolution in no uncertain terms, despite its tacit politeness towards its 'audience,' a young French correspondent seeking Burke's opinion on the event. It contains a lot of insights with respect to present day America and the West and raises important questions.

Important and uncomfortable questions, mind you, trending to very uncomfortable questions when viewed in the light of Veblen's book, which I shall get to in later essays.

On the surface, the book and its ideas appeal strongly to conservative sensibilities. Burke condemns the French Revolution as a usurpation, a forcible, radical change in the social order that overturned long established ways and replaced them with an untested, unproven concoction of airy ideals. He correctly surmised that the dislocations would result in much misery and bloodshed and ultimately prove futile. Of course, to some extent that had already been proven at the time of his writing.

The Glorious Revolution and American Independence

By contrast, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, to which the Frenchman had wished to compare his own, was a great success. It was one of those rare 'conservative' revolutions that basically restored and reinforced what had been established practice but by an odd turn of events had come under threat. James I, of The King James Bible fame, was succeeded by James II, who attempted to overturn a number of existing laws by force, dismissing officers who resisted and replacing them with his own loyalists. The population was caught between respect of two loyalties -- respect of the right of inheritance and succession which named James II the rightful monarch to whom they owed fealty, or to the established ways and customs that he was violating.

In the end, James was forced from the throne by William of Orange, who held a tentative claim to the throne through his wife Mary, who was James' elder sister. Even though William was not even English (technically, he 'invaded' England from the Netherlands), he restored and respected the old ways, and the famed English Bill of Rights was passed, which basically did nothing more than put into writing what had always been accepted as common law and custom.

America's own revolution occurred between the Glorious Revolution and the French Revolution, closer to the French side of course, and likewise it fell between the two in terms of the issues involved. It compares favorably to the English revolution in that it was 'conservative,' as the colonists were resisting changes being foisted on them by George III, and likewise in that it was 'successful.' The newly established government did not endure the bloodshed and turmoil of the French Revolution in that the new system was not perceived as a fantastic departure from what had already been established. I would like to say that it had much more to favor the English side of things, especially having read Burke's essay and been enamored of his presentation of the spirit of the Glorious Revolution, but sadly, I must say that in most other respects our own revolution favors the French.

Inheritance, Succession, Property, and the Enlightenment

It was that pivotal issue of inheritance and succession, not merely of the throne but on a much deeper level, that makes the English story special and divides us from them, at least for the purposes of these essays. In reality, to the English of that day, the issue of inheritance was on both sides of the conflict, tugging at their loyalties. It was probably the pivotal issue of their lives.

The English of 1688, and apparently even some of them clear up to the turn of the 19th century when Burke wrote his essay, sat on a philosophical divide that separated the Medieval period from the Enlightenment. For them, inheritance was still bound up in almost every conceivable legal arrangement. Property, for example, was intimately connected to inheritance, and though Burke might speak of 'rights of property' and hold them to be as inviolate as any conservative American of today, in so doing he would mean an almost completely different thing.

Property and its inheritance bound people and generations together. It connected the present generation both to the past and to the future, as well as neighbor to neighbor, since title, and therefore social status, authority, and relational position, was connected to property. It was these relationships that held society together and defined who each person was. It gave people a stake both in the present and the past, as what was passed to them was irrevocably theirs and would be passed to their own heirs by equally irrevocable rules and traditions. Contrast that with, for example, polygamous Islamic despotisms, where tyrants hoard the available wealth and women by force, leaving many young men propertiless, hopeless, and alone, with no stake in the present system and as ready to tear it apart as see it propagated, religious affiliations be damned. Or to America itself, for that matter, where practically anything may be bought or sold, inheritance is often taxed into oblivion, is not bound up in tradition and often flows arbitrarily, into trusts and other arrangements that frequently tear families apart in the struggle over the wealth of the deceased. Too often in our society, it seems that the attitude is 'eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.' Not so much thought is given to the past or to posterity.

Property, succession, and inheritance were practically inseparable issues at that time, but perhaps surprisingly, so were legal rights. Rights were also felt to be passed down from generation to generation, as children carried on the traditions of their parents and passed these rights on to their own children.  Like precious family heirlooms, they were jealously guarded. Hence the designation 'The Rights of Englishmen.' The English connected their rights to their identity as Englishmen, not necessarily as having been endowed with them by their Creator, as in America, or as 'universal rights of men' as in France. They claimed their rights as Englishmen by virtue of inheritance from their forefathers and as subjects of the English crown, and though some might very well be granted by God, they were secured by more than sophistry, airy appeals and gobbledygook.

This may all be mildly unsettling to us as Americans who see that Burke has shined a bright light in some uncomfortable places, but believe me, it goes downhill from here, especially for conservatives committed to the Enlightenment. It really gets ugly as one approaches the issue of equality.

Equality -- Destroyer of Societies

Burke flatly asserts that equality is incompatible with -- and antithetical to -- civil society. Again, the issue is tied up with inheritance and property. Property, status, and inheritance are what bind people together and give them a place in the social order and a stake in it. Any attempt to produce equality will inherently require striking blows against all three. It requires a violation of what people take to be their rights, and is viewed as unjust. Property, inheritance, and status must be secure or civilization cannot be, thus the attempt to produce equality undermines the basis of civil society.

Yet America itself is founded on the rejection of class. Here, it is inequality, however ill-defined, which is considered unjust. Most people here do not necessarily take much umbrage over differences in wealth, even inherited wealth, but the idea of one person being 'better' than another is anathema. How much latent resentment is there against, say, the Kennedys, not over their wealth, fame, or success necessarily, but their inherent "Kennediness?" Why is it that a drunken halfwit lout basically had a Senate seat for the asking for life, purely on the basis of his last name?

That kind of thing tends to rub Americans the wrong way. I must admit my own tendencies in this direction. America likes to see itself as a meritocratic place, yet meritocracy is in a sense the antithesis of respect for inheritance and property, and, Burke would argue, inimical to civil society. How can a man's present condition be a reflection of his own effort and merit if he isn't first stripped of any 'advantage' conferred by his particular lot in life? How can the property rights of the aged be respected if they aren't free to bequeath their wealth as they see fit? Meritocracy, it would seem, needs a level playing field if it's to be any kind of respectable meritocracy at all. In this light, the debate over the 'death tax' is far from a minor political sideshow that only matters to millionaires. It is a critical, central debate about our national identity and character.

The Disparity Between the Revolutions

Burke rejects a litany of parallels his French correspondent attempts to make between the English and French situations. He rejects the idea that the Glorious Revolution was an assertion by the English people of the right to choose their own king, or the right to remove from office any official as they choose. He saw no element of democracy in their actions, and no redeeming quality in this assertion of the right of a society to choose its leaders. He saw the king's right to rule as flowing from the king's adherence to law and custom and his to claim by right of succession. Voting or consent of the governed had nothing to do with it. Legislation passed in that day only served to clarify the process and rules of succession, not to abrogate or subdue it.

He rejected the French paper money system as being totally incomparable to the English system. England had no legal tender laws, and thus English money had to stand on its own merit, unlike French fiat money. He rejects that such documents as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Right constituted anything more than restatements of rights and liberties that were already considered to have been well established, and thus that the English always had liberty, not that they were liberated by their 'revolutions.' He ridicules the extreme, overwrought French notions of liberty, preferring the less glamorous, practical liberty of the English under the feudal tradition.

He strongly contrasts the relatively mild, relatively civil violence that drove James II from power with the inhuman bloodletting and destruction of the French Revolution, with its callous, almost mechanical treatment of human life and relationships. This 'mechanical' aspect is something that seems to have become quite ingrained in the modern worldview, and its bizarre dominance of modern thought processes even in areas where it is highly inappropriate is something that has long puzzled me, even as I see it in myself. It is worth noting here, and its origins and importance will become much clearer in the writings of Veblen.

America the Vulnerable

As Americans, the frightening part of all of this should be how much of what Burke describes as being absolutely critical to stable, peacable, free society has been tossed aside as useless, unimportant, or even an outright evil by our own way of life, not just in the recent past, but even at our nation's founding. As one looks over the history of the 20th century, one sees the process accelerating. From the abstraction of physical property into paper assets and ever more complex financial instruments, to the collectivization of inheritance in various tax and welfare schemes, especially in the collective 'disinheritance' scheme of Social Security and Medicare in which one generation attempts to extract the wealth of future generations to sustain itself in its waning years, to the many foundering socialist movements that attempted to take the mechanical aspects of the Enlightenment to their logical conclusions, mechanizing almost every function of modern society. Public childcare, schooling, trade unionism and nursing homes, all in the name of 'liberation.'

Note that many would consider most, if not all, of the latter to be anti-Enlightenment. I would tend to agree, but it is important to point out that the Enlightenment was something of a conflicted movement, full of contradictions. It was united more in a spirit of free inquiry and respect for 'liberty' than actual hard and fast ideology, more of a rejectionist movement against the feudal order than a clearly defined affirmative philosophy.  As many as might characterize welfarism and the like as anti-Enlightenment, many others would say the opposite.

Whatever the case may be, it was the Enlightenment which began the process of questioning and rejecting critical ancient institutions that led the West to this point in history, some (like Burke and Veblen, vastly different men as they may be) would argue rather predictably. Prior to that revolution in thought, property, inheritance and succession had really been sacred, more than sufficient to sustain Western society, generation upon generation for centuries, through periods of incredible change, turmoil, and strife.

I would also note that that is not something easy for a libertarian to write, or to come to terms with. Don't worry, as this series of essays gets rolling, I'm pretty sure it will get worse. At the least, I feel like I've had a big heaping dish of humble pie set before me by these two.


Edmund Burke appears to have flatly rejected the Enlightenment, the spirit of which is the basis of the American social order and the American government, as well as that of the remainder of the West, and it seems to me that he had some very good reasons to do so, even where I may instinctively doubt him. If he were somehow able to assess our present-day situation from the grave, I think we might all be in for a big 'I told you so.'

By my reading, the Enlightenment effectively destroyed two of the most important pillars that had supported Western civilization for over a millenium -- inheritance and succession. A third -- property -- was so radically altered in its wake as to render the institution nearly unrecognizable and almost worthy of a separate designation, the consequences of which will be more fully explored later. These three pillars of society were replaced with various 'freedoms,' yet barely a few centuries hence, the West finds itself in dire straights, its freedoms in question, unsure of its identity, disintegrating, and in many respects a shambles of its former self.

As we watch the fabric of our own social order break down, and speculate about what the future may hold for us, we would do well to remember what led to this juncture and what ingredients might be useful in returning our societies to some semblence of order and cohesion. Of particular note (to me at least) is the way that under the institutions of the medieval system, the distinction between society and government was much less visible or even non-existent, as if the two were inseparably bound, or even that there was no distinction to be made at all.

Not so much that the former had been integrated into the hierarchy of the latter, as with the regimented societies of modern times, but rather quite the opposite -- that 'government' seems to have had almost no independent existence of its own, being only an extension and an expression of society itself, something that flowed naturally from the customs and modes of thought of the people.

Perhaps there is a lesson in that.

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