January 2, 2019


Conservatism & the politics of prudence: On Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk & the conservative ethos.  (Daniel J. Mahoney, January 2019, New Criterion)

Kirk made two additional contributions to Burke studies, both of some significance. Kirk stressed that Burke was among the first to see the limits, all the limits, of social contract theorizing. Choice and consent play some legitimate role in politics (guided by humane and prudent judgment), but they should never obscure obligatory duties that are not a "matter of choice." Parents, citizens, neighbors, and children all have "burdensome duties" (as Burke puts it in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs) that they are obliged to carry out with grace and a sense of responsibility. Likewise, Kirk noted, Burke believed that every member of a political community was "obliged to obey the laws and sustain the state." Choice plays an important role in politics (and marriage), but it cannot be the basis of every aspect of life. Duty is as fundamental as consent. Kirk stresses the multiple ways in which Burke's conservative liberalism was decidedly un-Lockean: while defending the rights of property, Burke never believed that civil society arose from a pre-political "state of nature." Men and women are not truly born "free and independent," and the only true social contract is "between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." That is the great primeval contract that Burke so eloquently invokes in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. In the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, he sides with the classics and the Christians against full-blown modern "individualism."

Kirk is surely right that such a "conservative" basis of the social tie would unnerve classical Whigs from John Locke in the seventeenth century to Thomas Babington Macaulay in the nineteenth. Unlike Burke, they were blind, or at least inattentive, to what I have called, in a book of that name, "the conservative foundations of the liberal order." This is especially true of John Locke. In his most "reactionary" moments (I do not mean this formulation as a criticism), Kirk hopes for the restoration of a "society guided by veneration and prescription." That is too much to hope for societies profoundly transformed by the individualist premises at the heart of Lockean liberalism. There is seemingly no going back to the world of prejudice, prescription, and presumption, all understood in the elevated Burkean meaning of those terms. Burke and Kirk are right: the "spirit of religion" and the "spirit of the gentleman" were in large part responsible for the greatness of Western civilization. As Harvey Mansfield has compellingly argued, modern bureaucrats, technicians, and ideologues are no substitute for the noblesse oblige and the humane and prudent judgment of the gentleman at his very best. But the moral capital represented by religion and the gentleman is fast eroding and cannot become the explicit foundation of Western societies, at least in a world consumed by the "acids of modernity," to borrow a phrase from Walter Lippmann. Yet Lockean premises remain woefully inadequate for understanding the sources of the Western spirit and the true grounds of moral and political obligation.

John Locke and Conservatism: Indispensable or Antithetical? (Gregory Collins, Imaginative Conservative)

The first conservative lesson we can extract from Locke's moral philosophy is the importance of order as revealed by natural law. Locke's popularity in Britain and America derived largely from his commentary on natural rights, but an overlooked element of his commentary in the Second Treatise is the function natural law plays in ordering human action. Locke's state of nature preserves individual freedom, but it is not a "state of license," as he writes. [i]The proper exercise of individuals' perfect freedom stays "within the bounds by the law of nature"[ii] to "order their actions,"[iii] and which "obliges every one."[iv] "[T]he law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as other," he contends.[v]Individuals possess rights, but those rights come with responsibilities and duties. And even though conservatives rightly criticize Locke for failing to identify original sin in his conception of the state of nature, Locke is acutely aware of the human temptation to sin through licentious action severed from moral obligation. This awareness is evident by virtue of the fact that he asserts the primacy of natural law and moral limits in the Second Treatise's very first paragraph describing the state of nature.

No, Locke's moral philosophy is not reminiscent of Plato's transcendent moral order. No, the purpose of identifying Locke's acknowledgment of natural law is not to transmogrify him into an English Thomas Aquinas. And no, the command of natural law is not an end in and of itself in traditional conservatism. The purpose of considering Locke's moral philosophy, rather, is to demonstrate his understanding of the moral futility of unrestrained freedom; to show his principled desire for ordered liberty; and to challenge the claim from some conservatives that Locke promoted hedonistic individualism liberated from ethical constraints. One more interrelated point on this conservative critique: if conservative critics charge that Locke's appeals to natural law and Richard Hooker in the Second Treatise were polemical instruments intended merely to attract the ears of contemporary religious readers--rather than as genuine insights into morality--then one could claim with just as much textual evidence in Reflections on the Revolution of France that Edmund Burke's overtures to natural law were included simply to placate potential criticism that his Reflections dipped into a quicksand of moral relativism.

Order is inextricably linked with limits, and limits signify the core of conservatism. Not only do limits on individual action occupy a role in Locke's moral philosophy, but limits on institutional action exert even a larger role in preserving ordered liberty in Locke's political philosophy. Indeed, students of Western political thought are familiar with his lucid descriptions of political institutions--such as the rule of law, popular sovereignty, and separation of powers--that emerge as the clearest political expressions of limited and self-restrained government. And so, in reading Locke's Second Treatise, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that limits are the essence of the Lockean conception of government. Government's legitimacy is limited by the consent of the governed. 

Jonah Goldberg has done podcasts with both Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen recently and noted their out-sized hostility to John Locke.  One would merely note his entirely orthodox statement of republican liberty, inherited from our Roman republican past and handed on to the American republican future. It is conservative by its nature:

THE natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the common-wealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it. Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us, Observations, A. 55. a liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws: but freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.

Posted by at January 2, 2019 6:51 PM