August 17, 2022


Burke's Commitment to Social Freedom: A robust defense of ordered liberty is more relevant than ever against the totalitarian movements of our day: a review of Edmund Burke and the Perennial Battle, 1789-1797 (Paul Krause, 8/16/22, Law & Liberty)

Klein and Pino's introduction sets the foundation for reading their selection of writings gathered together from Burke's pen. They offer a brief sketch arguing that Burke belongs to the same strand of political liberty and natural rights as Adam Smith and David Hume. In truth, though, Burke transcends Smith and Hume, and he is equally, if not more, indebted to classical authors like Aristotle and Cicero, especially the latter, who appears over and over again in Burke's many writings, including his political ones, which emphasize the need for social harmony as the basis of liberty just as Cicero had written in De re Publica.

Our editors' emphasis on Burke and social freedom, however, is worthwhile and important for readers to grapple with. It shows that humans thrive by living in harmony with each other, which enhances liberty and personality (something very different from the misanthropic anthropologies of classical liberal philosophers like Hobbes and Locke). It is also a basis for Burke's critique of the French Revolution and his final writings explaining the need for an alliance of European powers to liberate the French people from Jacobin tyranny. According to Burke, the French revolutionaries showed themselves to be unqualified or unfit for liberty, since liberty is something delicate (an aesthetic quality Burke outlined in his Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful) and can easily be lost in the zealotry of revolutionary fervor which ends in destruction and is not conducive to the spirit of social freedom.

The French Revolution, from this insight, threatens social harmony and, therefore, the social freedom of all (not just in France). The Terror and the passions induced in it bring war where there is peace and despotism where there is freedom; as social creatures, the freedom we enjoy through social relationships would be destroyed. Given the subsequent three decades of near endless war, Burke was certainly prescient in foreseeing revolutionary "behavior... as a threat to the continent at large."

Radical and totalitarian movements ultimately seek to eradicate these social relationships because in their top-down politics of control, the vibrancy and strength of social freedom must be destroyed for the totalitarian blueprint to emerge.

Burke's commitment to a freedom rooted in our social nature is what helps explain his seemingly radical defense of Indians against the exploitation of the East India Company, his commitment to Catholic emancipation, and his condemnation of the slave trade. Far from abandoning his principles of liberty when he critiqued the French Revolution, as Charles Fox and other radical Whigs lamentingly insisted, Burke remained committed to a social freedom that was threatened by the Revolution which misanthropic liberals like Fox and other Whigs were incapable of realizing. As Burke himself wrote in his letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont:

[Freedom] is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty; as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is the state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint... This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.

Social freedom is anathema to various strands of Enlightenment misanthropy, be they Hobbesian, Lockean, Rousseauian, or Marxist. What unites these traditions, even if they go by the names "liberal" or "socialist" or "communist," is an underpinning animus against sociality and an endorsement of a liberty that is "solitary, unconnected, individual" and, ultimately, "selfish." Burke is ultimately no friend of the misanthropic individualism of collectivist and statist ideologies.

That commitment to classical (republican) liberty--"the equality of restraint"--is the whole magilla.  So long as we arrive at our laws together and are all restrained by them equally, I'm fine with what you do and don't mind what you won't let me. 
Posted by at August 17, 2022 12:00 AM