October 18, 2020


Burke's Defense of Natural Rights and the Limits of Political Power (Bruce P. Frohnen, 10/18/20, Un diversity Bookman)

Contrary to the common portrait of Burke as an enemy of human rights and of any opposition to inherited authority, Burke expounded a natural law philosophy that undergirds rights in the same manner as our own Constitution--as protections of human dignity and self-government rooted in our God-given nature.

Interpretations of Burke too often are shaped by isolated readings of his most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Here he excoriated the radical French revolutionary Jacobins (along with their English followers) who would soon launch a campaign of mass murder carried out in the name of The Rights of Man. Burke recognized the grounding of such hypocritical violence in the abstract theorizing of the Jacobins' patron saint, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose fantasy of an idyllic state of nature placed the blame for all human miseries on the imperfections of social and political institutions impinging on absolute rights--rights that could be made real only by an overawing, total state.

Seeing such totalitarian logic for what it was, Burke rejected the grounding of natural rights in human will, noting that "Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit." Some today read this statement as a denial of natural rights. But Burke clearly defended what he termed the real right of man. Most famously, he stated that men have "a right to do justice, as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in public function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death." Equal justice, the pursuit and enjoyment of property, family, and religious practice; Burke recognized all these as universal rights. More generally, he recognized the natural right to be left alone to pursue one's own good: "Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself."[3]

Burke's attacks on the Jacobins stemmed, not from any contempt for natural rights,[4] but from a determination to defend these rights against the empty abstractions of those who would sing their praises while trodding them underfoot or, more precisely, define them in uselessly broad terms, then taking them away in the name of even broader rights secured by an omnicompetent state. Better, he argued, to recognize rights' natural limits in reason, human nature, and the common good than to make unsustainable claims for their infinite expanse. And so, in setting forth (well before the end of the eighteenth century) a sketch of a code aimed at restricting and eventually ending slavery, he proposed regulations on slavers' conduct and defenses for slaves' rights to due process, family unity, property, schooling, and freedom of religion. Such regulations should convince slaveowners that they were better off with free workers than with slaves whose natural rights would and ought to be protected, whatever their legal status.[5]

African slaves were not the only people whose rights Burke sought to defend. Early in his career he took up the cause of Catholics in Ireland, whom British law sought to dispossess of their property, deny education and due process, and prevent from practicing most professions in the name of (coerced) conversion to the official, Anglican religion. A constitution made up of such partial laws, favoring a small group against the bulk of the community, denying men's common nature and the demands of natural justice "is rather of the nature of a grievance than of a law." Yet, not even majority rule could justify violating natural rights, for law is not rooted in mere will. "All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice."[6]

And what of America? Burke represented the colony of New York as an agent in Parliament, where he helped craft the conciliatory policies that staved off revolution during the 1760s. He spoke vigorously against British actions leading to the revolution and later would say that

He believed that [Americans] had taken up arms from one motive only; that is our attempting to tax them without their consent; to tax them for the purposes of maintaining civil and military establishments. If this attempt of ours could have been practically established, he thought with them, that their assemblies would become totally useless; ... the Americans could have no sort of security for their laws or liberties, ... the very circumstance of our freedom would have augmented the weight of their slavery.[7]

After the revolution Burke offered the American Constitution itself as a model suitable for adaptation in neighboring Canada, though each nation should meet the general requirements of rule of law and balanced government in a manner appropriate to its specific character and circumstances.

Left/Right veer into error when they posit liberty as individual, which is mere freedom.  Liberty is a function of the compromises we make with our fellow citizens to curtail individual freedom to the benefit of the group, provided that all are similarly bound by the same limitations.

Posted by at October 18, 2020 12:00 AM