David Brooks on Burkean conservatism


in Canada, Politics, The environment

Writing in The Atlantic, David Brooks has produced a good short summary of Edmund Burke’s classical conservatism and how it relates to contemporary US politics:

This is one of the core conservative principles: epistemological modesty, or humility in the face of what we don’t know about a complex world, and a conviction that social change should be steady but cautious and incremental. Down the centuries, conservatives have always stood against the arrogance of those who believe they have the ability to plan history: the French revolutionaries who thought they could destroy a society and rebuild it from scratch, but who ended up with the guillotine; the Russian and Chinese Communists who tried to create a centrally controlled society, but who ended up with the gulag and the Cultural Revolution; the Western government planners who thought they could fine-tune an economy from the top, but who ended up with stagflation and sclerosis; the European elites who thought they could unify their continent by administrative fiat and arrogate power to unelected technocrats in Brussels, but who ended up with a monetary crisis and populist backlash.

Another camp, which we associate with the Scottish or British Enlightenment of David Hume and Adam Smith, did not believe that human reason is powerful enough to control human selfishness; most of the time our reason merely rationalizes our selfishness. They did not believe that individual reason is powerful enough even to comprehend the world around us, let alone enable leaders to engineer society from the top down. “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small,” Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

My view is that what we need more than anything is a movement of the right demanding climate change mitigation. Otherwise we end up with an endless sea-saw between strengthening and repealing fossil fuel abolition policies, at the same time as voters are only offered climate change action as part of an intersectional agenda which they may not otherwise agree with. We need to split the right between fantasists who decide what they see based on what they believe politically and empiricists who accept evidence as the adjudicator of truth.

The progressive climate movement has been a crucial development and remains the main force pushing for action. At the same time, this perspective is conspicuously lacking in humility about re-making long-standing societal institutions, with the assumption that most of what is pernicious politically in the world will disappear once everyone is wise enough to accept their ideology. It’s a perspective that concentrates support inward with ever-greater demands for moral purity and ideological conformity, whereas what we need to produce a consensus behind fossil fuel abolition in the US, UK, and Canada is the understanding that nobody’s political project is served by radically destabilizing the climate. If we want to preserve institutions that have endured and shown value over time, we need to eliminate the fuel sources that are destabilizing the physical environment in which they have evolved. There’s nothing more conservative than that.


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