Matt Lewis

Is Burkean conservatism dead?

While the Tea Party has proven to be a formidable political force on the national stage, few have bothered to analyze the populist movement’s place in the evolutionary lineage of the American right.

Michael Lind, a Salon columnist and co-founder of the New America Foundation, has sought to do just that. In his July 5th column, “The Three Fundamentalisms of the American Right,” Lind argued that today’s conservative movement is a complete repudiation of the “Burkean conservatism” that intellectual conservatives like William F. Buckley once espoused.

I recently had a chance to chat with Lind about his column, and while I disagree with many of his conclusions, I found it to be a fascinating topic worthy of debate.

Burkeans (adherents of the philosophy espoused by British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke) “oppose radical social engineering projects on the basis of doctrines,” Lind explained, while the current social conservatism wants to “blow up the inherited structure.” Pointing to the stark Medicare reorganization in the Paul Ryan Plan, Lind concluded that social conservatism has completely discarded the spirit of “cautious experimentation” that was a staple in Burkean thought.

Lind, a former conservative, breaks modern conservatism into a synthesis of three “fundamentalisms,” each of which is grounded in the supposed “inerrancy” of its basic principles.

“Protestant fundamentalism,” grounded in the belief in an infallible Bible, discards the hierarchy and tradition found in more orthodox religions such as Catholicism. “Constitutional fundamentalism,” regarding the Constitution as almost divinely inspired, wishes to return to the “pure” Constitution upheld before FDR’s New Deal. And finally, “market fundamentalism” considers the works of Hayek and Rand to be “secular equivalents of the Bible.”

Such absolutism, Lind contends, makes political discussions and compromise very difficult, possibly explaining the numerous political impasses since Republicans took the House in November. According to Lind, members of the social conservative movement have a “resentful chip on your shoulder attitude that whatever the professors, the experts, and the eggheads say, we’re going to believe the opposite just to annoy them.”

Lind sees vast implications for conservatism beyond the current political climate, however. Social conservatism is “destroying what used to be the intellectual conservative movement,” Lind remarked, and he’s certain President Reagan would not agree with many social conservative policies.

While Lind’s arguments are certainly debatable and would light a fire in the belly of any social conservative, his final characterization of the venerable President Ronald Reagan would make any conservative’s heart stop. When you look purely at policy, Lind asserts, “Ronald Reagan was way, way, way to the left of arguably Barack Obama as well
as the contemporary Tea Party.” This is certainly not a popular or prevailing view, and it seems to violate all the laws of left and right our mothers taught us, but one could say with some certainty that Reagan probably wouldn’t be flattered by this characterization either.

Listen to my full conversation with Lind here. Or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

  • American Patriot

    Simply a pathetic and faulty analysis of Tea Party and Burkean Conservatism.
    Anyone who wishes to discuss it further can e mail me at:
    defendtheusconstitution@gmail:disqus .com

  • cnter91

    Edmund Burke was skeptical of social engineering projects, but he BELIEVED IN SOCIETY. The radical individualism embraced by libertarian conservatives is, in my opinion, damaging to the idea of conservative SOCIETY–with respect for history and traditions, as well as some limitations on radical free-market capitalism.
    Conservatism has drifted largely to the libertarian side, especially among Tea Party folks and Ayn Rand enthusiasts–who was, of course, an atheist.
    It is odd that these conservatives can co-exist with social conservatives, who I think once had a better moral basis for their ideology. That is, love for one’s fellow man.
    This conservatism has been weakened lately. I would argue that social conservatism is a very fearful ideology, perhaps unconsciously (and perhaps rightly), of the excesses of unregulated capitalism, and the lack of morality in liberal society.

    What they don’t realize is that it is a LIBERTARIAN society they are reacting to.

    One of these days, conservatives are going to realize the libertarians they are in bed with don’t believe in values beyond their own money, and do believe in legalized prostitution.

    Until then, Burkean conservatism is dead dead dead.

    • Ryan.Iowa

      There’s a reason social conservatism started largely in the South, and until the radicalism of the late 1960s, its favored home was in the Democratic party. Social conservatism = populism. See, William Jennings Bryan, who was the real deal as a Christian, and was a Progressive and socialist as well.
      When the parties started to realign in the 1960s, it broke off the external and internal ideologies underlying the old two-party system. We’re really operating under a three party system, with one group, the independents (the smallest of the three) floating back and forth between the supporting the other two. If our politicians were truly courageous, they would attempt something bold to permanently capture a segment of the independents.

    • krjohnson

      This is one of the most hilarious comments I have ever read.

      You honestly believe that the only “society” that can exist is one based on forcing other people to do what you want them to? Or what 51% of the population wants them to? And I’m talking about before your fist meets my face, we can all agree that there should be a government to prevent that. Practically every sphere of your life that is improving is part of the voluntary co-operation of capitalism. The things that are screwed up (education, medical services, social security) all fall in with the forced co-operation of government in a huge way. Libertarians propose moving more things into the voluntary sphere.

      There’s a good reason that voluntary co-operation provides better results than force. When I trade $0.75 for a newspaper it’s because I value the newspaper more than the money. The newspaper company, on the other hand, values the money more than the newspaper. We both win. If one of us didn’t want to co-operate the trade would not happen. When government force is involved only one party benefits, the other party loses. If the trade would have happened anyway then no government involvement would be necessary. Sometimes these kinds of one-sided trades will provide more net benefits than costs for society but many times they produce more costs than benefits.

      There are a lot more libertarians than Ayn Rand. Many of them are not atheists. I actually don’t like Ayn Rand that much, although she does have a few good points. Ron Paul, as one example, is as strong a Christian as you will find. I’m a Christian. Many of my libertarian friends are Christian. There is no inherent connection between atheism and libertarianism. Listen to this speech by Ron Paul and tell me that libertarians must be atheists:

      What about legalized prostitution scares you? I can tell you that I would never enlist the services of a prostitute. I think it’s wrong, and frankly not all that appealing. But strip clubs are legal and I feel the same way about them. Would you ban strip clubs? Pornography? Sex toys? Legalized prostitution would take it out of the shadows and prevent the abuse of these poor women involved in the business. It would promote transparency and prevent the spread of disease. Disputes would be played out in the courts instead of with violence. When balanced with the evils of prostitution, I would rather have legal prostitution. And wasn’t it that social conservative David Vitter that was caught with hookers? It wasn’t Rand Paul. It wasn’t Mike Lee. Seems to me like it’s a few of these social conservatives that would benefit most with legalized prostitution.

      Also, if I hear the phrase “unregulated capitalism” one more time in reference to modern America I think I might be driven to violence. There’s more regulations in this country than ever! They don’t do any good!

      • cnter91

        You don’t believe that deregulation of the financial sector led to the housing bubble and ultimately the financial collapse in 2008? Predatory lending led to people living beyond their means. This I largely associate with the prevailing consumerism and and excessive individualism in American society, which to me is opposed to cautiousness and conservatism in a basic and classical sense. The repeal of the Glass Steagall Act and other government regulation led to this collapse, and is the fault of libertarian thinking of Friedman economics. Even Alan Greenspan admitted an “error” in his theory.

        Not realizing this is to be in denial of a pretty clear economic situation.

        I grant you that government screws a lot of things up. Big government programs and subsidies are a bad thing. But there are plenty of screwed up unregulated sectors of the economy. There are large monopolies in basic commodities, energy, agriculture, health care, and media. There is a difference between expensive government programs, and having some moderate, reasonable government regulation in certain areas of the market.

        I am not arguing against capitalism or for socialism. I am just saying there is really nothing “Conservative,” in the Burkean sense, about excessive consumerism and excessive individual autonomy. And I’m not attacking individual autonomy–I’m just saying that it does not necessarily precede ethical values of family and tradition. Those traditional values in some cases are being threatened by an non-conservative culture of excess.

        There are values that precede the value of the free market. The holy doctrines of Randian market-fundamentalism are, in some cases, in opposition to the traditional conservatism in the Burkean sense.

        Hope you have a good laugh.

        • krjohnson

          This is actually getting more hilarious. You think that a repeal of Glass-Steagall caused the financial crisis? You know what that was, right? Glass-Steagall was a law that put up barriers between commercial and investment banking. Presumably you think that these restrictions prevented too much money from going into these kinds of bubble investments. Nevermind, of course, the fact that commercial banking was about 10x smaller in aggregate than investment banking to begin with, there’s no evidence to show that this money went into sub-prime once the commercial banks were held under the same company as investment banks. There seems to be little change at all in the way they operated.

          And then you want to cite Alan Greenspan as a believer in the free market? You want to cite the head of a government run banking cartel as the prophet of laissez-faire? This just keeps getting better.

          You can practice YOUR values and follow YOUR traditions without threatening government violence on other people for practicing THEIR values. You can do your best to pass your values onto your kids, to choose a neighborhood that conforms with your ideal way of life. You have the right to your life, the right to your liberty, the right pursue your own happiness in whatever way you see fit. You do not have the right to lock other people up for pursuing paths they think will lead to their happiness. You have the right to try to persuade them peacefully that what they are doing is wrong, but you do not have the right to threaten them with violence if their actions merely offend you.

          • cnter91

            I’m glad we can agree that the Objectivist, Alan Greenspan, was terrible for the economy. And yes, the repeal of Glass-Steagull among much other financial deregulation led to the financial crisis.
            Your stuff about practicing values without threatening “political violence” is irrelevant. I’m not arguing for political violence.

            “You do not have the right to lock other people up for pursuing paths they think will lead to their happiness.” Ha! Now you’re getting comical. As if moderate government intervention in the market is the same as “locking people up for pursuing paths they think will lead to happiness.” Now THAT is funny.

            It’s a shame that libertarian-conservatives have become useful idiots and apologists for corporate power. I don’t think this is true of Ron Paul, who has correctly criticized Obama for being a “corporatist.” But I think it’s true among many on the right. The especially frustrating thing about libertarians is that they tend to be very well-read. They should really know better than to advocate Utopian market-fundamentalism.

            Getting back to the actual topic, my argument that libertarian conservatism is incompatible with Burkean conservatism, you didn’t even address. So I’ll go ahead and assume you agree with me.

          • krjohnson

            I do not understand how prostitution has anything to do with “moderate government intervention in the market.” It’s a complete ban on a path some people believe will lead them to happiness. A path you and I may disagree with but a legitimate path based on voluntary trade none the less. People get locked up for going down this path every day.

            I think what you fail to understand regarding “corporatism” is that the corporations are almost always helped by regulations, not hindered. The greatest threat they face is competition from smaller companies that can undersell them. The A&P grocery store, as an example, was once far and away the largest and most profitable chain of grocery stores in the country but went bankrupt inside of 5 years due to competition from supermarkets with a better business model.

            Most corporations and trade organizations BEG to be regulated. One of the earliest examples was the railroads. They had been trying to form a cartel for decades but failed at it every time due to competitive market forces. There’d be secret price cutting for large shippers, and pretty soon the whole cartel would break down. Usually inside of 1 year. Finally they got together and decided that they needed the government to regulate them, to open their books to the public to prevent secret price cutting and put up barriers to entry so that competition would be stifled. That’s how railroad regulation started.

            A similar story happened with banking and the Federal Reserve. Competition in banking isn’t with prices, exactly, it’s with interest rates. Also, since we have a fractional reserve system there is competition in reserve ratios (how much money is kept in reserve in the bank vault and how much is loaned out). When a bank loans out too much money, or makes very bad investments, it becomes unstable and it sets off a run on the bank or a “panic.” Usually after a panic the bank went bust it’s assets were liquidated in bankruptcy court and it’s depositors were paid off with the proceeds. Most of the time they received upwards of 90% of what they had deposited although it could take a little while before they saw the money. Anyway, the bankers like JP Morgan got together and agitated for a central bank that would control interest rates (basically price fixing if you understand that interest rates are basically the “price” of money) and bail them out with printed money when they went bust. It was all the rage in Europe (where they had horrible economic catastrophes, much worse than anything in the US up to that point) and they wanted that protection here.

            And I could go on and on, covering just about every industry in the same way. Meatpacking. Automobiles. Chemicals. Shipping. It’s the same story over and over. The corporations are big and powerful because the government stifles small competitors from gaining traction and enables cartels. It has nothing to do with a LACK of regulation, it’s the regulation that causes the problems.

          • cnter91

            In regards to your comments below, you are obviously very intelligent. More so than most people on here. You still didn’t address Edmund Burke. But you refered me to Ron Paul, so I’ll refer you to Matt Taibbi (who is usually smeared as a leftist, and said some nasty things about Michele Bachman), but has done some really good coverage of Wall Street.

            “The huge profits that Wall Street earned in the past decade were driven in large part by a single, far-reaching scheme, one in which bankers, home lenders and other players exploited loopholes in the system to magically transform subprime home borrowers into AAA investments, sell them off to unsuspecting pension funds and foreign trade unions and other suckers, then multiply their score by leveraging their phony-baloney deals over and over. It was pure ­financial alchemy – turning ­manure into gold, then spinning it Rumpelstiltskin-style into vast profits using complex, mostly unregulated new instruments that almost no one outside of a few experts in the field really understood. With the government borrowing mountains of Chinese and Saudi cash to fight two crazy wars, and the domestic manufacturing base mostly vanished overseas, this massive fraud for all intents and purposes was the American economy in the 2000s; we were a nation subsisting on an elaborate check-­bouncing scheme.

            And it was all made possible by two major deregulatory moves from the Clinton era: the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which allowed investment banks, insurance companies and commercial banks to merge, and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which ­exempted the entire derivatives market from federal regulation. Together, these two laws transformed Wall Street into a giant casino, allowing commercial banks to act like high-risk hedge funds, with a whole new galaxy of derivative bets to lay action on. In fact, the laws made Wall Street even crazier than a casino, because in a casino you have to put up actual money to make bets. But thanks to deregulation, financial companies like AIG could bet billions, if not trillions, without having any money at all to back up their gambles.”


  • Ryan.Iowa

    It’s not dead, but it is certainly n life support. Daniel Hannan will be the PM at some point. He is practically Churchhill reborn, at the very least in wit.

  • krjohnson

    Perhaps a thought provoking piece, but hopelessly flawed.

    What was that about rejecting evidence just to annoy college professors? That’s a bunch of bunk. Milton Friedman WAS a college professor! Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard were all college professors. Today, Jeff Miron (prominent libertarian economist) is a college professor. Walter Block is a college professor. Meanwhile these other phony, and supposedly “conservative” economists like Mark Zandi, are not college professors.

    And he claims we’re ignoring the evidence for counter-cyclical spending? There is no evidence for counter cyclical spending! It’s a completely failed theory that has been wholly discredited both in theory (by many of these college professors we’re supposed to want to thumb our noses at) and in practice. Milton Friedman provided a detailed rebuttal to Keynesian “pump-priming” and counter-cyclical spending in Chapter 5 of “Capitalism and Freedom” clear back in 1962. He even said, “The idea may be accepted by none [meaning no economists], but the government programs undertaken in its name… are still with us and indeed account for ever-growing government expenditures.”

    Mr. Lind also says:
    “Ignoring the long history of tariffs, land grants, military procurement and mixed public-private corporations in the United States, the market fundamentalists pretend that the U.S. was governed by the laws of the market until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal replaced capitalism with socialism”

    Well, when you compare a federal government that’s spending 25% of GDP compared to 3% of GDP, I’d say that is pretty much night and day socialism versus capitalism. And that doesn’t even take into account how much the states and local governments are spending. I think that number is closer to 40% of GDP today but I’m not sure what it was back in the day.

    You don’t have to believe that those tariffs, public-private corporations, and other market interventions were a negative thing, but you certainly have to acknowledge that whatever effect they had (which I would contend was almost all bad) was much smaller than the effect they have today. In terms of money, about ten times less. At the time, we were the most capitalist country the world had ever seen. Today we’re not even the most capitalist country in the world as it exists.

    I admire your ability to get along with people like this, Matt. I think I would become very uncivil if I heard someone spouting some of this nonsense on my podcast.

  • Adam D

    I just had to catch my breath I was laughing so hard at his quote “Ronald Reagan was way, way, way to the left of arguably Barack Obama as well as the contemporary Tea Party.”

    Lets recap Ronald Reagan’s positions. He was pro-life, supported the death penalty, support tax cuts (for all income brackets), supported a strong military, support a strong space program, was a staunch anti-communist and brought down communism in Europe and many other parts of the world and I could go on and on and on. Reagan certainly would not support socialized medicine.

    Only position Reagan took which I could see which would butt heads with the tea party movement was he granted amnesty to illegal immigrants. However, I could see him analyzing the illegal immigration problem differently today as he did in the 80s.

    I find it funny that liberal who hated Reagan when he was President have recently tried to make him out to be a moderate when he was a true conservative.

    • Ryan.Iowa

      Liberals who then, and still, hate Reagan speak admiringly if him now because they want to push the Obama-as-Reagan 2.0 meme.

      • Adam D

        Good point! They will probably go back to hating him when Obama loses in 2012.