Observers of politics in America today may be surprised to learn that conservatism used to embrace more than just conservation. In fact, historically conservatism advocated for progress as a means of conservation, even though today these are concepts are assumed to be opposites. How is this possible? What changed? And where do we go from here?
One need only read “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left” by Yuval Levin to understand the role that progress used to play within conservatism. The book focuses on a decades-long debate between Edmund Burke, a thirty-year Member of British Parliament widely regarded as the philosophical founder of conservatism, and Thomas Paine, the American Revolutionary and intellectual ancestor of liberals and progressives. Burke and Paine’s debate centered on the nature of change—its purpose, character, means, and ends—and essentially comes down to whether change is best effected by revolution or reform.
Thomas Paine unequivocally supported revolution, both in theory—famously stating “we have it in our power to begin the world over again”—and in practice, endorsing and participating in both the American and French Revolutions. Paine rejected precedent as a defense of the status quo (“government by precedent, without any regard to the principle of the precedent, is one of the vilest systems that can be set up”) and thought that revolution was arduous but necessary (“the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”).
Burke’s View on Change
Edmund Burke’s view, however, was more complicated. Despite his nuanced support for the American Revolution, Burke staunchly opposed the French Revolution, specifically, and revolution as a means of political change, generally. He faulted revolutionaries like Paine for their inability to understand the complexity of reform, arguing that revolutionaries will not accept a good thing if it “does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea” and will “push for the more perfect, which cannot be attained.” Burke contends that the demands of revolutionaries are unreasonable and that they behave like one who “sets his house on fire because his fingers are frostbitten.” Most damningly, Burke accuses revolutionaries of ushering in the same tyranny that they aim to overthrow:
“It is thus with all those, who, attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under color of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in different factions, and perhaps in worse.”
Edmund Burke’s opposition to revolution was not, critically, an opposition to change. Indeed, Burke concedes: “we must all obey the great law of change.” Rather, Burke describes change as “the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.” The latter point is worth repeating: Burke believes that progress is a means conservation.
This “preservative improvement,” as Yuval Levin describes it, was not a blanket defense of the status quo. It did not conserve for the sake of conservation. Rather, it aimed to build on what works in response to discrete needs rather than radical reforms that overthrow decades of progress. Burke demanded statesmen that had “a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve” in order to promote “an effective means of reform against an ineffective one that threatens to cut society off from the possibility of real improvement.”
Change and Conservatism Today
Burke’s support of change and progress appear all but lost on the party elite and elected leaders of the modern conservative movement. Critics allege that conservatism has become a reactionary philosophy and that the Republican Party has become a party of obstruction. There is much evidence to support these claims. For example, the Republican Party vowed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act for a decade but, when the opportunity arose, had no plan to prevent 30 million Americans from losing their health coverage. The Trump Administration is working to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord while refusing to acknowledge the existence of climate change at all. Republicans have become the party of no new taxes, no new spending, and no exceptions. The list goes on.
None of this is to say that the Democratic Party is without shortcomings or that Democrats have a monopoly on the right policies to address these issues. In fact, this is an attempt to say the exact opposite. Our country desperately needs conservatives to embrace preservative improvement and work to address the serious issues facing our country today: a healthcare system that costs more than twice what other high-income nations pay with worse outcomes; a global risk of increasing climate change which, according to a consensus in the scientific community is caused by carbon emissions and could have serious impacts to our environment, health, economy, and national security; and the ballooning debt and deficit, driven by insufficient revenues and unfunded entitlement programs like social security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Our country needs conservatives to engage on these issues because, as Yuval Levin notes, “each of the different parties has part of the truth, but none has all of it.” Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are not the only solutions to fix healthcare and address climate change. These radical proposals threaten to nationalize entire sectors of the economy and explode the federal debt and deficit. They forget the power of market-driven economies to produce innovative technologies that can reduce healthcare costs and carbon emissions. They ignore the fraud, waste, and abuse that takes place within government and the efficiency of the private sector. And they disregard the impact that non-government, community, and religious groups can have in these areas as well. The absence of conservative proposals in these debate has left us with an echo chamber in lieu of an arena of ideas.
Burke would demand that conservatives return, once again, to engage with these problems. He would attempt to build on what works while gradually improving what does not work. He would fight calls for “structural change” and instead propose plans of incrementalism and gradualism. He would protect what we have and be cautious about what we create. In doing so, he would provide the means for conservation in an era that demands progress.
Charles Krauthammer once wrote: “History is shaped by its battle of ideas, and I wanted to be in the arena not because I wanted to fight, but because some things need to be said. And some things need to be defended.” Conservatives would do well to remember this advice. They must accept the great law of change or ignore it at their own peril. As well as the peril of our fragile republic. As Edmund Burke stated, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Divided We Fall is committed to providing a platform for all political perspectives. Robert Wilkes has provided the following response to our op-ed. If you would like to, please submit a response to one of our posts.
Burke and Paine detested each other’s views
They wrote magnificent pamphlets criticizing the other and asserting their own distinct and often original political philosophies. They were outstanding writers who left a legacy of spirited and persuasive argument in the best traditions of civil discourse. They are the prototypes of all who write in the pages of Divided We Fall.
But in his haste to find fault with conservatives, the editorial writer has missed the essential argument so carefully delineated in Levin’s book, that is, the argument between reform and revolution. The editorial writer’s opening sentences betray his partisan bias: “Observers of politics in America today may be surprised to learn that conservatism used to embrace more than just conservation. In fact, historically conservatism advocated for progress as a means of conservation, even though today these are concepts assumed to opposites.” The partisan attack continues later in the editorial: “Burke’s support of change and progress appear all but lost on the party elite and elected leaders of the modern conservative movement. Critics allege that conservatism has become a reactionary philosophy and that the Republican Party has become a party of obstruction.”
I rise to defend conservatism from the sophomoric charge that conservatives are opposed to progress and change.
While the editorial deplores Republican resistance to “change” as an abandonment of Burke’s well-known passion for reform and asserts that resistance to “change” marks conservatives as enemies of the popular will, my question is how did the word “change” became an article of blind faith? Consider this line from the op-ed: “[Conservatives] must accept the great law of change or ignore it at their own peril.” What is the “great law of change” that we conservatives so obstinately oppose? One must conclude that the writer thinks all change is, prima facie, good.
Let us be discriminating about change.
- There is change for the better and change for the worse. Participation in the Paris Climate Accord will have a ridiculously small, essentially immeasurable effect on climate. Rather, the accord will allow globalist bureaucrats to move mountains of money around. As sure as the sun will rise east of Brussels, the result will be massive corruption. The economic collateral damage will decimate quality of life for everyone on the planet and the reduction in growth will hurt the earth’s impoverished populations the hardest. The accord is all virtue signaling and a grab for money and power, a change for the worse.
- There is change that helps Group A and hurts Group B. Change is not universally good. Nationalizing our health care system will deprive 160 million people of private health insurance for which they are perfectly content. Ah, but they are in Group B. This is a straightforward example of Burke v. Paine. Burke reforms, Paine throws out the old and starts anew.
- Change driven by momentary passions of the masses always leads to disaster. Examples are too numerous to mention. As it is often said, mobs don’t think. Our print and broadcast media has enormous power to sway the masses. In such overheated political climates that give rise to outrageous millennial ideas such as the Green New Deal, Burkean prudence is more important than ever.
Simply put, there is a lot of stupid change in the world. Change is not always progress and not always good.
Change can be terrible and frightening, as shown by the horrors of Paine’s beloved French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed. Just ask the Cambodians, the Cubans, the Venezuelans, the people of Zimbabwe … you get the idea.
A study of the writings of Burke and Paine is invaluable for understanding the nature of our political divide. Neither man was 100% right and history has shown each to have been egregiously wrong in important ways. In his belief that societal bonds were important to maintain order from generation to generation, Burke defended the land-owning aristocracy and the powerful hereditary nobility. Paine advocated that each generation should sweep out the old and start anew. He believed that Enlightenment reason would show each new generation how to build a better society than the one that came before. In these views, they were wrong. On balance, they are the Delphic oracles of their respective political viewpoints.
My conclusion is that both contribute to our understanding of society, government and politics and both should continue to be respected, consulted and applied. I lean toward Burke and his blueprint of gradual, evolutionary reform. But I recognize that bold new ideas are needed as well. Just because a government process has become an institution doesn’t mean that it isn’t open to top-to-bottom examination and scrutiny.
Let us sing the praises of both Burke and Paine. We are the lucky inheritors of their clear, resonant voices.