What do I want?

Sources: Yale Lecture: The Burkean Outlook/Reflections on the French revolution/Locke Pursuit of Happiness/second treatise and various others/

Look to the bottom for a "TL:DR"

I was recently asked what I stand for and accused of standing for the status quo - what change would I want to see, as I seem to push back on a lot of populist notions in the political discourse.  

And there was a recent comment about Burke being the father of classical liberalism, and I thought, "well no that isn't' right but he isn't far off being a classical liberal, as a conservative, and radically different from libertarianism a world apart, polar opposite" for reasons we can discuss.   I can tie the two topics together with no effort bear with me.  There is a cautionary tale in here for The Liberalists particularly who can't quite decide if they are simple activists for free speech and a few other topics or wholesale revolutionaries on a host of topics no one can quite agree upon.


 

On the question of change:

 

It is possible that I am somewhat radical in my philosophies.  That is to say I can be anti-enlightenment at times in my values when I bring science into play; deterministic outlooks, choice architecture and the influences that corporate entities can use to deliberately wreak havoc (or rather order but in their favour) on us is profound. That is not to begin to discuss the much more complicated cause and effect cycles that determine our current state in society and potential progression, you can throw IQ/economic status and a multitude of other things into that pot.  This is what stops me being a radical individualist, libertarian or randian, as I don't subscribe to perfectly rational actors, a blank slate hypothesis or even that for each person it is possible to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Society should maximise those chances but if you are born with an IQ of 70 or below I don't hold to much faith in the statistical likelihoods compared to other populations.  That being said I do hold to tradition and liberty and liberalist ideals much like Burke, as we shall see. 

Burke's notorious book/pamphlet "Reflections on the Revolution in France" commented on the dangers of revolution, on the riots that became the reign of terror, it firmly entrenched his notion that change can be dangerous. He was keen to distinguish between the 1688 revolution, the glorious revolution, (you may have heard me talk about the UK's constitution and this topic) which was a re-establishment of rights away from the usurpation of the people's power and rights. Where-as 1789 wasn't just a revolution but a tearing down of order and establishment.  Established order and society were very important to Burke, he viewed it as very complex, inherently so, and beyond human comprehension.  A complex interweaving of cause, effect and historical determination.  That we are often just fumbling in the dark, in anarchy there is radical uncertainty, and humanities ability to comprehend the consequences of our actions is limited.

“The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science: because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens: and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice, which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.”

 

Now like Burke, and frankly I think the Liberalists sometimes engage in this, I don't have a theory of politics and the perfect society.  I have an outlook, I can agree with the principles but I don't want radical change, I am nervous of it.  I am willing to be pragmatic towards utility with the principles in the face of evidence if only for the fear of the radical tearing down of the establishment and the uncertainty that brings.  

In other words, things that look good could end up turning bad, things that look bad might end up turning out good.  Are we 100 percent certain we want to tear down the NHS for instance?  The most fundamental principle of politics, when peoples lives and future generations lives are at stake, is caution.  

Burke is a conservative in the sense that he thinks about social change in a very cautious and incremental way, he isn't a reactionary in that he is opposed to all change.  Robert Peel defined conservatism as

"Changing what you have too in order to conserve what you can"

And that is in distinct opposition to libertarianism, which looks to tear down established norms and culture, anti-statist, resistance to authority, resistance to tradition and knowledge of those traditions.

Now consider the Burkean and Peel outlook relative to Liberalist aims and goals.  Reinstating Free Speech is not a new ideal, nor a radical change. The movement away from this principle is a tearing down of the established order in the anglo-western world and has brought with it or been carried on the tide of waves of identity politics and revolutionary sentiment. The problems of Islamism do necessitate change in order to conserve what we have but caution should always be the guiding light. The changes would conserve the inherited systems of norms practices, beliefs and institutions that we have moving forward.  This is not a revolution.
 

 

On the notion of Libertarian "Liberty"

 

Sargon of Akkad commented when discussing the NHS that poverty is in itself a burden upon liberty and freedom, that when you are poor you are not free, if you are sick you are not free. It is a matter of scientific, historical and empirical fact that we are not entirely independent but dependent upon each other, we formed a society because of our evolutionary psychological evolution and our psychological needs. 

But some would have you believe that the only freedom is one of complete freedom from societal restraint, that unless you are actively terrorising there is no harm to society but crucially there is no interdependence or responsibility, such that is needed will independently arise.  But that isn't the way we live, it isn't the way we evolved and it isn't the way we have traditionally built successful societies.
 


”Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled. This is the more necessary, because, of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It 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 that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.”

It is not as Burke said a "solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish" liberty.  But one of liberty within society.  In, The Limits of Liberties, he said:
 

“Governance is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants, men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want out of civil society of a sufficient restraint, a restraint upon their passions.

Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but even in the mass and body the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted their will controlled, their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves and not in the exercise of its function subject to that will and its passion which is its office to bridle and subdue. It is this sense of the restraints on men as well as their liberties are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and restrictions vary with time and circumstance they cannot be subject to any abstract rule, and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them on that principle

We have a right to be restrained, because it maintains our social freedoms.  This isn't so different from Locke and Hobbes, inherent within this conception of rights is the absence of the right to be your own government and judge and jury of your own court.  This is the concept of giving up your desire for revenge and lex talionis. Instead you surrender the concept of justice to society and accept restrictions upon the passions of you as an individual or the mob (blind and fair justice). It also gives a warning signal against revolution.  This is a rebuttal to anarchy and a reaffirmation of the state and the necessary limitation of the individual freedom but not to any degree any reasonable person would see as not being free. Which to me absolutist individual freedom is a sign of mental distress more than any rational analysis of societal development and where it could potentially evolve too (one I was guilty of first though mine was less distress and more a lack of education).  

It also gives clear warnings against judging based upon abstraction like offence.

And this is the social contract.  The maintenance of society, one that is evolutionarily tied and we are responsible to continue with.  

“”Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership . . . not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

 - Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

So it isn't on any one single individual to have to sign up to these obligations and limitations societies necessarily have in order to be maintained. Rights are borne from our obligations otherwise individuals just exist in a state of nature where rights, laws and responsibilities become a whim. An irrational faith in the hope or desire for their independent origination in the absence of the state.

Instead, we are born into a collective condition of societal liberty which gives us the liberty we naturally enjoy but also the freedom from tyranny.  Burke wrote this at a time when a society was breaking down in favour of terror, just a few miles from our shoreline.  If the individual is an absolute moral center unto himself into society then society breaks down. If there is no respect for the rule of law, the traditions we have evolved and the stability of our state, then society breaks down. 

This doesn't undermine the principle of individualism which is more a concept about allowing an individual the rights we have come to enjoy and the capacity to hold his own thoughts and opinions and volition, agency and capability to act his will within the limits society reasonably sets according to our constitution whether American or British. Do the British need more clarity, perhaps even addition about the nature of our freedom to speech? Yes, but the Burkean notion of abhorrence towards judgement based on the abstract should have been enough of a deterrence. It was not. We ought to remember our constitution and reinvigorate it with a first amendment.

 

Political Theory and Change....oh and what do I want? A TL:DR

 

There is a moral glue, a fabric that holds society together, that resists change. Post modernist marxists seeks to undermine both our biological drives, our traditions and our norms. This is revolutionary, I don't think we should do that. I think we should adhere to a Burkean notion of caution. That introduces changes slowly. 

Freedom of Speech is not a change.  That isn't a revolution, that is a fight to conserve traditions of freedom, if we must change what we must to conserve what we've had then so be it.

Drugs laws, are not really a huge change but an artificial relatively recent construct, but caution would not harm us in our application to changing that as drugs now are not available now in the same capitalist framework which allows for mass rapid transit and dissemination that might once have been the case (and we did have the gin riots remember!). There is nothing wrong with some cautious rolling back of legislation and introducing large changes slowly.

Burke is not resistant to large scale changes or resistant to changing on evidence and reform based upon that. He provides a consistent idea on what rights are, why the state can exist in the face of those rights and notions of individual liberty and freedom. He provides a rebuttal to the absolutist individual notion of the individual being the moral center of both himself and society and where rights are derived from.

I've enjoyed re-engaging with Burkean philosophy and urge you to do the same even if you disagree, he is a remarkable mind.  I hope I've also laid out why I am not hoping for radical changes in the UK, merely a reversion to traditional freedoms and liberties but one that is engaged with extreme caution.  Freedom of Speech isn't subject to that, we have the tradition and thorough notions that it is definitive part of what our society needs to survive.