Hitchens the Burkean—or Is That Hayekian?


In a very interesting review essay from The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens gives props to Edmund Burke over Thomas Paine, writing in part,

If modern conservatism can be held to derive from Burke, it is not just because he appealed to property owners in behalf of stability but also because he appealed to an everyday interest in the preservation of the ancestral and the immemorial. And the abolition of memory, as we have come to know in our own time, is an aspect of the totalitarian that spares neither right nor left. In the cult of "now," just as in the making of Reason into an idol, the writhings of nihilism are to be detected.

Hitchens gives a great critical picture of Burke, who was sympathetic to the American Revolution, anti-slavery, and anti-imperial–and yet still a "prisoner of the feudal and the landed conception of society, who employed the words 'innovation' and 'despotism' as virtual twins." Whole thing here.

Hitchens' essay is especially worth reading in tandem with F.A. Hayek's "Why I Am Not a Conservative," which praises Burke on the similar grounds of being essentially a classical liberal or proto-libertarian (or an "old Whig" in Hayek's unfortunate phrase). That is, as someone who embraced an ever-evolving and changing social order based on individual rights but who also recognized that a great deal of wisdom is encoded in custom, tradition, and long-lived institutions. Eschewing the term libertarian as having "too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute," Hayek nonetheless defends a Burkean liberalism that steers clear of the "crude and militant rationalism of the French Revolution" and of the Jeremy Benthams of the world.

Read Reason's great November 2001 interview with Hitchens' here; many of the ideas in his Atlantic piece are kicking around already.

NEXT: Remember the Turd

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  1. I’d rather listen to Hitchens than read him, as it’s always entertaining to witness such an intellect at work. His writings on Mother Teresa are priceless and wickedly funny, but after finishing “Why Orwell Matters” I still didn’t know.

  2. I’ll take the traditionalism of Chesterton and Belloc over that of Burke any day. At least they idealized a tendency that had really existed in the past, and might have come to fruition under better circumstances. Burke’s England of colorful vicars and dignified country squires in powdered wigs, with happy agricultural laborers singing in the fields, was just an idealization of the existing system of power.

  3. I am more of a Tory than a Whig– who wouldn’t rather spend an afternoon with Swift or Pope? I just finished a slow re-reading of Hume’s essay on the Stewart Succession…and found myself travelling from convinced to unconvinced.

    Still…I’d rather be a Tory OR a Whig, than anything else.

  4. From the “unfortunate phrase” article:the moral integrity of Ted Kennedy

    Nick, would that be the same Ted Kennedy to whom Reason sold my mailing address? The most amusing thing about the letter he sent me via you was the phrase “in 2000 when President Clinton left office.”

  5. Burke never rigorously laid out his political philosophy but it sort of emerges out of his writings. He did express some libertarian sentiment and his support of the proposals for weakening the laws against Catholics and for mitigating the restrictions concerning the trade of Ireland with Great Britain, even cost him politically.

    From Burke’s rebuttal essay, A Vindication of Natural Society:

    Show me an absurdity in religion, and I will undertake to show you a hundred for one in political laws and institutions?. If after all, you …plead the necessity of political institutions, weak and wicked as they are, I can argue with equal, perhaps superior, force concerning the necessity of artificial religion; and every step you advance in your argument, you add a strength to mine.

    The whole essay, is a defense of religion relative to government. By the phrase; “every step…mine”, was he observing or maybe even predicting the countervailing leverage that religion may exert against government in a free society? (what ever, I think that the categorization of Burke as just a “proto-libertarian” is right because I don’t think that it ever occurred to him that in an actual free society, with government shackled, that you wouldn’t need any countervailing leverage against it.)

    BTW, I know it’s often observed that regard for religion is at the base of Burke’s writings, so I’ve always wondered what he meant by “artificial religion”, in this passage.

  6. digamma,

    i’ve got no definite knowledge of the mailing you mention (which isn’t to say you’re not correct), but as seinfeld‘s newman once pointed out, there’s no such thing as junk mail. so consider the appeal from the duke of chappaquidick a free gift.

    as we note periodically in the magazine, we do sell our mailing list to defray the costs of publishing. we also allow for opt-outs to subscribers who would rather not be on such lists. contact reason’s publisher mike alissi at malissi@reason.com if you’d like to be taken off any reason-related mailing lists. though i suspect you rather enjoy seeing who rents reason’s subscriber addresses.

  7. “…Hayek nonetheless defends a Burkean liberalism that steers clear of the ‘crude and militant rationalism of the French Revolution’

    The problem with this assessment is that it is largely, well, wrong. De Tocqueville, and modern historians of the French “Revolution” (as opposed to the Marxists who dominated the field until the 1970s, and give most people their general impressions of the Revolution) are struck not by its supposed “revolutionary” character, but by its alliance with French political, economic, etc. traditions (including the long and continued run of tensions between the local and central government that Louis XIV tried to suppress and which ultimately helped Louix XVI lose his crown) as well the gradual changes that had been occuring in France since at least the advent of the Bourbon monarchy (centralization in areas like taxation being one of them). Indeed, the French “revolutionary experiment” (rationalist, etc. in nature) can easily be said to have collapsed on 9 Thermidor, a bare five years after it had begun; and even at that, it never took up the mass of Frenchmen.

    Even the area of foreign affairs, none of the leaders of the revolution were really revolutionary; indeed, neither was Napoleon. Punish perfidious Albion and take Flanders and northern Italy were designs going back to the 13th century.

    BTW, whatever one might say about Hayek as an economist, he was a rather horrible historian.

  8. though i suspect you rather enjoy seeing who rents reason’s subscriber addresses.

    Yes I do. 😉 And I have no objection whatsoever to the renting. What’s amusing is how some of the renters – like the Democrats who sent the Kennedy mailing – appear never to have opened an issue.

  9. Rick,

    Here’s a link to a Burke collection on-line… (the end of the speech to the electors of Bristol has a quick summary of his basic positions). I’ve always read Bruke as using “Providence” in a Unitarian manner, but maybe that’s just a slippery way around the issue…


    Jean… there’s a couple interesting letters from the later 1790’s wherein Burke seems to be in agreement with you. Yet it’s worth a qualification regarding the effect and change the French Revolution wrought in English and American writers… Paine, Jefferson, Fox, etc. all changed markedly in tone and scope, and this could be why so many in the UK and US have an exaggerated view of the revolution in France (the NYC cartoonists labeled Jefferson “mad Tom”).

    Perhaps they got caught up in the shift from the enlightenment to romanticism… wherein the ‘idea’ of Revolution and Nature was digestable in abstract in France (having the charm of brevity), in the Americas Nature was personified in indian wars and the Revolution by Puritan lawyers and an anti-fraternal stand off. Who can blame the selection of Paris and Vienna over Washington?

  10. Jean Bart,

    Well, Hayek did win a Nobel prize in economics, but why do you say that he was a “rather horrible historian”?

    I think one of the most undervalued aspects of the French Revolution is the conspiring nature of those who brought it on.

  11. Rick Barton,

    Well, because he was; having read a number of his popular works where he tries to play the historian I have come to the conclusion that he was a poor historian. This is really no mark on his abilities as an economist.

    Conspiring nature of those who brought it on? Are you saying that there was a conspiracy afoot prior to the calling of the Estates General that unravelled in some telelogical fashion? To be blunt, the coming of the revolution was a rather ad hoc, haphazard affair, and hardly (at least in its meta-sense) conspiratorial in nature.

  12. Alexander Orlev Crawford,

    Well, most people’s general impressions of the Revolution are informed by sources like Dickens and they center on the various coups, tumults, etc. that occur in Paris; when in fact, Paris itself was at least slighly anomalous regarding the nature of these events as they effected the country. Anyway, in my mind, and in de Tocqueville’s (whose analysis of the revolution is still perhaps the most insightful), what should be stressed is not the revolution’s revolutionary character, but its continuity with trends that had been occuring for hundreds of years. For example, the rationalization of the taxation system; the destruction of internal tariffs; use of French as the national language; curbing the power of the church; etc.

  13. Jean Bart,

    I’m talking about the idea that the French Revolution involved several different conspiracies, including plots by the Freemasons and Illuminati, mixed with those by the Duc d’Orleans and foreign powers and that there was secret society involvement in the Jacobins.

    The Duc d’Orl?ans’ had the financial ability to finance a revolution, for sure. He was the second largest landowner in the Old Regime, with revenues of over 7 million livres. He could afford to finance opposition the Crown and purchase “idea men”.

    What do you think about the claim that, of the 800,000 inhabitants of Paris only approximately 1000 took any part in the siege of the Bastille?

  14. Rick Barton,

    Well, I’ve never seen any proof that such conspiracies actually existed.

    “What do you think about the claim that, of the 800,000 inhabitants of Paris only approximately 1000 took any part in the siege of the Bastille?”

    Well, first of all, by the time the seige occurred the Bastille was not the “medeival” prison it was described as by many 18th century polemicists. Indeed, what prisoners were there tended to live in luxury (this was true for example of de Sade). So the storming itself was far more symbolic than it was actual freeing of prisoners. As to the size of the crowd, I can’t say. I do know that the original reason for the crowd being there was not to storm the Bastille itself; indeed, they were there to get weapons. What turned the crowd on the Bastille itself was the inept governor’s attempt to stop the crowd by firing on them (which they viewed as treasonous). Indeed, it was only hours after the first crowds started milling about the Bastille that the phrase “To the Bastille” (A la Bastille) was heard. Also, those who participated in the attack were hardly the rabble that is depicted in paintings, etc. (I mean here destitute, homeless, etc.), but merchants, craftsmen from the Parisian suburbs, and current and former soldiers. I do know that about one hundred of the attackers were killed, and another seventy wounded. They “liberated” seven prisoners.

  15. Jean Bart,

    One of the chief expositors of the Conspiracy theory of the French Revolution was Nesta Webster. No proof but lots of interesting debate about her book by the same name.

    Thanks for the interesting info on the siege of the Bastille.

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