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.