The Volokh Conspiracy

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Burke's Speech on Conciliation with Working from Home


Mark Pesce (IEEE Spectrum) writes, in "Why Did It Take a Global Pandemic to Trigger the WFH Revolution?"

Over the last generation, office workers have gained powerful tools for boosting productivity, but they hadn't taken full advantage of them. It was like having a chainsaw available but using only a stone ax—simply because we'd always used one. But now that many of us have found a new way to work, one supported by incredible tools for remote collaboration, our offices and our work habits will never be the same.

I think that's true, as others have observed; and it put me in mind of a passage from Edmund Burke's Mar. 22, 1775 Speech on Conciliation with America:

Pursuing the same plan of punishing by the denial of the exercise of government to still greater lengths, we wholly abrogated the ancient government of Massachusetts. We were confident that the first feeling if not the very prospect, of anarchy would instantly enforce a complete submission.

The experiment was tried. A new, strange, unexpected face of things appeared. Anarchy is found tolerable. A vast province has now subsisted, and subsisted in a considerable degree of health and vigor for near a twelvemonth, without Governor, without public Council, without judges, without executive magistrates. How long it will continue in this state, or what may arise out of this unheard-of situation, how can the wisest of us conjecture?

Our late experience has taught us that many of those fundamental principles, formerly believed infallible, are either not of the importance they were imagined to be, or that we have not at all adverted to some other far more important and far more powerful principles, which entirely overrule those we had considered as omnipotent.

To be sure, Massachusetts wasn't actually in a condition of "anarchy." (I suspect Burke was being a bit sarcastic there, suggesting that his adversaries had exaggerated Massachusetts residents' supposed need for government authorized by London.) But at the same time Massachusetts government did sharply depart from what many 1775 Englishmen on both sides of the ocean thought were "fundamental principles." It took an unplanned shock to show that such a departure was possible; and once that showing was made, "far more important and far more powerful principles" made themselves known.