Burke's Speech on Conciliation with Working from Home

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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.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: May 26, 1868

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  1. I suspect we Americans, and others around the world, will find ourselves in the same situation at some point, having gotten so used to government handling everything that we can’t imagine cutting back even a single dime of government spending, yet finding that government has screwed the pooch so much that it collapses all by itself, and the shock will (a) appear as anarchic as Massachusetts appeared to Britons after they had seemingly suffocated Massachusetts in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, (b) will be utterly amazed at being able to function even better with much less government.

  2. Travel is really stupid, wasteful, dangerous, costly, time consuming. Making someone return to the office is like adding 10 hours of a week, for no additional compensation. It represents a cut in pay. No cuts in pay have taken, not even in the Democrat Depression of the 1930’s.

    This principle should apply to the legal system. The default and presumptive state should be video conferencing. Unless a physical presence of some kind is required for probity, such as custody. there should be no in person hearings or meetings.

    One effect will be to cut government jobs, of transportation workers on all routes, in legal buildings, in health personnel no longer needed for crashes, gas stations, auto/bus/train maintenance, auto/bus/train production/sales. Only rent seeking would force a return to buildings owned by disloyal billionaire agents of the Chinese Commie Party.

    1. See, you almost sounded sane and reasonable. And then you had to go and ruin it with the barking moonbat final sentence.

  3. “or what may arise out of this unheard-of situation

    Ummm — Shay’s Rebellion?

    Actually, Burke omitted mention of the Committees of Public Safety.

    1. I think it shows the mindset that the absence of a King’s government was so inconceivable that any spontaneously organized replacement was unrecognizable as an actual thing.

  4. While Work Form Home will continue there is an important social aspect of the work environment, especially in creative or knowledge work. It is important to develop a sense of community and teamwork that only close personal contact can create. Facebook and Zoom cannot substitute for that, much of our personal understanding of other people comes from close observation and evaluation of nonverbal indicators.

  5. The analogy of an axe and a chainsaw are not apt because a chainsaw is so much more efficient. I can fell dozens of trees with a chainsaw before taking one down with an axe. But composing an email to my client or drafting a brief takes me the same number of hours regardless of my connection.

    A better analogy would be that it’s like having a cell phone, but only taking and making calls when you are at home.

    There are also some advantages in being physically in the office. While videoconferencing can work well, there is an advantage in being able to stop by someone’s office for a chat. Or being able to meet someone from another firm at a close location. After all, we see firms build bigger offices, when more and smaller offices (particularly out of downtown) could be just as effective. The entire point of a city (or any commercial district) is that multiple firms can be physically close.

    So we may not need a full five days in the office, but there will definitely be offices and people working downtown.

  6. What is really amazing is that after the Massachusetts Government Act arrived in May 1774, the practical problems arising from being in a “state of nature” were discussed in town meetings all over the Province, in those very terms.

    Massachusetts government was framed in the 1630s as a republic of towns where the towns retained exclusive jurisdiction over local matters. At the suggestion of the Boston Town Meeting speaking through its committee of correspondence chaired by Sam Adams, the other towns began forming committees of correspondence in January 1773 and most had one by May 1774.

    After the Massachusetts Government Act arrived, the towns spontaneously formed committees of inspection and safety to weed out Loyalists, maintain order and settle disputes that would normally have been brought to court. The towns replicated these committees in the several counties and in October 1774 the counties united with the provisional provincial congress. From 1774 to 1780, the legitimacy of the provincial congress rested on nothing more than the collective consent of the town meetings.

    There were also lively discussions over whether the Charter of 1628 should be resurrected, the Charter of 1692 retained or a new frame of government created.

  7. Ha!

    In every state of the US, one is now more likely to _die_ of homicide than to be _diagnosed_ (rightly or wrongly) with CoViD-19. The vaccination push continues, however, and the Biden administration now offers four incentives: (a) freedom of movement, (b) free beer, (c) cash, and (d) easy pussy. To date, free beer is the most effective. Easy pussy is almost as popular as CoViD and Chlamydia yet more popular than HIV. Go Biden?!

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