Saturday, March 27, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 46

Individual Rights 5: Burke contra Rand. Edmund Burke regarded with great suspicion any theory of rights which appeared founded, not on extensive experience, but merely on rationalistic speculation and “metaphysics”:

Government is not made in virtue of natural rights [Burke wrote], which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect…. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants [such as protection against force and fraud]. 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 upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and 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 to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances and admit to infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.



Here we have a passage that most Objectivists are incapable of understanding. The typical Objectivist will read the passage “Government is a contrivance … to provide for human wants” as a license to provide for any and all wants; but this is not at all what Burke means, as anyone familiar with writings will understand at an instant. Burke is merely reiterating the view, common among the English in the 18th century, that the purpose of the government is to serve the citizens of the community, rather than the citizens serving the government.

Objectivists would also likely misinterpret Burke’s assertion that “the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted” as a license to tyranny. Again, this would be an error. Burke is merely stating a political fact. Human passions cannot be allowed to run wild in a civilized society. As Burke put it: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Burke is here asserting a different view of human nature, one that clashes with Rand’s view that man is a “rational animal.” For Burke, human civilization is a delicate contrivance that, if mismanaged, can easily dissolve into anarchy. This is why Burke favors cautious reform . In politics, it is so easy to make things worse, yet very difficult to make things better.

But the most important statement in the passage is where Burke writes “ as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances and admit to infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule.” This statement constitutes one of the essential differences between Burke and Rand. Rand believes (at least implicitly) that political and social reality is simple enough to be adequately represented in abstract principles derived from “reason” (i.e., conscious deliberate reasonings guided by “logic”). Burke, as an experienced statesmen, knows that Rand’s view of political and social reality is false: the reality confronting the statesman is simply far too complex to be summed up in a few abstract rules.

With this insight in hand, Burke resumes his disquisition on rights:

The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a 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.

These metaphysic rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are by the laws of nature refracted from their straight line. Indeed, in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction. The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and, therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man's nature or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade or totally negligent of their duty. The simple governments are fundamentally defective, to say no worse of them. If you were to contemplate society in but one point of view, all these simple modes of polity are infinitely captivating. In effect each would answer its single end much more perfectly than the more complex is able to attain all its complex purposes. But it is better that the whole should be imperfectly and anomalously answered than that, while some parts are provided for with great exactness, others might be totally neglected or perhaps materially injured by the over-care of a favorite member.

The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false. The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good, in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil. Political reason is a computing principle: adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.


Burke would regard Rand’s politics as merely “metaphysical” (by which he would mean: founded, not on experience, but on rationalistic speculation). Rand’s notion of establishing the state on her very simple concept of individual rights—a concept, moreover, which can never be compromised upon, regardless of the consequences—Burke would find as “fundamentally defective.” And Rand’s implicit confidence in her own reasoning powers, which allowed her to arrive at principles concerning matters that she knew little if anything about, Burke would view with dismay. In contradistinction to the speculative rationalism of Rand’s politics, Burke would assert his most element insight—namely, that the science of government requires extensive (and intensive) experience, “even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be.” This is the key insight that most differentiates the political thinking of Burke, Hayek, Oakeshott, Sowell, Michael Polanyi, and other sophisticated conservatives from Rand and her disciples.

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