Moderate Burkean Conservative

My politics are, roughly speaking, 1/3 B. Sanders, 1/3 E. Warren and 1/3 moderate Burkean conservative.  I can think of an active example of the last sort.  Once upon a time there was MA Senator Ed Brooke, CT Senator and later Governor Lowell Weicker, MA Governor Frank Sargent.  Something I read today got me thinking about that political outlook and I remembered John Michael Greer’s essay, A Few Notes on Burkean Conservatism.  It’s a good framing of the type and I enjoy his language.  It reminds of essays by Lewis Lapham when he was editor of Harper’s.  Here are few excerpts from Greer’s post:

A genuine conservatism—that is, a point of view oriented toward finding things worth conserving, and then doing something to conserve them—is one of the few options that offer any workable strategies for the future as the United States accelerates along the overfamiliar trajectory of a democracy in terminal crisis.


The foundation of Burkean conservatism is the recognition that human beings aren’t half as smart as they like to think they are. One implication of this recognition is that when human beings insist that the tangled realities of politics and history can be reduced to some set of abstract principles simple enough for the human mind to understand, they’re wrong. Another is that when human beings try to set up a system of government based on abstract principles, rather than allowing it to take shape organically out of historical experience, the results will pretty reliably be disastrous.

What these imply, in turn, is that social change is not necessarily a good thing. It’s always possible that a given change, however well-intentioned, will result in consequences that are worse than the problems that the change is supposed to fix. In fact, if social change is pursued in a sufficiently clueless fashion, the consequences can cascade out of control, plunging a nation into failed-state conditions, handing it over to a tyrant, or having some other equally unwanted result. What’s more, the more firmly the eyes of would-be reformers are fixed on appealing abstractions, and the less attention they pay to the lessons of history, the more catastrophic the outcome will generally be.


The existing laws and institutions of a society, Burke proposed, grow organically out of that society’s history and experience, and embody a great deal of practical wisdom. They also have one feature that the abstraction-laden fantasies of world-reformers don’t have, which is that they have been proven to work. Any proposed change in laws and institutions thus needs to start by showing, first, that there’s a need for change; second, that the proposed change will solve the problem it claims to solve; and third, that the benefits of the change will outweigh its costs. Far more often than not, when these questions are asked, the best way to redress any problem with the existing order of things turns out to be the option that causes as little disruption as possible, so that what works can keep on working.

That is to say, Burkean conservatism can be summed up simply as the application of the precautionary principle to the political sphere.

Perhaps not intentionally, Greer identifies the importance of liberalism in that first paragraph:  Be outspoken in calling out for change when a change is needed.  Just because something “runs to completion” does not mean that it works.  Don’t be afraid to make changes, but take the time to understand why what doesn’t work doesn’t work and think through potential solutions to identify potential unintended consequences.  Engage other perspectives.  Think things through enough to have confidence that your proposed solution will solve the problems you intend it to solve.