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Reflections on the Social Contract
on November 7, 2015
“Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions than ruined by too confident a security.”
Edmund Burke deeply distrusted the confident rationality of the leaders of the French Revolution. In this book, written before that revolution went disastrously wrong, he essentially predicted the reign of terror and eventual seizure of power by a dictator. Burke’s insights are well worth considering, and should not be entirely dismissed for his real shortcomings or for being on the wrong side of history. He saw society as an intricate web of connections that we should be careful of messing with, telling us,
“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.”
This complexity means actions often have unintended consequences:
“The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à 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.”
This gives the praiseworthy impression of an evidence-based approach to understand how a society actually works. It is a good start, but scientific method also requires a sceptical examination of that evidence. Burke fails us by mythologizing the past to the point of seriously misrepresenting it. He even warns against questioning the legitimacy of institutions (what science is all about) because even that can be destabilizing.
But given the wisdom (such as it is) from the past, the connecting role of inheritance is a crucial process for Burke. As he puts it,
“Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
The Virtue of Prejudice
Today the word “prejudice” is almost synonymous with irrationality and the evils of the past. Burke has a rather different view, given his distrust for glib rationality and his veneration of the past:
“In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree. The longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put man to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”
Note that Burke observes that people are less rational than they think they are, a fact confirmed by modern psychology. That is why reasonable looking proposals often do not work as intended. He continues,
“Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”
To Burke, prejudice is the wisdom we inherit from past ages. We should not dismiss that wisdom lightly. But in reality all was not always quite so wise in the past, and social change can make even that which was once wise, obsolete. While we may inherit our rights from past relationships, we also inherit the wrongs.
Religion as a Foundation of the State
“We know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and of all comfort.”
Burke sees religion as providing the morality that binds a society together. The church is there to both support the authority of the state, and to rein in those to whom the state gives authority.
“The consecration of the state, by a state religious establishment, is necessary also to operate with a wholesale awe upon free citizens; because, in order to secure their freedom, they must enjoy some determinate portion of power. All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust: and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.”
The actual content of the theology seems to be unimportant to him. The church’s role is to support the state, not criticize it. “No sound ought to be heard in the church but the healing voice of Christian charity,” he tells us, objecting to a sermon sympathetic with the goals of the French Revolution. The problem is Burke relies entirely on religious ethics to restrain the ruling class. History show this is often not enough.
The Problem with Idealism
“I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases. A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.”
For Burke, ‘improve’ means restraining certain excesses that violate the existing social contract. He does not seek to change the underlying structure that makes these excesses possible. However, he is properly critical of applying simple-minded ideals to the complexity of a living society. He sees rights as something one inherits from the past, closely linked to the responsibilities that come with them. In contrast,
“The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes: and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false. Their abstract perfection is their practical defect.”
He is also capable of making the same point in simple language, such as when he asks,
“What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.”
I agree, but maybe we should ask the advice of an economist, who would point out that the feudal system provides little incentive to increase food production. The large landholdings that Burke so loved, along with the forced labor of the peasants he declines to mention, remind me of the collective farms imposed by Stalin.
Edmund Burke Foreshadows Karl Marx
While reading Burke I keep comparing his thinking to that of Karl Marx. On the positive side, they both reject an idealist conception of society, insisting on the importance of the relationships between people and classes. Marx called his view historical materialism. Burke correctly saw the crucial role played by social morality, in his case implemented by religion. Marx neglected morality (‘false consciousness’) in favor of economic forces.
[Today, conservatives ignore the role of social morality when they privatize parts of government. When the ethic of public service is lost, there is nothing to restrain the looting of public resources, which is the frequent consequence of these actions. Enron provides a good example.]
On the negative side, they both had a collectivist view of society. The distinctive achievements of Western civilization largely come from the power and initiative of the free individual. And both ideologies were ultimately based on myths: for Burke the idealized past, and for Marx the ideal of a future Communism.
While conservatives back unrestrained change through markets, today’s liberal environmentalists have fully adopted the spirit of Edmund Burke with respect to the physical environment. Our natural inheritance is held to be sacred, and any changes to it are feared as being disruptive to that complex web of ecological relationships we do not fully understand. Maybe we should have the same respect for our social environment.
Turning Sacred Land into Monstrous Money
This book was written at the beginning of the industrial revolution, before its effects were fully felt. Burke is already troubled by the changing values that he already sees, complaining,
“But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.”
He has an almost mystical attachment to the value of land ownership handed down through the generations. He complains that,
“Perhaps a full tenth part of all the land in France has now acquired the worst and most pernicious part of the evil of a paper circulation. By this means the spirit of money-jobbing and speculation goes into the mass of land itself, and incorporates with it. By this kind of operation, that species of property becomes (as it were) volatilized; it assumes an unnatural and monstrous activity.”
Only a tenth! Burke had no idea of the unnatural and monstrous activity the industrial revolution was about to unleash upon his glorious traditional landscape. The irony is that today’s so-called conservatism is about giving markets the unimpeded ability to transform society, no matter what the social cost.
Real Progress Demands Understanding Reality
I found Burke’s thinking in this work to be fascinating and thought provoking. He has a deep view of how society works, seeing it as like an ecosystem, and often expresses it well. His insights into the perils of idealism were correct at the time, and continue to be true today. But in the end his analysis was betrayed by an idealistic veneration of the past, and a failure to understand the importance of the individual. Like the idealists he criticizes, Burke was also an intellectual with an inordinate fondness for certain ideals.
Today the landed aristocracy of Burke’s time has been replaced by largely unrestrained corporations. They are not only more powerful than the old landowners, they also provide us with the material goods we crave. They are not about to disappear. To manage the undesirable side effects, we need Burke’s concept of understanding society as it really is, but without the romantic myths that obscure the problems. We also need a vision of how to move forward, because if it were up to Burke we would still be living in the squalor of the Middle Ages. But idealist solutions frequently result in a return to the barbarism of the Middle Ages, as with the French and Russian Revolutions and the Arab Spring. Realistic analysis, freed from the myths of the left and right, is difficult but necessary if we really want to progress.
So, is this book worth reading? It is easier to start with a modern summary, as I did with "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left" by Yuval Levin. But I found reading his original work gave me a richer understanding of what Burke was really about. I skimmed over long passages of historical details to find the type of philosophical ideas that I have quoted here. I am glad I made the effort.