In a delightful tweet today, @DanielHannan reminds us of an important quote from archetypal conservative Edmund Burke:
Britain has been saved by what Edmund Burke called “the wisdom of unlettered men.” In 1940, working people backed Winston Churchill. In 1979, they backed Margaret Thatcher. This time, too, they ignored the hectoring and did what they knew to be right. https://t.co/I2w4Je5hUQ— Daniel Hannan (@DanielJHannan) February 4, 2020
This, in turn, reminded me of a quote from another conservative luminary, William F. Buckley:
“I would rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
Here that is in broader and more revealing context:
Conservatives for the little guy? What is going on here? It’s simple, really . . .
The core ideology of the political right (the actual right—not the bogeyman right that the left likes to imagine and portray) is classical liberalism. (Once simply called liberalism), classical liberalism is a bird with two wings . . .
One wing focuses on the core principles: the natural rights and freedom of the individual human person and all that that entails—skepticism of and limitations upon power; free markets and voluntary exchange; emergent order; and the sovereign individual, rather than the collective, as the fundamental unit of moral concern and analysis in society. Today’s libertarians tend to focus their attention here.
The other wing is Anglophone-style “conservatism,” of which Burke is usually considered the prototypical figure. The conservative focus is on tradition and the value of accumulated human wisdom. “Previous generations have already gone through this,” says the conservative. “Let’s look at what they’ve already figured out and build on that, rather than making sudden, radical changes.”
Classical liberal ideas are universal and have developed in locations throughout the world, but their fullest bloom and most successful instantiation occurred in Britain, and spread thence throughout the Anglosphere. And it all grew in a very “conservative” way, with developments and institutions building upon each other over time. The gradually increasing application of the idea that rulers are not above the law. The development of a layered system of decentralized power. Subsidiarity and local control. Juries made of people, not potentates. The rise of parliament and the growth of the highly successful common-law system. Yes, there were also punctuated moments of revolution and rapid change, but on the whole, classical liberalism—like an ancient, slow-growing tree with deep roots—evolved organically and conservatively. Gradually, yet inexorably, humans are grasping the inescapable and universal nature of its truths.* Though many of today’s libertarians are hostile to conservatism—some even expressing dislike for conservatives in general—classic Anglophone conservatism was integral to the development of classical liberalism.
It is also almost certainly essential to its ongoing health and success . . .
A proper application of libertarian principles may simply be unworkable without the values and approaches of conservatism. If people are not going to be governed from without, or only very lightly governed in a minarchist system, then they must be self-governing. Human culture has evolved many organic social systems for fostering harmonious interactions among individuals and communities: reputation, stigma, respect, ethics, social norms, shared traditions, established patterns, and much more. Judeo-Christian religion, and the ideological principles that grew therefrom, have played a major role in establishing ethical baselines. The conservative tends to understand the value of preserving these systems.
The conservative is concerned with, and even has a reverence for, the natural, the evolved, the tested. And nothing is more natural and tested than the universal and immovable principles of classical liberalism. The conservative isn’t trying to conserve these principles just for the sake of conserving things. These principles—the precepts of that other “wing”—are the organic root of human morality. The conservative seeks to conserve them because they are essential to human flourishing.
So finally, here’s the rub . . .
The conservative understands that it does not take a university degree to understand the organic and evolved principles of classical liberalism. You don’t need to be an intellectual to understand rights. Young children understand rights. Even birds, butterflies, and other animals have rudimentary forms of property and reciprocal justice. Most importantly . . . you don’t need to be a member of a political elite to recognize the fundamental freedom of the individual human person. In fact, being a member of such an elite is often detrimental to that understanding.
All of us have an innate and natural understanding of these natural human principles. They are not the province of philosophers alone, and they are certainly not a gift bestowed upon us by government or an intellectual priesthood. That is why Burke and Buckley see, respect, and even revere the natural wisdom of the “average” person.
Leftism, by contrast, tends to be obsessed with “experts” and authority. The leftist system purports to be about “the people” even as it places power in an ever-smaller number of officials—with its ultimate evolution leading to dictators, party oligarchy, and ruling families like the Kims and the Castros. Under leftism, the people equally share in the privations, misery, and oppression of its unworkable system, while a tiny group of elites enjoy the spoils of power and privilege.
Remind me again which ideology truly values and respects “the people”?
*The French Revolution, by contrast, showed us what happens when people less grounded in liberal principles attempt to apply them quickly. Though technically inspired by the liberalism of the Enlightenment, the radical, egalitarian, through-a-glass-darkly version of the French revolutionaries proved to be a fork in the road, leading to modern leftism, and ultimately, its most totalitarian manifestations.