Ethics & Public Policy Center

Burke, Paine, and Reagan

Published in National Review Online on December 3, 2013



In his Wall Street Journal column, William Galston very kindly calls attention to my new book and very thoughtfully raises the question of the relationship of Edmund Burke’s kind of conservatism to Ronald Reagan’s kind of conservatism.

He points out that Reagan liked to quote Thomas Paine on occasion — and particularly Paine’s most un-conservative line of all: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And he argues that, at least when it comes to his idea of political change, Reagan would not have qualified as a Burkean conservative, and therefore conservatives in the Reagan tradition cannot take much from Burke. He makes a smart and interesting case, as always, but I disagree.

As I note in the book, American conservatives have long faced the challenge of articulating a conservative outlook in a society founded in a revolution and, as Burke would have been the first to argue, conservatism in one society cannot be identical to conservatism in another. But I do think Galston overstates the differences between Reagan’s outlook and the sort of conservative disposition that emerged more or less for the first time in Burke’s thought.

To begin with, Reagan’s occasional references to Paine, emphatically including his reference to the “we have it in our power” line, all occurred in the context of calling upon the American people to do big things again. They were not raised in a radical tone, or in an effort to assert, as Paine himself did, that it was desirable or possible to break with the past in some profound way. And Reagan’s references to Paine were also in most cases made with what seemed to be an appreciation for the fact that Reagan was a conservative citing a radical. In his most famous use of the “we have it in our power” line, toward the end of his 1980 Republican-convention acceptance speech, Reagan offered the line from Paine coupled with one other quotation: FDR’s line about a rendezvous with destiny.

Galston’s deeper assertion, though, is that Reagan would not have been a conservative in Burkean terms, and here I think he gets both Burke and Reagan somewhat wrong. He paints a utilitarian or purely expedient picture of Burke, insisting that there was no room for political principle in Burke’s view of politics and even arguing that Burke would have sided with Stephen Douglas against Lincoln’s assertion of a higher justice above majority rule. This is a view of Burke not unheard of among scholars of his work, but I think it’s just not correct, as I try to argue at some length in the book. Burke himself offered powerful denunciations of the view supposedly attributed to him. He wrote, for instance:

It would be hard to point out any error more truly subversive of all the order and beauty, all the peace and happiness, of human society than the position that the body of men have a right to make what laws they please; or that laws can derive any authority from their institution merely and independent of the quality of the subject-matter. No arguments of policy, reason of state, or preservation of the constitution can be pleaded in favor of such a practice. They may in deed impeach the frame of that constitution; but can never touch this immovable principle. This seems to be, indeed, the principle which Hobbes broached in the last century, and which was then so frequently and so ably refuted.

That could easily be mistaken for one of Lincoln’s arguments in his debates with Douglas.

I do think Galston is right to suggest that some of Reagan’s rhetoric, and some of the rhetoric of American conservatism more generally, partakes more of the radical strain than of the conservative strain of our political tradition. When we reach for theory or philosophy, we conservatives too often reach for radical theories of the liberal society, rather than for the kind of conservative theory of the liberal society that Burke, among others, can offer us. In this sense our rhetoric has too often been inadequate to our practice — and our theory of America has too often been inadequate to America. That is certainly something to work on, because it can be a practical and not just a rhetorical problem; it tends to leave conservatives too hostile to the everyday work of governing and policy.

But with regard to Reagan and Reaganism, this too can be easily overstated. I think that in his elevation of civil society, in his appeal to the values of everyday life, in his celebration of our political legacy, in his defense of traditional social and cultural institutions, in his recoil from technocracy, and in his reforming spirit Reagan was in some important respects (though of course not in all respects) a thoroughgoing conservative even if Burke were our model of conservatism.

Above all, though, I think Reagan’s conservatism was evident in his subtle description of freedom. From his earliest public speeches through his regular radio addresses in the 70s, right through his presidential rhetoric, Reagan did something that not many American conservatives — then or now — have done: He insisted on tying freedom to order. He pressed an idea of ordered liberty, an attempt to reconcile social or cultural traditionalism with an emphasis on freedom and dynamism. And in this he surely echoed, if in thoroughly American tones, Burke’s attempt to prevent the idea of liberty from being captured by the most radical of his fellow Whigs.

Reagan made this idea of ordered liberty unusually explicit, and I think it played an important part in holding together his own kind of conservatism in his own thinking — in holding together a conservative disposition, a deep allegiance to a revolutionary founding, and a meaningful connection to the religious and cultural traditions of the West. As he put it in 1982:

There can be no freedom without order, and there is no order without virtue. Now, that’s a simple enough formulation, but it’s an insight found not only in the writings of Founding Fathers like Washington or great political thinkers like Edmund Burke; it is also found in a great part of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

And it is found, as well, at the core of conservatism — Burkean, Reaganite, and any other worthy of the name.

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