Back to Burke and Tocqueville

Published December 6, 2006

National Review Online

Try this on for size:

“On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported by their own terrors and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations or can spare to them from his own private interests.  In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.  Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth….These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law.”

Here Edmund Burke is attacking the radical authors of the French Revolution, who believe (or say they believe) that personal opinion and calculations of self-interest alone suffice to support the law.  No, says Burke, something more is needed.  The public’s “affection” must be engaged on behalf of the law, and on behalf of the nation embodied in the law.  This sense of shared nationhood combines with “manners” (today we’d say “culture,” “shared values,” or “national habits and traditions”) to give the law a fuller and more reliable basis than narrow calculations of individual interest, or the terror of punishment.  In the absence of national “affection” and shared traditional “manners,” only the gallows are left to enforce law and order.

Burke’s understanding of the significance of shared national feeling and a culture of law and liberty enabled him to pull off one of the great acts of political prescience in history.  Burke knew — well before anyone else knew — that the French Revolution would ultimately give way to the “gallows” (in the event, of course, a guillotine rather than a noose).  And as the guillotines consumed not only aristocrats and priests but even revolutionaries, the radicals belatedly and very imperfectly stumbled upon Burke’s fundamental truths. With very mixed success, the revolutionaries overturned churches and strove to create a secular, political religion to put in place of Catholicism — something that might engage the affections of the nation, so that stability would rest on a safer and firmer foundation than terror alone.  It was a misguided and too radical effort to make up for insights the revolutionaries had early on discarded.

Now try this:

“The social state is commonly the result of circumstances, sometimes of laws, but most often of a combination of the two.  But once it has come into being, it may be considered as the prime cause of most of the laws, customs, and ideas which control the nation’s behavior; it modifies even those things which is does not cause.”

This is Alexis de Tocqueville talking about the “social state” that underlies and makes possible America’s democratic culture and legal system. Tocqueville argues, for example, that once “primogenitor” (inheritance by first-born sons) was formally abolished, American social and political life was fundamentally altered. With inheritance coming equally to all children, the social basis for a democratic culture of individual choice and equality was created.  What Tocqueville called the “social state,” today we’d call “social structure.”

American democracy has long been built around a somewhat more “rights based” understanding of democracy than we find in either Burke or Tocqueville.  Yet the Founders believed that the structures of democracy rested on an extra-political foundation created by religion and public virtue.  This insight was by no means the property of a few intellectuals, but once belonged to Americans at large.  Even so, America’s founding documents concentrate on rights, and formally take for granted the cultural foundations of democracy, foundations which the founding generation nonetheless understood very well.

By returning to Burke and Tocqueville, American conservatives recaptured these too-often forgotten insights into democracy’s dependence on various social and cultural prerequisites.  Yet somehow things have turned upside down.  Talk of “culture” and “social structure” is nowadays the province of leftist intellectuals.  Many (by no means all) modern conservatives instinctively reject these terms, and instead hold on to a more purely, rights-based notion of democracy.

That’s too bad, because I think this unfortunate intellectual reversal has had a great deal to do with our problems in Iraq.  Iraq, as a national entity transcending various ethnic and religious divisions, suffers from an acute shortage of public “affection,” and from a shortage of the sort of “manners” necessary for democracy.  We tried to create a democracy based primarily on calculations of interest — not even individual interest, but ethnic-communal interest.  What we got instead was collapse into an order based on force, and undermined by counter-force.

In short, conservatives need to get back to Burke and Tocqueville, and back to the themes within each of these authors that highlight the significance of social structure and culture.  This is not a betrayal of conservatism.  On the contrary, in some sense these themes are at the core of traditional conservatism.  Post-modern social scientists and contemporary left-liberal political thinkers have done some pretty questionable things with the notions of culture and society, retaining these ideas as deconstructive tools, while simultaneously discarding classic notions of liberalism’s dependence upon the virtues.  (See, for example, Peter Berkowitz’s Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism.) Yet postmodernism commandeered these ideas from an intellectual tradition that was largely conservative at the start.  So let’s get back to Burke and Tocqueville — not as a way of rejecting the notion of individual rights, but as a way of understanding the social and cultural foundations required to make a rights-based democracy work in the first place.

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