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How would Modern Conservatives View Burke?

November 9, 2010

Burke is considered a conservative political theorist, although that term means little without context. How would contemporary conservatives view Burke and his beliefs? Would American conservatives be able to relate to Burke, or would he be an outdated relic that no longer holds relevance in our political landscape? By examining “Reflections on the Revolution in France” and comparing its teachings with the views of modern conservatism, we can see how much the two share.

Much of Burke’s writing is dedicated to tradition and the importance of the past in guiding the present. He states “When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.” It is very possible that modern conservatives would largely agree with this statement, as they also often look to the past for guidance and precedent. Prominent conservative figures and politicians often reference the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution as the epitome of the “American Spirit.” On this issue, it would seem that Burke would find agreement with contemporary conservative minds.

Despite this, there are also many statements that Burke makes that would almost certainly not be well received by the American Conservative of the 21st century. For example, Burke appears to believe that freedom is not a natural right but is instead derived as a legacy from our ancestors. Americans of all political viewpoints value freedom perhaps more than any other trait and view it almost universally as something that is inalienable to all people. I find it unlikely that Burke would find many sympathizers with modern conservatives on this issue.

In addition, Burke argues that innovation and even progress derive from a lack of prudence and reverence for past tradition. “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views.” Burke’s writings sharply contrast with the traditional American free market system, which stresses innovation and competition among individuals; progress inevitably arises from this capitalist system and ultimately benefits all of society through increased consumer choices and improved efficiency.

There are both similarities and differences between the ideologies of Burke and modern conservatism. Contemporary conservatives might agree with Burke on the importance of tradition and yet vehemently disagree on the value of innovation. By the standards of today, Burke’s degree of social conservatism would be considered extreme and would not find support with any mainstream portion of the American population. In conclusion, Burke would probably be viewed as conservative today on most issues even in relation to the stances of modern conservatives.


  1. adamhollenberg permalink
    November 9, 2010 11:16 PM

    Burke is very conservative in the sense that he preaches gradually building change rather than a quick sweeping change. I do no think that this has much relevance to modern conservatism because the world is so politically fragmented. Conservatism in one place is different that conservatism in another place, just due to the traditions and systems in place. Burke would be pretty irrelevant now because of his specific conservative beliefs from his time and place. To determine how he would fit in with modern politicians, one would have to do an examination of his character to see how he would view issues today.

  2. adamarcher permalink
    November 10, 2010 10:52 AM

    I think that the labels “conservative, liberal, republican and democrat” are insufficent to properly define the ideologies and parties they stand for. As has been taught in class, all Americans are “liberal”, not just the economic left. The same goes for democrats, you would be hard-pressed to find a modern “republican” who would not identify himself as an advocate for rule by the people – democracy.
    I think that Burke was much closer to a true Conservative than what we at first percieve modern conservatives to be in the true meaning of the word, as one who is, “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.” Whatever modern American “Conservatives” stand for today, they have this much in common with Burke. The social and economic changes that have become common since Burke’s time are mainly erroneous as long as they came about in a proper conservative manner, which for the most part they have. (The conservative manner being that changes to government were calculated and well studied based on what we have learned from our past.)
    Taken in historical context, I think most modern conservatives would still be esentially Burkian, and furthermore, I think Burk would concur with most modern conservatives on issues of policy once he understood the reasoning for the changes which had occured in the time since he lived.

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