Burke, Mill and the Changing Nature of Status-Quo Conservatism
Could these two ever see eye-to-eye?
Burke has been called a founding father of conservative political thought. Reading through “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” one can certainly see why this would be the case. He urges reverence for tradition and respect for authority, coupled with caution in adopting anything new. This marks Burke as a conservative – but he is a conservative who embraces the system Britain had in place during his era. Though a conservative, he was full of praise for the liberties that had been established before his time; these were not just liberty, but had become “noble freedoms.” His problem was with change, not liberty – indeed his argument is one of caution, working from the premise that, as the present system is good, one should be cautious about trying anything new, as change could make the system worse. The existing system had evolved over centuries to fit the needs of British society; any major change could have dangerous consequences.
While Burke based his argument on caution, Mill based his on a normative argument that one should seek to maximize freedom. In Mill’s view, if a change could promote human freedom then the burden of proof was on those who argued against making that change. This is especially significant in “The Subjugation of Women,” where Mill argued in favor of sexual equality. At the time, Mill’s argument was a radical one. But over the years, things have changed to such a degree that what was once radical has become seemingly self-evident. To reference Kant, if we do not live in an Enlightened age then at least we live in an age of Enlightenment; inequality between the sexes is declining, with the wage gap set to close within twenty years according to some projections and with women already making up a majority of those graduating from college. One of the most striking examples of how much has changed is that Mill, a radical for his age, has been criticized today by feminist theorists for not going far enough, as described in the essay “J. S. Mill: Feminism and the Pursuit of Happiness,” which can be found in Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche, the Political Science 101 text book. This essay deals mostly with countering those arguments, but makes it clear that Mill has been critiqued on those grounds.
As Burke was opposed to change, not liberty, let us then ask: Have the liberties that Mill once advocated now become an established element of society, accepted such an extent that they would now meet Burke’s definition of “noble freedoms?” The answer seems to be a qualified “Yes”. Even if not all conservatives have embraced recent changes in gender roles, many have accepted them. One example of this is how in Europe, conservative arguments opposed to Islamic immigration are based on claims that Muslims do not share European values – in particular, that they do not support gender equality.
Moreover, while there have always been women who hold conservative views (indeed, one of the few women whose work was read for Political Science 101 this term was Hannah More, an ardent supporter of Burke), in the past when women’s liberation was viewed as radical, female political activists were primarily affiliated with the left. Today, women are increasingly taking on leadership roles within conservative parties and right-wing organizations. The first female Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was a Conservative, in the United States Sarah Palin is an influential figure in conservative circles, and France’s far-right National Front is now headed by Marine le Pen, a woman. It seems that changing norms have penetrated conservative circles to such an extent that women are coming increasingly to hold leadership positions in the right.
What, then, does this imply about our reading of Burke? Burke was, clearly, a product of his time, and if raised in another era he could have been shaped by that era’s norms. His work, though, has outlasted his era. If it is to remain relevant, it must be considered in a more general context. Burke urges respect for authority and societal norms (including the established “noble freedoms”), and caution in making changes. He does not deny that positive change can occur, and change has obviously occurred. Judging from the positions modern conservatives have taken, it seems that, were Burke alive today, he might be a staunch defender of gender equality – while arguing that Islamic or Hispanic immigration threatens the established order and endangers our noble freedoms.