Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Thoughts on Burke (part 1): The Contract with Prosperity

The New York Times Columnist, David Brooks, wrote an op-ed recently titled The Power of Prosperity where he engages in an instructive thought experiment. He asks, “What would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth that happened to be facing the sun?” His full answer is worth reading, but this paragraph gives the crux of his argument.

"Without posterity, there are no grand designs. There are no high ambitions. Politics becomes insignificant. Even words like justice lose meaning because everything gets reduced to the narrow qualities of the here and now."

I want to dwell on an important idea that Mr. Brooks alluded to: the relationship between the living, dead, and unborn. Edmund Burke famously wrote about this in his letter to the young Frenchmen Charles DePont—an enthusiastic revolutionary who had elicited Burke’s response to the revolution in France. Burke’s book length letter later became known as Reflections on the French Revolution.

In the Reflections, Burke defends the importance of heritage, protects reason from rationalism, and reminds those crying “Liberty, equality, fraternity!” that liberty is not license, justice is not equality, and fraternity has responsibility. The revolutionaries in France rejected their past heritage because they accepted Rousseau’s definition that the social contract existed merely as a commercial agreement between consenting individuals. Burke agreed that a social contract did exist, but he gave it far more meaning. He says,

“Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Simply, I believe he means that past and future, not just present, matters. If we deny the past bequeaths us any duties or posterity demands our responsibility, than we will develop a narrow individualists set of values. This “presentism” gives rise to the license and irresponsibility that dominated the French Revolution and is corroding the DNA of America. Why worry about a founding document if the culture has changed? Why reform Social Security if you will be dead before it is bankrupt? Why commit to marriage and children if it prevents immediate pleasure? Why invest in a community if you will not be here to see the fruits in the next generation? And there are many more similar questions that could be asked.

We are indebted to Mr. Burke for standing athwart the doctrinaire radical who wants change for the mere sake of change, and thus destroys the contract between God and man and between the generations of mankind. If Burke were asked to evaluate the thought experiment at the beginning of this post, I believe he would say: “The whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with another. Men would become little better than the flies of summer." And that is why we must remember our contract with prosperity.


  1. I think you are touching on a paradox. On one hand we must be mindful of the past (tradition) and the future for our posterity. On the other hand, ideology is in itself an excessive obesssion with either the past (usually when liberalism or conservatism become an ideology) or the future (Marxism, fascism, etc).

    Thus, the only way to counter either excess is an understanding of our place as individuals within what Eliot callls the "eternal present."

    My reading of Burke is that he criticizes the Lockean notion of a social contract replacing it with his idea of a partnership. I think he is making an important distinction here... his idea of partnership seems more like the Puritan idea of covenant (duty/responsibility) and less like the Lockean idea of contract (natural rights). I think Burke would be more inclined to suggest that the Lockean understanding of the social contract doesn't go far enough in explaining the complexities of the world we live in.

    Like all opponents of ideology, Burke seems to reject simple solutions and understandings of th world.

    So I see what your saying, but I disagree with your understanding of Burke. Not that I think Burke would agree that changing for the sake of change is wrong. Or that there is a need to fix things now for future generations. But we must first begin by understanding our proper place in the here and now.

  2. Matt, I would not say it is so much of a paradox but a tension that exist in what Burke is saying. You are correct that any over-emphasis on either the past or the future leads to the ideological positions you suggested.

    I would agree that Burke rejects the Lockean social contract theory as an incomplete account of the larger complex relationship between generations.

    As often seems to be the case with you and me, I think we generally agree but say it differently. I have not read the Four Quartets, so I'm not entirely familiar with Eliot's the "eternal present" idea. But I believe Burke would say that to understand our proper place in the here and now you must understand the significance of our relationship to our ancestors and our prosperity.