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Burke Versus the Economists

MP Jesse Norman's book revives the original conservative mind for our time.

I’m so jealous! A member of Parliament has written a book that is historically and philosophically erudite, yet an enjoyable read for any intelligent reader, elegant, and truly important. If any member of Congress could accomplish a similar feat—or amidst the relentless scramble for campaign cash, even find time to do so—I don’t know who it is.

Perhaps Jesse Norman is unique even on the other side of the pond. That he comes from a wealthy, aristocratic family and is a graduate of Eton and Oxford hardly makes him unusual in Parliament. But Norman also holds a Ph.D. from University College London, taught philosophy in distinguished universities, and previously wrote four books and edited a fifth. Elected to House of Commons three years ago, he has already been appointed to the powerful Treasury Select Committee and the Policy Board at 10 Downing Street.

Norman belongs to the Conservative Party and argues that Edmund Burke was the original conservative, but not in a merely partisan sense. “Not a member of the Conservative Party,” he writes, “not a neocon or a theocon, not a Thatcherite or a Reaganite—but a conservative nonetheless.”

Norman divides his book in two parts. “Part One: Life” briskly describes Burke’s upbringing, professional and political life, and key speeches and writings. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, Burke briefly followed his father’s wishes and became a barrister, but he soon left the Bar to instead pursue a career as a writer. As a young man, Burke wrote three well-regarded books and edited an annual compendium of essays, scientific reports, literary pieces, and poems. His standing within London’s scintillating intellectual community was sufficiently great that Samuel Johnson invited him to be one of nine members of The Club, his famous discussion group. All this served as something of a spectacular graduate education.

When he was 35, Burke became private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, the leader of a faction of Whigs in Parliament. In short order, Rockingham arranged for Burke to be elected to the House of Commons, where over the next 28 years Burke delivered some of history’s most enduring speeches. Those speeches—together with his letters and Burke’s most famous book, Reflections on the Revolution in France, published near the end of his Parliamentary career—elaborate a sophisticated political philosophy.

Unlike some of Burke’s biographers, Norman is adept at crisply giving readers—even Americans not well-versed in English history—whatever’s necessary to make the relevant events accessible. For example, one of Rockingham’s allies, Lord Verney, arranged for Burke’s first election to Parliament from the pocket borough of Wendover. But what’s a “pocket borough,” and how does it differ from a “rotten borough”? Norman explains: “Wendover at the time had just 250 electors—the modern constituency has around 75,000—most of whom were Lord Verney’s tenants and therefore disposed to vote as instructed.” Meanwhile, the rotten borough of “Old Sarum, long owned by the Pitt family … had three houses, seven voters—and two MPs.” Similarly, in a single paragraph Norman ably describes the origins and political divisions between the Whigs and the Tories and explains why they were not really political parties.

That last point is important because Norman argues that Burke made the Rockinghams into the first proto-political party in a Western democracy. Previously, subgroups of Whigs and Tories were factions—temporary alliances designed to acquire or retain power. Political parties, by contrast, are dedicated to advancing principles, and they promote their ideas over time, whether in power or in opposition. Looked at from this standpoint, maybe it’s fortunate that the Rockinghams were in power only for two short stretches of time. Opposition offers the greater opportunity to develop and articulate ideas, and that was Burke’s special gift.

The first part of Norman’s book also describes Burke’s great campaigns: his efforts to maintain the constitutional balance of power between Parliament and the Crown; his attempt to persuade Britain to listen to the complaints of American colonists about being taxed without representation, followed by his entreaties against attempting to bring the colonists to heel through military force (“a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered”); his work to end trade restrictions on Ireland and repressive laws against Catholics in England; his efforts to end the terrible abuses perpetrated by the British East India Company in India; and his passionate warnings against being seduced by siren songs of the Jacobins and following France down the bloody road of revolution, mob rule, and—as Burke predicted nine years before Napoleon’s coup d’état—the inevitable rise of a military dictator.

Although Norman has done as well possible in the space he allocated for describing Burke’s life and works, other one-volume biographies of Burke—including those by Russell Kirk and Conor Cruise O’Brien—are more complete. (O’Brien’s runs nearly 700 pages.) At times, Norman’s brevity has costs. An example is Burke’s detailed plan for ending slavery in the British Caribbean. It is important because it demonstrates that not only was Burke an incremental reformer, but when circumstances merited it Burke could be a radical reformer. Even then Burke was, well, a Burkean reformer: he studied the situation with great care, worked mightily to anticipate and ameliorate adverse consequences, and believed that culture and institutions would be more potent than legislation. Norman mentions that this design is underappreciated, but then brushes past it in a single paragraph.

But it is “Part Two: Thought” that distinguishes Norman’s book and makes it so important. The “Thought” here is a much Norman’s as Burke’s: Norman situates Burke within Western political philosophy and argues that his thinking is essential today. He begins by contrasting and comparing Burke to Newton, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Adam Smith, Kant, John Stuart Mill, Abraham Lincoln, and others. If this sounds heavy going, be not afraid! Norman is clear and fluid; never does his fascinating discussion bog down. Moreover, this philosophic tour is not of mere academic interest. Everything drives forcefully toward Norman’s argument about why we need Burke today.

If we need Burke—maybe even desperately—it must be because we are in trouble. What, then, is the problem? “The world has become flat, competition is global and the consumer is king,” Norman observes. Yet various indicators give us a deep sense of unease, including troubling levels of loneliness, drug abuse, suicide, and a loss of national identity.

The root problem, suggests Norman, is that we as a society have lost sight of what sustains us as human beings. “The consumer is king”: is that what we are made for, to live in societies devoted to consumption? To have nations—and indeed the world—constantly dependent on consumer confidence?

There are contemporary villains in Norman’s book. We’ll come to them in a minute. But first, let’s go back to the 17th and 18th centuries and the Enlightenment. Burke himself must be considered a part of the explosion in science, philosophy, and literature that constituted the Age of Reason—as were Adam Smith, David Hume, and Samuel Johnson, who were Burke’s friends. Norman argues that the Enlightenment branched into two forks. Rousseau led the way down one fork. He believed that human beings are naturally free, rational, and autonomous creatures. “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains,” he proclaimed. The individual is of transcendent importance; society is inherently corrupt.

Burke represents the other fork. He saw human beings as innately social animals. “Growing up within a given society is not simply a process by which humans become civilized; it is a process by which they become human,” writes Norman, describing Burke’s thinking. Our societies were not built in a day, and they cannot be demolished and remade in a day. They evolved over time. They are comprised of rich fabric of institutions—schools, colleges, professional groups, occupational associations, religious organizations—to which individuals can be deeply devoted, and are the product of many people’s life’s work. “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society is… the first link in the series by which we proceed toward love to our country and mankind,” wrote Burke. Society, said Burke, in perhaps his most famous quote, “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.”

All of this has been said before, though seldom as well as Jesse Norman says it. But Norman follows the chain to our present time. This brings us to the contemporary villains.

They are the economists. Not that Burke would distain all practitioners of the dismal science. After all, Adam Smith once said that Burke was “the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us,” and Burke pronounced The Wealth of Nations, “probably the most important book ever written.” The villains are today’s neoclassical economists, who have constructed a “dazzlingly sophisticated array of mathematical techniques” premised on three assumptions about human nature: that individuals are rational, that they seek to maximize their utility, and that they act independently based on perfect information. Norman argues that

the ideas of Bentham, the utilitarians and indeed modern economists have themselves now become highly influential institutions in their own right, embedded in universities, business schools and corporations around the world. Since their basic tenet is often that humans are purely economic agents, seeking gain and shunning loss, the danger is that this creates further feedback loops, inculcating successive generations into an orthodoxy of self-interest and thereby making them more selfish. What starts with an economist’s assumption ends up as a deep cultural pathology. sep-issuethumb

Burke always recognized that human beings are driven by emotions as well as logic and that our behavior is shaped as much by customs and habits as by reason. He considered manners more important than legislation. Norman carries Burke’s thinking into the 21st century. Drawing on cutting-edge research in sociology and behavioral economics, he persuasively argues that the rational maximizer model is inconsistent with fundamental aspects of human nature. Nevertheless, that model has become so influential that it affects, at a deep level, how we view ourselves, what we consider valuable, and the function of government and society.

The full extent of Norman’s sophisticated argument cannot be captured here. I urge you to read it for yourself. But be warned: the magnitude of Norman’s argument is difficult to overstate. He is arguing for nothing less than a paradigm shift in worldview. “The great paradox, Norman writes, “is that, thus understood, Burke the anti-radical becomes a far more radical thinker even than Karl Marx himself.” He’s right.

Carl T. Bogus is a professor of law at Roger Williams University and author of Buckley: William F. Buckley and the Rise of American Conservatism.