(Written by and shared with the permission of Elliot Temple, on July 26, 2011)
Edmund Burke is one of the most important liberal thinkers.
Burke was the most effective politician ever to live. He caused a great deal of liberal reform, and helped educate many people (including within his own party). He was a member of the whig party in England and lived 1729-1795.
Burke helped improve policy especially in these broad areas: limiting the King's power, better treatment of Ireland and Catholics, better treatment of America, better treatment of India, and better understanding of, and opposition to, the French Revolution. He favored policies such as peace and free trade with America, addressing the American grievances the caused the war, ending abuses in India, and limiting the power of the monarchy. He was a busy politician and great speaker, and many of his reform attempts were successful.
Burke dramatically changed the world in two particular cases, perhaps saving civilization. First, he was responsible for peace between Britain and America after the war of independence. Try to imagine a world with Britain and America as long term enemies!
Second, Burke was by far the leading rational opponent of the French Revolution. He considered himself alone
in this for a period of years, but he persisted and won out. The French Revolution threatened to destroy Europe. Burke persuaded people it was a bad idea when others did not understand the danger.
Many people do not know that peace between Britain and America was not inevitable after Cornwallis' surrender. It was not taught at my school. Wikipedia gets it wrong. So I'll comment on that a little:
In London, as political support for the war plummeted after Yorktown, Prime Minister Lord North resigned in March 1782. In April 1782, the Commons voted to end the war in America. Preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris at the end of November, 1782; the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris and Treaties of Versailles were signed on September 3, 1783.
This is not what happened. Peace was a very close call and only happened because Burke really wanted peace and stood up to the King. To modern people, standing up to a King may not sound as important as it was. It was a really big deal. Peace treaties do not happen automatically but have causes, and the primary cause of this one was Burke.
The King wanted to continue the war, and had broad political support for this. America expected the war to continue too and was skeptical and wary about the peace treaty. This topics is covered well in The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke by Conor Cruise O'Brien.
Moving on, Burke was a very good philosopher but he largely kept his philosophical ideas to himself. He was first and foremost a politician. If something would not be politically effective he didn't want to say it. That isn't to say he was timid. He pushed hard for reforms that were ahead of their time, and sometimes succeeded at dragging the country forward. But he did not publish all his ideas just for the sake of telling people.
As an example, some of Burke's associates misunderstood some of positions. He made a habit of not correcting them when it would have done political harm. For example, when Burke worked with Phillip Francis regarding India, he did not bring up major disagreements (on other issues) they had which Burke was aware of but Francis was not. Burke kept his mouth shut for the sake of reforming India policy.
Because of Burke's hesitance to speak his mind philosophically, and only to make politically effective statements, it's harder to accurately understand his ideas. It means he didn't use advanced arguments he may have known but which people would not have understood and therefore not been persuaded by. Burke primarily used arguments that other people would think were good, rather than the ones he considered truest.
While the wisdom of this approach is debatable in some ways, it worked. Burke accomplished many important political changes, including two world changing accomplishments. We should thank him for it.
Burke was the first person to understand anarchism that I'm aware of. William Godwin has sometimes been called the first anarchist. but Burke precedes him. Anarchism is important to liberalism; one can't really be a full fledged liberal without understanding it.
However, anarchism was not a political reform possible for Burke to achieve in his life time. Talking about it would have made him a less effective politician. So there isn't much information on the topic and his ideas are not understood well.
Further, Burke's understanding of anarchism was more sophisticated than most anarchist theory. Most anarchists are radical utopians and that's what people associate with anarchy. Burke isn't recognizably an anarchist of that type because he wasn't.
The basic concept of anarchism is that Governments are inherently coercive. They do harm. That's bad. And so it should be reformed. Burke knew this. But most anarchists then advocate for the destruction of the Government rather than a very gradual transition by piecemeal reform.
Burke, in addition to understanding the fundamental incompatibility of coercive Government with liberal principles, also understood the rational value of tradition, the dangers of utopianism, and the necessity for gradual, piecemeal progress. This additional knowledge sets Burke apart from most anarchists.
Gradual reform is the correct liberal way. Radicalism is a mistake. Burke's opposition to radicalism shows up most clearly in his stance against the French Revolution and is explained in his book on that topic.
Burke also understood free trade very well. He doesn't get as much credit for this as he should. He argued that Britain could make more money by free trade with America than oppressive taxes! That was wonderful.
Here is what Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations) said of Burke:
[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
E. G. West, Adam Smith (New York: Arlington House, 1969), p. 201
Here is some summary of a few pieces of Burke's thinking related to liberalism:
People and society aren't perfect. Reform is good. But what we have is a lot better than the past, and that is valuable. So reform should be careful not to mess up previous improvements.
Violence is really really bad (that includes violent revolution). Better to delay a reform than to have violence. Violence doesn't actually lead to lasting improvement; it doesn't work; and it has a terrible cost. Violence hurts people and also sometimes destroys existing traditions and knowledge that elevate our civilization above primitive.
Burke said, "A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman."
It's important how people, societies, and political systems handle disagreement. If disagreements will lead to violence then that's really bad. They need to be able to handle disagreements rationally or at least peacefully. Resolving disputes by force is bad because "might makes right" is not truth seeking and because it hurts people.
For more information on Edmund Burke, the best book is The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke by Conor Cruise O'Brien, or Burke's own works. Many of Burke's works are available online. Some good ones are his America speeches and his French Revolution book:
Burke's early publication discussing anarchism is also interesting (but has often been misunderstood, it doesn't directly make clear what Burke's own views actually are):