As is my want first thing, I got up and turned on the news this morning. They were talking to two lawyers from the Federalist Society about their opposition to Trump and his attacks on the rule of law. One of the questioners made a quip that it must be tough to go home for Thanksgiving to a house full of Republican relatives who must be Trump supporters now, and she said it wasn’t because her parents are Democrats. She said she became a conservative as a teenager when she first read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
A couple of minutes later, another one of the questioners of these two lawyers made a joke about throwing in some Burke to round things out. The juxtaposition of Ayn Rand with Edmund Burke was jarring to me, and I’ve been thinking about it on and off all day, because it highlights the two major strains of conservatism in very stark contrast.
Many Americans say that they were drawn to a conservative worldview by reading one of Ayn Rand’s novels – Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead for example. Paul Ryan for example. I’ve never been drawn to Rand’s Objectivism, where raw laissez-faire capitalism, and the almost Darwinian (in the worst sense of the connotation) fight for goods and position in society to the exclusion of all others is the ultimate pursuit. As Rand put it herself,
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
To me, such a philosophy immediately draws one into a destructive selfishness and a holier-than-though conceit — I am the heroic being, my happiness is paramount, and I don’t give a damn about anybody else. “Going Gault” is the height of conceit. It is also exactly the philosophy that creates the “makers and takers” mentality in what to me is the toxic strain of American conservatism.
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.
Burke argued that maintaining and fostering the society in which the individual is embedded was critical to the well-being of all people and created the greatest liberty for all.
Also, society for Burke should progress and evolve to make the conditions for people better, but that change should happen slowly and carefully, because every change brings about unintended consequences. Also, that change should accommodate societal precedence as much as is reasonable. His philosophy also noted that freedom comes with duty and responsibility, which are the reciprocity of actions to ones family and community. Hence his revulsion at the French Revolution.
I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.
For Burke, society must put a reasonable constraint on a person’s passions in order to secure the highest levels of liberty for all. Prudence, judicious though, restraint, and rectitude are an individual’s ideal character, because that character creates the best society of free individuals. In that philosophy, one sees a fundamental reciprocity between the individual and society.
Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. 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.
That is why the current Republican strain of Randian, winner-take-all, every man for himself, makers & takers mentality repulses me. That’s one reason among many why our current president repulses me. His disdain for a civil society, his utter lack of any moral rectitude or civil carriage, and his gleeful destruction of a social fabric within and among communities in our country are unconscionable to me.
Give me the Burkean civil society full of industrious, decent, civil, and friendly people who can disagree and debate one another fiercely but still care about and look after the well-being of all their fellow humans any day!