Two Thinkers for All Seasons

Politics - January 16, 2022

The many profound ideas and insights of Burke and Acton are still relevant…

Two distinguished conservative-liberal thinkers had their birthdays recently, Edmund Burke (1729–1797) on 12 January and Lord John Acton (1834–1902) on 10 January. This is an appropriate occasion to recall what we, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, can learn from them.

The Nascent Totalitarianism of the French Revolution

Burke was almost the first person to discern the destructive tendencies of the 1789 French Revolution. He recognised however that the royal absolutism preceding it had run its course. The question was what would replace it:

The absolute monarchy was at an end. It breathed its last, without a groan, without struggle, without convulsion. All the struggle, all the dissension arose afterwards upon the preference of a despotic democracy to a government of reciprocal controul. The triumph of the victorious party was over the principles of a British constitution (Reflections, Liberty Fund Edition, p. 159).

Burke correctly saw that the choice was between ‘despotic democracy’ where the People replaced the King, or ‘reciprocal control’ as in the United Kingdom. It was between revolution or reform, between Rousseau or Locke.

Burke recognised the nascent totalitarianism of the French revolutionaries, the Jacobins:

Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The State is all in all. Everything is referred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The State has dominion and conquest for its sole objects—dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms (Select Works, 3, p. 182).

He also understood that this was an alien, aggressive creed. ‘If your hands are not on your swords, their knives will be at your throats,’ he wrote in a letter of 1794. ‘There is no medium,—there is no temperament,—there is no compromise with Jacobinism’ (Correspondence, VIII, p. 104). This was also the case with the communist countries of the twentieth century, the ‘Evil Empire’, as President Ronald Reagan appropriately called them. The Cold War was about our hands being on our swords so that their knives would not be at our throats.

Burke’s Revision of Social Contract Theory

One of the most remarkable ideas presented by Burke was his revision of Locke’s social contract theory. He agreed that human society was based on a contract, but this was not a contract negotiated between the individuals who happened to be here and now, but rather a contract written and signed by history, consisting in time-tested principles:

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, callico 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. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place (Reflections, pp. 192–193).

When Robert Nozick gave his account in Anarchy, State and Utopia of how the state could emerge spontaneously, without violating individual rights, he referred to Carl Menger. But this is really also the idea behind Burke’s revision of the social contract theory, extending it in both directions, to past and unborn generations.

Freedom: a Practice Rather than a Principle

Lord Acton’s great insight was that freedom is a practice rather than an abstract principle. ‘It is the delicate fruit of a mature civilisation’ (Selected Writings, Liberty Fund Edition, I, p. 5). His definition of freedom was

the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation,—religion, education, and the distribution of wealth (Selected Writings, I, p. 7).

Acton warned against political movements which sought to reconstruct society on the basis of past grievances, such as egalitarianism. For egalitarians, democracy meant unlimited sovereignty of the people. Acton found this a corruption of the democratic principle:

The true democratic principle, that none shall have power over the people, is taken to mean that none shall be able to restrain or to elude its power. The true democratic principle, that the people shall not be made to do what it does not like, is taken to mean that it shall never be required to tolerate what it does not like. The true democratic principle, that every man’s free will shall be as unfettered as possible, is taken to mean that the free will of the collective people shall be fettered in nothing (Selected Writings, I, p. 80).

For Acton democracy was not the ultimate end. It was a means to the ultimate end, liberty. What was important was not that political power would be held by our compatriots rather than foreigners, but that it would be circumscribed, limited:

Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of a class, the safety or the power of the country, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the support of any speculative idea, the State becomes for the time inevitably absolute. Liberty alone demands for its realisation the limitation of the public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition (Selected Writings, I, p. 424).

The reason why Switzerland is the freest country in the world (at least according to the Index of Human Freedom) is decentralisation, the division of powers between municipalities, cantons, and the federal state, and also the checks exercised by regular referenda and a strong tradition of liberty. This principle is also to some extent captured by the ‘subsidiary principle’ of the European Union.

The Task of the Historian

One of Acton’s little-noted insights was about the contribution of the ancient German tribes to liberty:

Their kings, when they had kings, did not preside at their councils; they were sometimes elective; they were sometimes deposed; and they were bound by oath to act in obedience with the general wish. They enjoyed real authority only in war. This primitive Republicanism, which admits monarchy as an occasional incident, but holds fast to the collective supremacy of all free men, of the constituent authority over all constituted authorities, is the remote germ of Parliamentary government (Selected Writings, I, pp. 30–31).

As I point out in my recent book on the conservative-liberal political tradition, these are ideas also found in Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, written in the 1220s about the struggle between Norwegian kings and their subjects. The British politician and writer Daniel Hannan, the Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, has developed these ideas in his perceptive work on the Anglo-Saxon political tradition, How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters (2013).

In his history of liberty, Acton gives a fascinating summary of the conflict between the ecclesiastical and feudal hierarchies of the Middle Ages where a balance was eventually found, not consciously, but slowly and arduously. It was on the basis of this balance that liberty could grow as an unintended consequence. Acton was first and foremost a historian, and his reflections on the historian’s station and its duties are justly famous. He wrote to a fellow historian, Anglican bishop Mandell Creighton:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means (Selected Writings, II, p. 383).

These words are timely today when the rulers of China and Russia are trying to suppress all historical studies of their predecessors’ heinous crimes. In China the monumental biography of Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday is banned; so is Frank Dikötter’s revealing trilogy about Communist China. In Russia, the authorities have recently shut down Memorial, an institute devoted to the memory of the victims. Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were never brought before a Nuremberg Court, unlike the Nazi leaders. They all died in their sleep. Therefore, as Acton observed, historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility.