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Where are the Burkeans?--Stuntz

Along with Friedrich Hayek, Edmund Burke is among the intellectual fathers of American conservatism.  Hayek taught conservatives to love freedom.  Burke taught conservatives to respect tradition even when its rationale seems obscure, for tradition often represents the accumulated wisdom of generations past.


Burke gave us another set of ideas that seems to have fallen by the wayside in contemporary American politics, and in contemporary American conservatism:  the value of prudence and judgment in public life, and along with those virtues, the merits of republicanism rather than plebiscitary democracy.  Written in 1777, Burke's letter to his electors at Bristol remains the classic statement of the elected representative's duty:  to exercise his best judgment--to bring all the knowledge and experience he has to bear on the votes he must cast.  The negative form of the proposition is just as important:  elected representatives must not be mere wet fingers testing the political winds.  Such representation amounts to voting by poll numbers and focus groups.  If that is representative democracy in action, the adjective has disappeared and the noun is doing all the work.  One might as well drop the middleman, and simply vote for legislation by phone-in poll.


Over the course of the last week, House Republicans--allegedly, the keepers of the conservative flame in the federal government--have behaved in a manner that should leave all true Burkeans appalled.


On Monday, the House Republicans killed the bailout/rescue package on some combination of two grounds:  constituent phone calls and letters were running heavily against the package, and Nancy Pelosi's pre-vote speech suggested that, if it passed, both the package and the crisis to which it responds would be used by Democrats as a club with which to beat Republicans in November's election.  Apparently, a solid majority of House members believed the package ought to pass, that its passage was, under the circumstances, in the country's best interest--but given those phone calls and letters, it might not be in the best interest of all those voting "aye."  On Friday, enough of those same conservative Republicans voted for a modified rescue package--this one containing a host of tax breaks (my favorite: the break for manufacturers of wooden arrows, which Charles Krauthammer read out loud on Fox News) and earmarks that had nothing to do with economic rescue and everything to do with winning the favor of assorted members' more powerful constituents.  From start to finish, the legislative process in this case was as un-conservative, as inattentive to public duty and obligation, as can be imagined.


That's no fluke.  Anyone who has observed American politics over the last generation cannot help but notice that members of Congress--especially, House members (who must run for reelection every two years)--have become more attentive to short-term swings in public opinion.  Oddly, this change has coincided with the rise of computer-based districting plans that all but guarantee reelection to the overwhelming majority of these wet fingers testing the political winds.  Even as our elected representatives have more room to exercise judgment, they seem less prone to do the exercising.


Any way you slice it, that is a terrible development.  Stock market prices incorporate the best information traders have, and their best estimate of the future performance of the stocks they buy and sell.  The market rewards those who know more and estimate better, and punishes those who know less and whose predictions are faulty.  Polls and focus groups have neither advantage:  voters with the most information have no more influence than those with the least, and those who answer pollsters' questions have little incentive to take account of the future course of events.  When dealing with issues that have arisen swiftly, like the issues at stake in the economic rescue package, such polls reflect nothing but voters' level of trust in the wisdom of their representatives.  Ironically, those representatives who thought themselves most responsive to voters' wishes were only confirming those voters' damning diagnosis of what passes for governance in Congress these days.


If that is what American conservatism has become, I want no part of it.  And if House Republicans were seeking to consolidate the support of registered Republicans in what looks to be a hard election, they have lost the support of this registered Republican.  As far as I'm concerned, the more of them who lose in November, the better.


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Comments ( 17 )

Bravo! It is time we all recognized that there is very little representation being done by our representatives. The example of Paul Ryan of Wisconsin stands out as an example of what we need in Washington, a true republican (small "r" intended) Let's turn them all out this November and take back our government.

It is no surprise to anyone that this has happened. We saw the Republicans walking us down the same row as their Democratic colleagues, only slower. Mules with their heads down. We need truth to follow. Where are the leaders that can write laws like "Congress shall make no law..." and get it said in less than 500 pages. How about "Congress shall make NO grant of monies, loans, loan guarantees, or monitary supports without issuing a 1099 to the recipient."...eh? Doesn't income have to be reported? Government does not respect our earning money near as much as they respect the electioneering power of redistributing it.

While you see Burke, I see Hayek as the plan is based on the assumption that the government will know how to spend 700 billion better than the individuals from which that money came and that the government could possibly have enough information to deftly unwind the problems rather than making them worse (e.g., see minority set-aside requirements, the larding, and the inevitable additions as portions come up for revote).

That being said, those who switched their votes will have a hard time pointing to any principle that can tie together their votes.

This country will last exactly as long as it takes the populace to understand they can vote themselves largesse from the treasury.

It is no surprise to anyone that this has happened. We saw the Republicans walking us down the same row as their Democratic colleagues, only slower. Mules with their heads down. We need truth to follow. Where are the leaders that can write laws like "Congress shall make no law..." and get it said in less than 500 pages. How about "Congress shall make NO grant of monies, loans, loan guarantees, or monitary supports without issuing a 1099 to the recipient."...eh? Doesn't income have to be reported? Government does not respect our earning money near as much as they respect the electioneering power of redistributing it.

"The People" have come to believe that their representatives know enough to do what's in their best interests. So, they elect and forget. But the representatives, consumed by triangulation and pandering for political advantage, have come to expect the people to tell them what's in their best interests. The result is that NOBODY is minding the store.

The following is attributed anonymously...

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.

Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage."

Read and reflect.

Looks to me like yet another issue that will never be resolved without term limits. Six terms for the House, two for the Senate. Too bad there is not any initiative and referendum process at the federal level.

However, I will disagree slightly- a pox on all their houses, yes- but when Pelosi's committee chairs all voted "no" for the same reason, I'm not sure I want to punish one side. There is no effective "none of the above" button.

"We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations, and of ages." -Edmund Burke, "Reflections on the Revolutions in France"

His name is mentioned too infrequently in discussions of this kind. I'm glad to see someone recognizing the value his perspective holds to this day.

".. Stock market prices incorporate the best information traders have..

So, how does the market incorporate the clown circus of Congress that can wade in or out, fast or slow, forward or backwards, for or against anything?

Do you trust them?

Is Congress going to go more state intervention, or less? What is the rational prediction? Well, there isn't any. (I'm not Warren Buffet, so Pelosi, Frank, Dodd don't pick up my calls and I can not manufacture a reality for them that I can profit from)

Say that Congress goes more state intervention. Is Europe going to go along? Or not? Or can it. Further, do you have faith that Congress can sit down and do poker raises of more trillion dollar actions.

The issue, from Burke to Kirk, that I find most deficient in our politicians is respect for private property. A democracy cannot last without this respect. Politicians take property through eminent domain and take capital through taxation. The best example of this disrespect is the "tax the rich" mantra. The most despicable example is the estate tax.

This is a true delimma. While the "bailout" is unpalatable, I am concerned about the overall effects on the national economy and our people. it may come down to the least worse alternative. There are no good ones. I am truly torn by this. Putting that aside for a moment, the thought of tossing all the republicans out and leaving the democrats in place with a President Obama in place would genuinely be a catastrophic event.

Obama is an all systems go abortionists with no limits. Killing a million plus babies a year is beyond evil. His connection to marxism is undeniable.

Bill Ayers, in addition to his domestic terrorist acts, is a "professor of education, he and obama through the Chicago Annanberg Challenge pursued radicalization of education in Chicago. This involved revolutionary, propaganda woven into each school course including math and science in an effort to indoctrinate children of all grades. Would this be nationalized?

On July 2nd, 2008, Obama spoke in Colorado Springs and hit themes of national service, foreign policy, and national security. In that vein, Obama proposed a rather extraordinary idea — that the US should spend as much money on a civilian national security force as it does on the military.

We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded. Would they wear brown shirts?

He was a twenty year member of a "church" that espoused (black) liberation theology. Liberation theology is based in Marxism. A tenent of liberation theology is atheism.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I believe that, despite my differences with the Republican Party, it is far too dangerous to abandon the fight to prevent Senator Obama from assuming the presidency.

Once again, I will vote for the lesser of two evils, but never before has it been so necessary.

Thank you for this excellent post. The "Reflections" should be required reading for any person who presumes to call himself a conservative.

The bailout bill did nothing to address the root causes of the crisis - the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, and Republicans should be faulted for letting this happen.

I am not entirely sure who is right here. Today's market gyrations question the CW, that last Monday's message from the market was: "pass the bail out?"

I continue to be agnostic about whether the bailout is or is not a good idea, not because I do not believe there is a problem but rather because I am not sure it is an effective solution (and, here on the morning of 10/7, it is not clear that the market thinks it is either). So I believe reasonable minds can differ, and reasonable minds can rethink, the issue of supporting the bailout.

Having said all that, I agree with a lot of what you are saying about the problems with the way Congress operates of late. It is a focus on the short term that is also seen in business where everything is about whan the next quarter's numbers look like, and the synergy between the two can be toxic.

I think the two members of the House I respect most are Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul -- who are pretty much at opposite poles of the political spectrum but both of them believe their job is to work for what they think is right for the people rather than what is most immediately expedient. Even if it causes them grief in their reelection campaigns. That leads me to wonder if this trait is necessarily "conservative" or just "prudent" (yes, liberals can be prudent too!).

I am hoping that someone who is a better historian will contribute to this conversation and explain where the 2 year term for a Representative came from. In the modern world it does mean they are just about perpetually campaigning. But if you made their terms 4 years you would lose the opportunity for a midterm referendum on the administration that you have now.

I'm certain I'm over my head in this discussion (I'm "Jo the Housewife and yes, I live in OH) but I'm a bit surprised at your reaction to your disappointment in the behavior of the Republican Representatives in Congress. My argument is not whether or not the Republicans lived up to their responsibility in supporting or not supporting the bailout legislation, but whether or not that justifies bailing out of the Republican Party.

Certainly, the financial crisis is HUGE. So far, my husband and I have lost 25% of our retirement fund. Since he has been retired for 6 years and is currently diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer, we would LOVE to believe that someone in government actually KNOWS what to do and how to do it and CARES enough about the American people and what is best for our country to follow through. There are several problems with this "hope". 1) no one really knows what to do 2) the nasty bi-partisan climate of Washington precludes any real problem solving from the federal government 3) while this could have been avoided, there may not BE any real fix 4) even if there were an answer, the people in Washington (note: that INCLUDES Nancy Pelosi and her minions) are more interested in placing blame and avoiding blame than dealing with the problem.

So here is my problem with your thinking: While you may rightly be very disappointed in the Republican's response to this crisis, WHOSE response are you pleased with? If you take away your support for the Republicans in Congress, whom are you leaving in charge? Let's look at some other pretty important issues facing our country today and consider what may happen with a Democratic President who has the most liberal voting record ever if he is given a fully Democratic Senate and House.

I have seen little if any mention of abortion here, so I want to preface the next paragraph by saying that even though you may not want to discuss this issue, I hope you will plow through this in order to get to the whole of my position.

Abortion, when instituted 35 years ago, was argued to be the removal of pre-life tissue b/c we could not scientifically determine when life actually began and it was also argued that harming any "real life" would be prevented by limiting abortion to the first trimester. Anti abortionists fervently argued that allowing this would open the door to abortion on demand at any time during the pregnancy and for any reason. That future is now. Now we are faced with a Presidential candidate who supports not only murdering a real live baby being born as he/she is half way out of the birth canal, he supports the neglecting-to-death of a baby that somehow survives an abortion attempt!!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the most urgent and most far reaching issue of today. Legal, government supported abortion removes all justification for any self righteous civil rights rhetoric within our borders or outside of them . It makes any argument from either side of "the aisle" regarding ethics or morality empty and hollow. It undermines any honorable rationale for war. It will, if it has not already, remove the blessing and protection of THE God and HIs RULE under which this nation was founded.

I voted for President Bush twice, equally convinced both times that he was the better of the two viable choices. While I am very disappointed in his performance it is NOT b/c our retirement fund has been depleted by 25%; it is NOT b/c we are embroiled in a war that seems perpetual; it is NOT b/c he is not photogenic it is NOT b/c he is not an orator. I am very disappointed in President Bush b/c he did not adequately defend and FIGHT for his federal court nominations.

I have friends who are so unhappy with the Republican Party's nominee that they are refusing to vote. So what will that get them? A great Republican in office? Hardly. Not supporting Republicans in Congress or in the White House will get you Democrats and their socialist, anti-life, anti-Christian agenda in both places, whether you actually cast a ballot for them or not.

Academic debate and musings about 17th and 18th century politician and philosophers is interesting but in the end, what matters is how YOU VOTE. IT really gets quite simple. Either you vote for the party who nominated the most liberal, socialistic, infanticidal politician on record as its candidate for president or you vote for the party who still has a slight grip on the value of human life, on following rather than perverting the Constitution and who is the closest to understanding the concepts of personal responsibility and private property.


I did read your comment, all of it. Thanks for posting. Two points in (partial) response:

First, I didn't say in the post that I will vote against McCain on this ground; the criticism was directed at House Republicans. Second, while there may be costs that flow from a more Democratic Congress, there are definitely costs, and large ones, to letting politicians misbehave and pay no price for it. Republicans in Congress have misbehaved badly; if they don't lose more seats, their behavior won't change. That costs the country too.