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The Problem with Edmund Burke and Defenders of “Tradition”

“The problem here is that one man’s stable hierarchy and proud tradition is another’s tyrannical oppression and ideology.”


Instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. 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 and capital of nations and of ages.” – Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France: And on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event

Many have been puzzled by post-modern conservatism’s distrust of so-called “liberal elites” and the appeals these liberal elites make to scientific consensus, academic authority, and other rationalistic tropes. Less appreciated is the fact that this animosity on the part of post-modern conservatives has a longstanding basis—far-right priests of “reason” and “logic” notwithstanding. Conservatives have long defended tradition as the stored locus of wisdom and insight, which is only to be deviated from with great caution. This is linked to the longstanding conservative skepticism of reason’s power to accurately know what is and what should be. The store of insight available to even the most intelligent personalities is so limited that it would be unwise to put faith in its power. This inclination goes back to Edmund Burke, who castigated the rationalistic philosophes of his day for thinking they could simply recreate the world wholesale from the idle speculations of their pens. For authors such as Burke and Michael Oakeshott, the skepticism towards universal reason—and the over-educated intellectuals who swear by it—can lead to flirtations with the virtues of a “politics of faith.” At its most extreme, in the work of figures such as Joseph de Maistre and Carl Schmitt (and the counter-Enlightenment movements they cheered on), it can trend towards an outright embrace of irrationalism. 

The unusual feature of this embrace of tradition is that it is often very hard to tell what insights conservatives think we should glean from it. This relates to another fundamental feature of “the conservative mind,” which is that it is driven more by what Russell Kirk called an attitude or disposition that is resistant to the changes put forward by liberals and, especially, the political left. As my friend Nate Hochman put it in National Review ,the path to conservatism begins as a knee-jerk reaction to the contemporary Left: a feeling that its assertions must be wrong, with little understanding of exactly why.” This means that many of the defenses conservatives put forward of tradition are rationalizing, rather than rationalistic. Conservatives sense that this or that venerable institution or principle, which is being attacked for its prejudices, serves a valuable function, and they, then, set out to justify its existence. This is quite different from liberals and progressives who hold certain first principles to either be self-evident or required for any society to be called just and, then, seek to steer their own in the correct direction. 

The Problem with Rationalizing Tradition

The effort to rationalize tradition is understandable. “Logic bros” notwithstanding, most conservatives have long understood that people often have deep emotional attachments to their shared ways of life and histories. Critics from Kant through to Benedict Anderson have often pointed out that these attachments are not nearly as natural as many suppose; states spend billions of dollars per year inspiring a sense of fidelity and loyalty to their flags. At some level, we are all intuitively aware of this, as the deepening hostility towards government officials and rhetoric implies. But that has never been sufficient to entirely break the spell of non-rational attachments to collective traditions. Moreover, as other thinkers, such as Jordan Peterson, have pointed out, these attachments reflect an even deeper need on the part of individuals for a sense of order in reality. Human life is filled with tremendous precarity, as well as the ultimate threat of total annihilation, which is tied to our existential finitude. Shared tradition provides a partial barrier against the to-and-fros of the world. And tradition cannot be easily replaced by institutional changes—or even effective egalitarian economic reforms to spread wealth more evenly to protect individuals against material destitution.

However, the problems with this position are also easy to note. The first is that since conservatism is a disposition or attitude rather than a rational outlook, it will often be forced to play a reactive and defensive role against its opponents. Liberals and progressives will make a case against some institution or principle conservatives cherish, and their opponents will have to respond by building a case for it. This, often, gives conservative intellectualism a frenetic quality, with its advocates raising to a pastiche or even self-contradicting bricolage of principles, data, and even crude appeals to faith. The efforts by fusionists to reconcile an unbridled support for capitalism and freedom with support for social conservatism and religion (when the hedonism and permissiveness of the former will always undermine the latter) are representative. It also means that conservatives are always at a disadvantage. Since liberals and progressives are always on the offense, they need only win a battle once to typically triumph in perpetuity.

Conservatives must always succeed or resign themselves to the institutions and principles being cherished joining others on the ash heap of history. While it is untrue that history moves in one direction—and that there cannot be successful counter-revolutions—the inexorable entropy of existence inclines to change, rather than permanence. Finally, conservative rationalizations often fall into the performative contradictions, which inevitably tar any efforts to reject reason’s authority. To demonstrate the limits of reason to challenge hierarchy, conservative intellectuals must inevitably raise rationalizing objections—or fall into mere dogmatic assertions of fidelity. But if they do this, they also concede that there are ways to assess the value of a tradition; if the tradition is found wanting, there may be a powerful basis for abandoning it. The mere assertion “this is the way we have always done things” is no argument for its efficacy. People clung desperately to the idea that the sun revolved around the earth, that there were “natural slaves,” and that God apparently granted a divine right to rule to even the most incompetent monarchs. This brings me to a more crucial point.


More damning is that the conservative disposition can become so attached to order that it comes to support even the most unjust or evil hierarchies, if they provide the only defense against liberal and progressive change. Roger Scruton even acknowledged as such when he pointed out that conservatives will be far more willing to tolerate levels of injustice that are known and acceptable, rather than take their chances with the fickle promises of reform. The problem here is that one man’s stable hierarchy and proud tradition is another’s tyrannical oppression and ideology. When the American Founding Fathers mused on the evils of slavery but conceded that changing it would bring too much disruption, they committed a banal act of moral indifference. The rot of this choice corrodes the United States to this day. Joseph de Maistre lambasted the violence of the French Revolution, while nodding approvingly at the possibility of millions of people being killed as divine punishment for beheading their monarch. J.S Mill’s calls for women to be granted the right to vote and to enjoy status beyond being property of their husbands were lampooned as unnatural (perhaps a reason he infamously claimed “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives”). Ironically, this point was well-described by F.A Hayek, the libertarian economist in his essay “Why I am Not A Conservative”:

In the last resort, the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others. The liberal, of course, does not deny that there are some superior people—he is not an egalitarian—but he denies that anyone has authority to decide who these superior people are. While the conservative inclines to defend a particular established hierarchy and wishes authority to protect the status of those whom he values, the liberal feels that no respect for established values can justify the resort to privilege or monopoly or any other coercive power of the state in order to shelter such people against the forces of economic change. Though he is fully aware of the important role that cultural and intellectual elites have played in the evolution of civilization, he also believes that these elites have to prove themselves by their capacity to maintain their position under the same rules that apply to all others.”

There is nothing wrong with tradition in and of itself. It is often a source of meaning and stability for individuals in a strange and chaotic world. However, there is also nothing inherently good about it either: whether one means inherited wisdom, or providential arrangements of hierarchy to the benefit of all. A mere attitude fearful of change and rationalizing justifications to avoid it is no basis for preventing important reforms that need to happen.

Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof

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