Skip to main content

Would the 'first conservative' recognize today's right?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
January 6, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Cartoon depicts the 18th-century statesman, philosopher and political writer Edmund Burke.
Cartoon depicts the 18th-century statesman, philosopher and political writer Edmund Burke.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • British thinker Edmund Burke often considered the "first conservative," David Frum says
  • Yet Burke would differ from the radical individualism of today's U.S. conservatives, he says
  • Frum says Burke saw the importance of community, continuity and responsibility
  • Frum: Two new books show the need for taking Burke's philosophy seriously today

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- Would the "first conservative" recognize modern conservatism?

The conservatism of recent days has been a conservatism of radical individualism: a politics that sees its job as protecting society's "makers" from society's "takers."

Yet the man most often credited as the founder of modern conservatism, the 18th-century British thinker-politician Edmund Burke, saw things very differently. Against the politics of "I want, I want, I want," he emphasized continuity, responsibility and community. That was a tough teaching 200 years ago, and it remains a tough teaching today. It's not a surprise that it often goes unheard. This year, however, Burke's tough teaching is again getting the articulation it deserves, thanks to two distinguished books by two rising conservative thinkers, one British, one American.

David Frum
David Frum

Jesse Norman is a British member of Parliament who strongly identified with Prime Minister David Cameron's modernizing conservatism. His book was first published in Great Britain under the title "Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet" but then rereleased in the United States under the pithier "Edmund Burke: The First Conservative."

As Norman tells it, Burke was a thinker and politician who rejected the demands of "I want" in favor of the duties of "you should." In Burke's words:

"[T]he 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."

Burke rejected both the "I want, I want" of people who expect ever more generous social programs from government -- and the "I want, I want" of bankers and brokers who wish to be allowed to stake huge gambles with other people's money.

GOP governors want to reclaim party
Could Walker be the one for 2016?
2014: Reboot or repeat of 2013?
Reid: GOP stance on benefits foolish

"Except in reaction to the most extreme necessity, [Burke's] politics is one of moderation. He was an early supporter of free markets, but only within a strong context of personal probity, law, market norms and trust."

Norman's Burke forcefully critiques the disintegration of society into personal atoms, each seeking only its own personal economic betterment. "[T]he individual is not simply a compendium of wants, human happiness is not simply a matter of satisfying individual wants, and the purpose of politics is not to satisfy the interests of people living here and now: it is to preserve an evolving social order which meets the needs of generations past, present, and future."

Make no mistake: Norman's Burkean politics is conservative politics. Burke defended free enterprise and private property rights. Burke's contemporary Adam Smith, author of "The Wealth of Nations" and founder of modern economics, saluted Burke as the only person whose ideas had corresponded with his own without any prior communication between the two. Burke favorably reviewed Smith's books, and the two men became friends.

Yet Burke could also forcefully denounce the abuse of economic power and the corruptions of wealth. Norman again: "[H]e regarded as his greatest achievement his campaign to restrain the influence, greed and self-dealing of the East India Company, and to insist on the accountability of private power to legitimate public authority."

Here is a conservative who has much to say in the era of predatory finance and selective bailouts.

A politician himself, Norman shrewdly appreciates that Burke's contributions emerged from an active career. Burke understood the limits of the possible because he himself had often bumped up against them -- hard.

Burke spent only a few months of his long political career in office; he passed most of his parliamentary career estranged from the government of the day and exerted almost all of his influence in writings and speeches from the back benches. Norman bumped up one of those limits himself. In September, he voted against his own party leadership on a proposed intervention in the Syrian civil war and was stripped of his party leadership position. In politics, yet separated from it -- that is the place and role to stimulate fresh political thought.

The author of this year's second great work on Burke, Yuval Levin, is located both closer to -- and simultaneously further from -- political power even than Norman. A former domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush, Levin now edits the flagship conservative policy magazine, National Affairs. At the same time, he is one of the most influential advisers of Rep. Paul Ryan, the former GOP vice presidential nominee; you might say that Levin now holds the Irving Kristol chair as a one-man Republican brain trust.

Levin presents his new work on Burke as a study of a fierce debate that erupted in the 1790s between Burke and his one-time friendly acquaintance, Thomas Paine. Both men were migrants: Burke, Irish-born, had moved to England; Paine, English-born, moved to the American Colonies. Paine had given words to the American Revolution in his pamphlet "Common Sense," which became, after the Bible, probably the most widely read book in the America of the 1770s. Burke had urged compromise with the Americans in speeches in Parliament and then, after it was too late for reconciliation, urged peace and acceptance of independence.

Fifteen years later, however, those two former allies bitterly quarreled. Burke's 1790 book, "Reflections on the Revolution in France," eloquently and prophetically warned that revolution would end in blood and tyranny.

Paine wrote a rebuttal to Burke, "The Rights of Man," published in 1791. He transplanted himself to France to lend personal support to the new regime and was elected to the French National Assembly.

To his surprise -- but probably not to Burke's -- Paine ended up in a French prison cell when his preferred faction lost power in late 1793. But he was not guillotined, and he lived and kept writing, becoming probably the first writer in English to propose something prophetically like the modern welfare state.

In "The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right," published in December, Levin argues that Paine deserves equal billing with Burke as a founder of our modern political debates. Levin sets each thinker as a standard and corrective for their modern descendants.

Yet as Levin himself seems well aware, it is the conservatives who have drifted further -- and who need correction more. Levin's Burke often seems to be debating -- not against his contemporary Paine -- but against our contemporaries of the libertarian right.

"Burke essentially denies the relevance (though not necessarily the existence) of abstract, individual, natural rights. He defines instead some practical rights to the benefit of society. And those benefits do not amount to freedom or power. In fact, some of the benefits of society to which men have a right involve restraints on their freedom and their passions."

And again:

"Human beings cannot live in society if they follow their wants and passions unrestrained, and so one of the rights of citizens is to have their passions brought under some control. Thus society guarantees some liberties and some restraints, and precisely how these are balanced is in normal times a matter of prudence, not absolute principle."

And once more, this time maybe most tellingly:

"Where Paine imposes on government the obligation to respect the freedom of action of each of its citizens, Burke imposes on government a much less exacting (if somewhat more demanding) obligation to meet the wants of the people and advance the interests of the complex social whole."

It is Paine, Levin's non-hero, who speaks the language of the tea party -- and Burke, Levin's hero, who rejects maximum individual rights in favor of a theory of social obligation. Burke sees, and Levin sees with him, that a politics of egoism and individualism leads to the dissolution of the institutions a conservative will want to protect.

As Levin concludes: "Today's conservatives are thus too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyper individualism. ... They could benefit by adopting Burke's focus on the social character of man [and] from Burke's thoroughgoing gradualism."

These are wise and needed cautions -- and phrased with the cautious wisdom necessary to make them acceptable to conservatives who do not wish to hear what they most need to know.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT