Monday, December 24, 2018

Not So Confusing…

…at least to me…

In my recent post regarding Edmund Burke, The Enlightenment’s Critic of Reason, I offered:

There seems to be much controversy in interpreting and understanding Burke; there are also aspects of his thinking that run contrary to – or at least appear to run contrary to – the idea of liberty.  I will avoid all of this…

While I will still avoid this in the sense of making some definitive interpretive statement about Burke’s thinking, I do want to examine some of the controversy.  To begin, what is the controversy?  As offered by Gerard Casey:

When it comes to Burke’s writing, the critics divide. 

William Pitt described it as “a mass of rhapsodic effusion [commanding] little admiration.”  Thomas Paine attacked what he saw as Burke’s unjustified attack on the French, as did Marx – who, when criticizing Burke for his attack on the French Revolution, described him as a “sycophant…in the pay of the English oligarchy…”  Conversely, Burke is described as a “more radical thinker even than Karl Marx himself.” 

A good amount of the confusion and controversy appears to stem from Burke’s evolving position from the time of his early publication, A Vindication of Natural Society, to his later publications.  This early publication, written anonymously when Burke was 27 years old, is described as one of the first statements in defense of rationalistic and individual anarchism; later, Burke would be known for what could be described as more of a conservative-libertarian posture.

Burke would come to describe Vindication as satire; his anonymity having been revealed shortly before he was to take public office, a defense of anarchy and against the state would not sit well.  Most accept his explanation; there are some who do not.  One of these latter is Murray Rothbard. 

Casey comments on Rothbard’s assessment of Burke and his Vindication: Rothbard’s view that Burke should be taken literally has not gained meaningful acceptance.  I will suggest that Rothbard could very well be right; Burke may very well have been sincere – in both his earlier and his later writing.  To make my case, I will present as evidence none other than Murray Rothbard.

Rothbard wrote perhaps…I don’t know…200 million words in his lifetime.  Reading through his work throughout this time one will find evolving positions on various topics about liberty; some have commented here: “are you speaking of the early Rothbard or the later Rothbard?” 

Given the breadth, depth, and scope of Rothbard’s work, how could such evolution be otherwise?  I have stumbled with trying to encapsulate the work of Rothbard in bringing together thought from various schools and multiple thinkers into this thing we call libertarianism.  I have found someone who has stated this idea much more succinctly and clearly than I ever have.  Gerard Casey offers Wendy McElroy’s view on Rothbard:

In her view, Rothbard was a system builder who put together, in a unique fashion, elements that did not necessarily originate with him.

Casey also offers, from Joseph Stromberg, that it was Rothbard who pulled together classical liberalism, free-market anarchism, Austrian school economists, upholders of natural law and natural rights, “isolationists,” revisionist historians, and critics of the state.

Murray Rothbard’s goal was a grand synthesis of all of these forms of knowledge.

One can nitpick specific positions of Rothbard here and there; one can find examples of his thinking that have changed over time.  One cannot deny two things: first, he was successful at pulling off this “grand synthesis,” and second, regarding his evolving thinking, that his objective was always liberty and not the purity of libertarianism.

What do you want from someone who wrote 200 million words and pulled together into a logical whole these many disparate disciplines? 

So, returning to Burke: he was the first to write extensively on individualistic anarchism; he has been described as the first post-modern (i.e. deconstructing the Enlightenment) thinker – at the time when “modern” (i.e. the Enlightenment) was being born.  Why is it unreasonable to conclude that Burke was sincere in both his early phase and his later phase?  Why is it difficult to accept that the road to liberty requires thinking through anarchism and finding one’s self at more of a conservative-libertarian position?

I know at least one other person who has walked this path in search of liberty, and he is sitting at my keyboard typing these words.  Not so difficult for me to believe that this development is possible.


1 Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

When it comes to thinking about liberty, from what I have read of Rothbard I know this verse was never applicable.  For Burke I can’t say, but to conclude that the verse is applicable is reasonable to me. 

Applicable to me?  An absolute certainty.


  1. I haven't read enough of Burke's work to hold a strong opinion either way. But progressing from writing a defense of personal anarchism to eventually holding public office seems rather backwards to me.

    1. I also have not read enough Burke to comment authoritatively, but maybe Burke realized a greater evil in the revolutionary radicalism sweeping the continent than in the existing monarchical states.

      Maybe he saw the tide sweeping in the wrong direction, and seeing the leading libertarian lights of the day (Paine, Lafayette, Jefferson especially) either having a significant radicalism themselves or being used as the useful idiots of the radicals, perhaps he thought he needed to take a stand on the side of tradition and relatively less dangerous statism despite his anarchist convictions.

      I think this is basically the course Molyneux has taken. He still holds to the preferability of anarchism, but in seeing the immanent danger of growing leftism and mass immigration threatening to drown the last vestiges of a culture of liberty from the West, he decided to endorse Trump and his border wall.

    2. Jeff, I am thinking to write something about Rand Paul (he seems much more principled today, or at least is taking more principled positions) - and also reflect on what Ron Paul meant toward liberty. (Tom Woods recently did a podcast on this.)

      I can't say why Burke took the path he took. But I can appreciate the value to liberty of a Ron Paul (and, maybe now, Rand).

  2. ATL, it does seem to always come down to choosing the lesser evil.

    BM, Ron Paul is clearly a moral person, and one who has dedicated his life to promoting liberty and a just society. I doubt anyone else in his position could have done as well.

    However, during his time in government he did vote for one unnecessary war that resulted in the loss of many innocent lives. By definition that makes him a mass murderer, and a testament to the impossibility of holding public office simultaneously with a principled position.

    1. I believe the vote to which you refer regards Afghanistan, and my recollection is that it was a vote to capture/ kill those responsible for 911.

      I may be wrong, but in any case this is secondary to my point. We all are swimming in mud, committing levels of aggression daily. Sure, we can say that walking on a publicly funded sidewalk or driving on publicly funded roads is not the same as committing mass murder, but on what basis?

      In any case, even with this one vote taken into account, Ron Paul was one of a kind in Congress - perhaps for at least 100 years. Yes, it is impossible to stay pure when swimming in that much mud; mostly, I think it is because most good people don't want the job. Paul was a true exception, in every way and for the good.

    2. He knew in advance it was going to be used to invade Afghanistan. It was a clear vote for war despite his vocal reservations at the time. There was absolutely no doubt innocent people would die as a result. I don't really see a comparison between making that decision and making use of public services.

      "In any case, even with this one vote taken into account, Ron Paul was one of a kind in Congress - perhaps for at least 100 years. Yes, it is impossible to stay pure when swimming in that much mud; mostly, I think it is because most good people don't want the job. Paul was a true exception, in every way and for the good."

      I agree completely, but I also think he took on an impossible task. There would need to be quite a few Ron Pauls in the world to keep the state in line, and they simply don't exist.