". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Conservatism Seeks the Best Government, Not a Perfect One

October 5, 2023

On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives took the historic step of removing the Speaker of the House in 216-210 vote on a Motion to Vacate. Eight members of the Speaker’s own party sided with the minority to vacate the chair. The move was historic, because it had never been done before, but how that move will go down in history remains an open question.

In fact, not even those who voted to remove the speaker understood the implications. After the vote, a Democratic member asked loudly, “Now what?” The House recessed so the caucuses could confer, then they recessed for an entire week to give someone (we’re still finding out whom) time to form a plan. Who will be the next speaker of the House is still very much undecided.

These circumstances have led some commentators to criticize U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who filed the motion. Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger called it “a sellout for nothing.” Over at National Review, writers condemned it as “empty moralizing” that “achieved nothing.” Many other reactions were even angrier.

Few of the conservative criticisms were motivated by any particular love for former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “While we have had our disagreements with McCarthy,” wrote the editors of National Review, “the reality is that he was attempting to govern with a historically slim and fractious House majority and with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House.” Before McCarthy’s ouster, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins urged members not to punish the speaker for taking the only way out of an impossible situation, but to “stay in D.C. until all of the appropriations bills are done.”

Underlying these reactions is the fundamental conservative principle that government policy should seek the best possible outcome, not a perfect one. The British statesman Edmund Burke, often labelled the “father of conservatism,” urged government officials to act “under a strong impression of the ignorance and fallibility of mankind.” Government is “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4), but it isn’t perfect, and it will never be until the kingdom of Jesus Christ is established over all the earth.

Rejecting caution in favor of ideological purity, Burke warned, may end up destroying more than it could rebuild. “A politic caution, a guarded circumspection, a moral rather than a complexional timidity were among the ruling principles of our forefathers,” he explained. “Let us add, if we please, but let us preserve what they have left.”

“You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you,” Burke reproved the French revolutionaries in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” “But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. … At once to preserve and to reform is quite another thing.”

Burke was discussing systems of government, but the same logic applies to governing coalitions. Members can work with the congressional majority they have and the House speaker who has majority support, or they can blow the whole thing up in favor of — who knows what? Some members voted to oust McCarthy based on their ideological opposition to status quo spending practices, insisting that fiscal responsibility and national security demanded reforms. Yet their action may have prevented Congress from achieving that fiscal responsibility.

Burke specifically faulted the French revolutionaries for prioritizing ideological purity over the common good. “It is better that the whole should be imperfectly and anomalously answered than that, while some parts are provided for with great exactness, others might be totally neglected or perhaps materially injured.”

Burke complained that ideologues are so infatuated with their narrow, theoretical understanding that “it is vain to talk to them of the practice of their ancestors, the fundamental laws of their country, the fixed form of a constitution.” He continued, “They have ‘the rights of men.’ Against these there can be no prescription, against these no agreement is binding; these admit no temperament and no compromise; anything withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice.”

If that sounds suspiciously like the modern American Left, that’s because they are intellectual grandchildren of the French Revolution, receiving its ideas — the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rosseau — via Karl Marx. Unfortunately, Burke’s description also seems to describe some actors on the American Right, indicating that we have not escaped the influence of Rousseau’s corrupting totalitarian ideas. If old forms are discarded — or perhaps we could say “cancelled” — Burke warned, “we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.”

“The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes,” Burke argued, appealing to the Aristotelian notion of virtue as a mean between two extremes. “The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned.” Burke said the right policy was reached by “balances” and “compromises.” Many nations are vast and diverse, and America is no exception. Beyond a few basic moral issues, interests vary widely between Silicon Valley, Midwest cornfields, southern tidewaters, and ethnic neighborhoods in the Big Apple. So to do the interests of bankers, farm workers, young parents, entrepreneurs, and retirees. Yet the government should serve all of them.

Burke was no opponent of popular government, per se. A few years earlier, he had sympathized with the American colonists before they launched their own revolution against royal authority. While he criticized the ideological extremism on display in the French Revolution and endorsed Britain’s system of constitutional monarchy, his concern was to preserve the benefits of government, instead of discarding them for something new. “It is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree,” he said, “or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.” He would have agreed with the proverb, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Nor did Burke oppose natural rights, which he said do exist, but he argued that their “abstract perfection” was a “practical defect.” He argued that “Government is not made in virtue of natural rights,” but rather that “government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” This often means that government should provide for human rights and freedoms, but it also means that government must provide “sufficient restraint upon their passions,” he said.

For Burke, government did not exist to maximize rights, but to balance competing rights and interests properly. “The moment you abate anything from the full rights of men,” he argued, “from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience. This it is which makes the constitution of a state and the due distribution of its powers a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill. It requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities.”

As an example, he offered a policy question that is still relevant today. “What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine?” he said. “The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them.”

To answer difficult questions like this requires skill, time, and collaboration, said Burke:

“Mind must conspire with mind. Time is required. … Our patience will achieve more than our force. … By a slow but well-sustained progress the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series. … We compensate, we reconcile, we balance.”

This led Burke to conclude that government is not for the lazy, nor for the hasty, nor even for one generation. Sometimes arriving at the best system to promote the common good takes generations, which is why we should not lightly discard the system we inherit. “The true lawgiver … ought to be deliberate,” he said.

Applying these principles to the French system, Burke freely admitted “that abuses existed, and that they demanded a reform,” but he questioned whether it was absolutely necessary “that the whole fabric should be at once pulled down and the area cleared for the erection of a theoretic, experimental edifice in its place.” He also questioned “whether the system … now built on the ruins of that ancient monarchy will be able to give a better account.” Burke predicted “that a long series of years must be told before [France] can recover in any degree the effects of this philosophic revolution, and before the nation can be replaced on its former footing.” With the historical advantage of hindsight, we can see from what followed — the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars — that Burke was right.

In other words, it’s much easier to wreck a government or governmental system than to build one, and there are many more ways to do so. “No man should approach to look into [a government’s] defects or corruptions but with due caution,” Burke warned, and “he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion.”

There’s a lot of dysfunction in the U.S. Congress right now, but it cannot be fixed with a sledgehammer. It remains to be see whether House Republicans can put Humpty Dumpty together again in the next 40 days; we cannot change what is past. But we can use the past as an object lesson for principled, conservative governance. Some voices may argue that ditching a House Speaker 72 hours after he averted a government shutdown was the right move. Whatever it is, it’s not conservatism.

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.