William F. Buckley famously defined a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘STOP’!” By that definition, few have embraced a conservative impulse better than Edmund Burke.
Burke lived during the tumultuous time of the French revolution. The revolutionaries prided themselves on tearing down the old French monarch built on history, tradition, and religious faith and erecting a republic built on reason alone. As we saw in Part 1, The Enlightenment was viewed by many to be the Age of Reason. And Enlightenment ideas soon produced disciples eager to restructure their nation on these exciting new innovations.
“The age of revolutions understood itself as advancing the cause of reason in political life,” wrote Yuval Levin in his book The Great Debate. French radicals rejoiced that humanity was entering a new age in which even the common person would enjoy liberté, égalité, fraternité ("liberty, equality, fraternity"). Surely history was on their side. For only the tiny minority who stood to lose their unequal positions of power and wealth would be opposed to reason. Who else could possibly justify opposing reason?
Burke’s Great Anti-Innovationist Innovation: Prescription
It was precisely this attitude of the inevitable progress of human reason that Burke fiercely opposed. I want to emphasize that it was not reason Burke opposed—something we’ll talk about more in Part 3—but the innovative notion that taught reason alone could justify breaking apart all the wisdom, traditions, knowledge, customs, and institutions that had come before. In response to the innovators, Burke offered his great anti-innovationist innovation: prescription.
While Burke didn’t coin the term prescription he did introduce it as a counterpoint to the call to build all things upon the foundation of reason. Levin wrote of Burke that he used “the term to describe the means by which practices and institutions that have long served society well are given the benefit of the doubt against innovations that might undermine them and are used as patterns and models for political life.” This may sound mundane, but its implications are surprisingly profound.
While the innovators were convinced that the best possible society could be arranged by only the best and brightest with the purest of intentions, Burke’s call to prescription was a warning that no mere group of humans would ever be wise enough, or good enough to succeed. “Prescription…means…respecting and preserving the political order as it has been handed down and even according it reverence.” Levin continues, “Prescription thus beings in a kind of humble gratitude.” Prescription teaches that it takes more than the individual’s reason. The sort of wisdom that shapes a good society requires the virtues of gratitude and humility. And what might gratitude and humility teach us?
An Attitude of Gratitude
Gratitude cultivates a respect for the past that teaches us to learn from those who have gone before us. It also prevents us from tearing apart the society built by our ancestors in search of some unattainable utopia. Developing gratitude does not mean we become complacent. It does not mean we are forever content with the way things are, but that we begin with the things we are grateful for before asking how they might be made better.
Since the conservative’s mandate is to conserve, the first step in that process is to identify what is worth conserving, not what should be torn apart. A worldview or political ideology that cannot be defined without stating what it stands against is not rooted in gratitude. In fact, it’s not rooted in anything and will ultimately self-destruct.
Jonah Goldberg, cofounder of The Dispatch says that gratitude defines the very essence of conservatism: “The way you sustain and improve upon a culture is by fostering a sense of gratitude for what is best about it. You celebrate the good in your story while putting the bad in the correct context. Conservatism is gratitude.” In his book Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg makes “a plea for gratitude for what we've got”. Marian Tupy, senior editor for HumanProgress.org, assisted Jonah in finding demonstrable ways in which we have much to be thankful for. His organization provides data on a myriad of ways in which our lives are profoundly better now than at any other point in history. From longevity to material goods to overall wealth, our world has never had it better.
But if we don’t know how to put our current situation into a proper historical context, we run the risk of tearing down the good we have in hopes of reaching for something better. Gratitude is an excellent buttress against this temptation and it teaches us what to hold on to as we strive towards excellence.
A Heart of Humility
In Scripture, Proverbs 11:2 (the book of wisdom) admonishes “when pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” The religious, political, philosophical, and cultural traditions of the West have often taught that there exists a strong link between humility and wisdom. And this is a wisdom that extends beyond our capacity to reason, for both the individual and our entire species are fallible.
Humility keeps us from thinking too highly of ourselves so that we can anchor our reason to what is both possible and true, not to what is fanciful and self-centered. This is a particularly important quality in politics, as Yuval Levin explains: “Because building a working political arrangement is extremely difficult, we who inherit one such arrangement should be grateful for it even when we cannot fully understand the sources of its success.”
Humility in politics helps us to admit that we may not know the answers. But just as importantly, it helps us to admit that, even when we can have some confidence in adopting the wisdom of the past, we may still not fully comprehend why we are doing so. Humility doesn’t mean accepting traditions without question. But it does mean respecting those traditions enough to seek out why they were established in the first place, and to be resistant to letting them go unless and until we fully understand why it would be better to let them go.
“Even when we as individuals cannot readily perceive the significance of the wisdom inherent in our cultural capital, the very fact of its having come down to us with the reverence and regard of previous generations should cause us to take seriously as a standard to guide our actions and inquiries, or at least to give it a very significant benefit of the doubt,” wrote Yuval Levin. Edmund Burke showed how this might be applied on a personal level: “If ever we should find ourselves disposed not to admire those writers or artists, Livy and Virgil for instance, Raphael or Michael Angelo, whom all the learned had admired, [we ought] not to follow our own fancies, but to study them until we know how and what we ought to admire; and if we cannot arrive at this combination of admiration with knowledge, rather to believe that we are dull, than that the rest of the world has been imposed on.” This task, both on a personal and national level, can only be accomplished by the humble.
Does Prescription Mean Opposing All Change?
There is a temptation to over-simplify Burke’s anti-innovationist innovation of prescription to suppose that conservatives are simply opposed to all change. It may be true that a natural and unthinking conservative disposition detests change, but a truer conservative impulse embraces certain changes. Why? Because, whether we like it or not, change is a permanent facet of reality, and in order to conserve we must be willing and able to change. If we never changed, we’d ultimately lose the very things we are trying to conserve.
What prescription demands is not opposition to change, but a penchant for gradual, deliberative, and careful change. Even more importantly, prescription insists that we change the substance of a thing before we take the radical step of changing its form. This means that prescription tells us that while there are rare instances where radical steps like war, revolution, and societal upheaval may be necessary, they should never be attempted without first exhausting reforms that work within the system. And that is because “the system”—no matter how corrupted or imbecilic—was a group endeavor that was built slowly over time.
This is particularly important when it comes to the form of government and the laws that govern a people. Human relationships and society are so complex that it would be impossible for anyone to truly comprehend all of the ways in which radical change is going to impact the nation, to say nothing of each individual! “The authority of the law depends on its stability and that people build their lives around certain assumptions that should not be disrupted needlessly,” writes Levin. Change may be good and needful, but even good and needful change will prove disruptive and must be handled with care.
A few years before I began working for the State Auditor’s Office, a prior administration implemented “paperless audits”—a near-universal practice now in auditing firms where the auditor’s working papers, reports, and supporting documentation are stored electronically rather than in large, paper binders. The implementation took place almost immediately after someone from the administrative staff informed everyone that, from this day forward, we were going paperless.
There was no transition period, no training, no new paperless software, and no established network of employees to turn to if someone had questions. As you might imagine, it was a complete disaster, and the entire project was abandoned a short time later. The problem wasn’t that paperless audits were a bad idea, but that the change mandated had no appreciation for the complexities of the paper-based culture that had developed over many decades across a complex network of audits, clients, and employees.
Shortly after I started, I began to work on a new plan to implement a paperless process. It was anything but easy. Most people don’t particularly like change, but when you add to that the disastrous attempt in the past and the bureaucratic nature of a state agency, there were plenty who were not only opposed but downright hostile to the idea of giving it another try.
I developed a seventeen-point plan (no joke!) for what would need to happen to get us from here to there. It included multiple hurdles from doing paperless audits myself to better understand the challenges in implementing them in the organization, working with IT to find ways to improve our wireless and internet connectivity issues in rural Oklahoma counties, gradually developing forms and templates for the other auditors to use that were versatile in both a paper and paperless environment, and developing reports on the various ways in which paperless audits would ultimately benefit us, to name but a few!
And this was hardly a solo activity. Over time, as the momentum began to shift towards a paperless-friendly culture, I had the help and support of administration and various groups were formed to determine what software we should use, what hardware would be procured and what resources would be used, how a paperless process would be strategically implemented, and what policies and procedures must be developed. We assessed the willingness and ability of each district office to implement a paperless process and used it to create a timeline of which offices would go “paperless” when.
When everything was finally in place, I spent the better part of a month traveling to our various district offices, conducting training on how to use the new software and what a paperless process would look like. And that was just the beginning. Years later there is still much work to be done to continuously cultivate a culture of tech-savvy auditors, respond to individual and group challenges, and develop templates, processes, and forms that address the ever-evolving world of auditing.
The transition from a paper to paperless office was ultimately beneficial and even essential in the audit industry. The change was good, but the implementation, considerations, challenges, and complexities that surrounded that change required a good deal of prescriptive application to avoid the failure of the past. That prescription required us to understand our culture, the imbedded wisdom in the way we’d “always done things” and how to ultimately connect the old with the new to keep our office equipped to meet the growing demands of our industry. This is the chief role of prescription. As Levin explains, prescription aims to “ground the new in the old, to make change into extension, and so to provide for continuity and stability so that problems are addressed while the overall order is not unduly disturbed.”
Does Prescription Mean Accepting All Change?
But there is another way in which we may be tempted to over-simply Burke’s anti-innovationist innovation of prescription: the notion that, in the end, all that matters to a conservative is that change happens slowly and follows a prescription-approved procedure. If that’s all there were to prescription, then how are we to distinguish good changes from bad changes once they’ve become the established “norm”? Supposing the State Auditor decided we were better off under the old paper-based audits; would it be fitting and proper to make that change so long as it was done in a prescriptive manner?
Surely the conservative must believe in something fixed and permanent—some ideal to strive towards that allows us to measure “progress” and evaluate the appropriateness of change. Prescription is not a one-sided tool that cares only about the means of change and has nothing to say about the ends. In fact, one of Burke’s chief concerns with those of his era demanding we rely on reason alone was precisely that such thinking put us at risk of ignoring deeper truths that were only discoverable through prescription. And that is where we’ll turn in Part 3.