Burke, More and America Today

December 6, 2011

Political Theory


As our section discussed Burke and More today in class, I couldn’t help but think about the import of these two classic conservatives’ theories on the current state of America today. How would these two theorists attempted to solve the current implosion of the euro, the stagnation in England or the 8.8 million American jobs lost  since the beginning of the Great Recession?

Unemployment Rate Graph

Burke explained his view on the proper society, “In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things…but he has not a right to an equal dividend in the product of the joint stock” (Reflections on the French Revolution, pg. 109, 51). In essence, Burke argues that citizens should have equality of opportunity, but nothing more. For Burke, a political system that stretches beyond this would be considered too radical for his liking. In fact, Burke directly addresses this sentiment when he says, “I put my foot in the tracks of my forefathers, where I can neither wander nor stumble.”

Taken together, these two quotes provide clear insight into how Burke may have viewed the America’s problems today should he be alive. I think that Burke could have argued one of two points.

First, Burke could argue that free markets should not be modified, that the current system works and that the current regime should be left in place. His argument could be that the current political and economic system is precisely what built America into what it is today (even if it is currently having some struggles), and that sudden government intrusion into the markets would have a devastating impact.

Burke could take another approach to the situation. He could point to the decisions made during the Clinton and Bush years that lowered the standards for potential homeowners to receive mortgages. He could claim that this decision, and the inherent risks that followed such a radical

Number of Mortgages Issued in US

change from the past, serves as the current ailment to our economy. So, Burke might even suggest a slow, gradual shift toward the policies that defined the pre-Clinton years. Whichever path Burke might choose to take, it is fairly evident that his solution would involve minimal change to the current status quo.

So what would Hannah More have said about all of this? More’s philosophy is best summed up in her “Belly and Limbs” fable in which she describes:

“The hands said, I won’t work any longer to feed this laze belly, who fits in state like a lord, and does nothing. Said the feet, I won’t walk and tire myself to carry him about; let him shift for himself; so said all the members; just as your levellers and republicans do now. And what was the consequence? Why the belly was pinched to be sure; but the hands and the feet, and the rest of the members suffered so much for want of their old nourishment, that they fell sick, pined away, and would have died, if they had not come to their senses just in time to have their lives, as I hope you all will do.” (Village Politics, 2).

More then goes on to describe how social classes are by providential design. Taken together, these two theories meld together to form More’s core argument: that social classes are not only by providential design, but society inherently requires different citizens fulfilling different roles; without social classes, those roles cannot be filled and society falls apart.

In light of the current economic woes plaguing America today, it would follow from More’s logic that she might argue that “trickle-down” policies would serve as the most effect solution to our current state of economic affairs. Extending the Bush-era tax cuts, preserving loopholes for most wealthy, instituting a repatriation tax-holiday, and reducing corporate taxes would all be options that More could possibly champion.

After considering the various ways that Burke and Moore would possibly solve the problems facing America today, I came across this article. In essence, it serves as a counterpoint to Burke’s and More’s conservative policies that, in practice, advocate for “trickle-down” policies. Yet, the threat of employing such policies to solve our economic dilemma will only complicate matters worse. As the article points out, there is a widening income gap in America. This widening gap not only has direct economic consequences, it has indirect economic consequences too. Through this widening income gap, we see a widening gap between the “median income voter” and the

Political Polarization Graphs (Kollman)

“mean income citizen” (McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal). In essence, the people in the middle who decide the fate of legislation by the nature of them being the swing vote (median voter), are getting richer faster than the average citizen. This leads to polarization in the political system, which in turn leads to redistributive policies that reflect the changed nature of the system, namely in that the redistributive policies of old are no longer politically feasible, meaning that the income gap widens as a result of this vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.

Barring moderation, the continuation of this cycle will inevitably lead to the marginalization of a large sub-sect of the American democracy. And, as we have seen over the past few months in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus, Sana’a and Homs, when a substantial portion of a country’s citizens feel like their country is no longer invested in them, change ensues. Change is chaotic, deadly and terrifying. It shakes the political structure, challenges a way of life and raises questions about the very nature of our humanity. And it is for this reason, combined with the evidence from the OECD, that I believe it is quite clear that merely maintaining the status quo, as Burke or More would probably suggest, is not a sufficient solution to today’s global problems. In fact, they are exactly the kinds of policies that produced our current dilemma. So, what do you think?

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