Stuff I Should Have Read in College: Edmund Burke

Reflections on the Revolution in France.

As a knee-jerk liberal, I’ve decided I need to understand (finally) what makes conservatives tick.  So reading Burke is a prelude to reading Corey Robin’s book.

When I was growing up, conservatives were the ones opposing civil rights laws in the name of states’ rights.  Even to my dim adolescent mind, this seemed to be a case of people trying to protect their own privileges under the guise of some supposed political principle.  My basic attitude towards such people hasn’t changed much since then.  Am I wrong?

I can understand libertarianism.  Government can be oppressive.  It can be stupid.  We don’t want any more government than we need.  People’s idea of what we need will differ.

But conservatism is different.  It’s supposedly about preserving what worked in the past.  But why?  You don’t necessarily want to change too quickly, but what’s unjust is unjust.  The fact that it has been unjust for decades or centuries doesn’t change the fact of the injustice.

Anyway, I’ve only gotten through a few pages.  So far, a lot of throat-clearing.

Stuff I Should Have Read in College

One of my background projects, which should take me well into the next century, is to read some of the books I should have read before real life took over.  After college it’s hard to go back and fill those gaps.  For me, these gaps are in political philosophy, moral philosophy, and economics.  Mostly, I’d like to understand why so many people believe so many things that seem to me to be obviously wrong, raised as I was as a knee-jerk liberal.  Am I the one who has these things wrong?  This is almost impossible to conceive.  On the other hand, how can I be sure?

So, let’s start with John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.  It is also almost impossible to conceive, but I have nothing interesting to say about this treatise.  Even so, I’m going to say these three things:

  • Modern life is amazing.  You can pull John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government out of the air at no cost and read it on a device that also contains all your old photographs as well as Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and some games your kids have put there without your permission.  On the other hand, you have to put up with suboptimal optical character recognition.  It took me a while to realize that when I came across the word “cloth”, Locke really meant me to be reading the word “doth”.
  • Lock spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the duties parents have to their children, and vice versa.  This seems to be significant to his theory on how government developed historically, but it’s really pretty uninteresting to a modern reader.
  • Locke apparently was absent the day they taught about the three branches of government, because he comes up with something called the “federative” branch instead of the judicial branch.  (He got the first two right.)  The federative branch has to do with foreign policy, which he lumps in with the executive branch.  Apparently Montesquieu later came up with the right answer.