Edmund Burke’s conservatism — with Burke being the father of conservatism— prescribes not a set of general “principles”, but a political outlook which informs active members of society how to best govern and direct their lives.

Why is this relevant to our contemporary discussions of political ideologies?  Because Burkean conservatism substantially differs from modern conservatism.

For instance Burkean conservatism is primarily concerned with the following ideas:

  • Moderate reform “because knowledge is imperfect and consequences can be unintended”.
  • Understanding the necessity of reform in “correct[ing] the inadequacies of ancient institutions in light of contemporary needs”
  • Skepticism regarding the inherent goodness and utility of the state and a greater belief in the power of family, private property and religion
  • Rejection of any system of belief that tries to “to structure society around a single rationally articulated organising principle.”
  • Any conception of “abstract, ahistorical and universal rights, derived from the nature of human agency and autonomy”
  • The belief that theory should be derived from practice and not vice versa.

In fact, the commentaries of both Jonah Goldberg and Ben Shapiro confirm this point, as both shrink from providing an articulate definition of conservatism.  And the inference is that if our national pundits don’t know what conservatism means, then it’s likely many others who consider themselves conservatives don’t know what the theory means either.

The second reason Burkean conservatism is important is because it helps brings the flaws of liberalism into focus — it highlights the fact that liberalism is not based on abstract idealism, but also that these same idealistic beliefs cause irreparable damage when put into practice. For instance, the French Revolution’s promise to emancipate all humans from universal suffering and Marx’s prophecy of perfect utopia are based upon idealistic foundations, and as a result many were slaughtered.

Yet despite all this, Burkean conservatism isn’t totally congruent with the ideology of the founding fathers. While the founding fathers didn’t base our government on idealistic principles, just as Burke would prescribe, their views were more nuanced.  In fact, their political views lead to the creation of a never before-tried republic.  Which means one thing — the founding fathers were republican (in a structural sense, not the party) even if they didn’t always declare it in public or private.