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...the age of chivalry is gone.

That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has

succeeded; and
the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.
-Edmund Burke

American colonies, Ireland, France and India Harried, and Burke's great melody
against it.
-W.B. Yeats (The Seven Sages)

What a heady time were the late 1700's. For hundreds, even thousands, of years, Western
man had been saddled with monarchy; kings who were said to rule by divine right. But
by the end of the 18th century, Martin Luther, John Locke and Adam Smith had
propounded the essential framework for modern liberal capitalist democracy and the
Revolution in America had launched a grand experiment based on those ideas. Then
came the French Revolution and it was blithely assumed that here again Liberty was on
the march. When suddenly, rising to meet the tide of history, came Edmund Burke to
excoriate the Jacobins and denounce the Revolution. In so doing, he not only did
mankind a great service, by sounding the alarms against unchecked liberty, he also
basically gave birth to modern Conservatism. Today, after a long period in the
wilderness, particularly during the Cold War, Edmund Burke has come roaring back into
fashion. In a sense, he has finally won his argument with the defenders of the French
Revolution, two hundred years after the fact, and is reaping the spoils.

For two centuries a controversy has raged over Burke's political philosophy, in particular
whether the great defender of American, Irish and Indian rights was inconsistent in
opposing the French Revolution. The very existence and the stubborn persistence of this
controversy seem to demonstrate either a complete misunderstanding or a willful
misrepresentation of Burke's basic arguments. One suspects it's a bit of both. The
greatness of Burke lies in the fact that he was among the first, and certainly the most
eloquent, defenders of democracy to recognize the dangers it entails; that power in the
hands of the masses is just as great a threat to liberty as when it lies in the hand of a
dictator or king. This point had been amply demonstrated in France, where the
revolutionists had quickly abandoned any concern for personal freedom and had moved
on to a bloody demand for equality--freedom's enemy.

It is here that we arrive at the key point that divides the modern Left and Right. The Left
believes (a la Rousseau) that man is by nature "good" and all men are born with equal
abilities, but that environmental factors and corrupt institutions warp individuals, making
some evil and keeping others from realizing their full potentials; which if realized would
make them equal to other men. The goal of the Left is therefore to remove, by any means
necessary, these environmental and institutional impediments and return to an imagined
state of nature where all men are good and are equally able; where Man will be governed
by pure reason.
The Right, on the other hand, recognizes that man is inately "evil"; that is, evil in the
sense that he is self centered and will generally act in his own interest not the interest of
others. Moreover, men are inherently unequal; in the state of nature, the able will
tyrannize the less able. It is for these reasons that men form governments in the first
place; to protect themselves from one another. The goal of the Right is to provide each
individual with the greatest personal freedom and utmost opportunity to realize his
potential, consistent with the basic safety concerns that gave birth to the state in the first
instance. Conservatives realize that pure reason will not lead men to treat each other with
justice, by nature, men will always seek advantage over one another. The State and other
institutions safeguard us against this eventuality.

This fundamental difference can not be overstated. Prior to the 18th century, the Left
would have included all democrats, while the Right would have been made up of
monarchists and supporters of aristocracy. But beginning with the French Revolution,
this fissure separated the regnant liberal forces into two competing camps, setting the
stage for the two century long contest that ended in the early 1990's with the fall of the
Soviet Union. Both sides would produce great men, original theorists, brilliant writers
and magnificent orators, but none of them would ever surpass Burke and his mastery of
all these fields. Rare are the men who so clearly perceive the fundamental issues that
confront mankind. They seem at times to be travelers from the future, come to warn us
about what horrors the years to come will hold unless we obey their counsel. Rarer still
are the occasions when we heed them. We can only imagine the millions of lives that
would have been saved had people followed Burke's vision rather that that of Rousseau
and Jefferson and Marx.

Happily, here in America, James Madison's Constitution embodies many of the same
ideas and protects against many of the concerns which Burke expressed. The adoption of
representative, rather than direct, democracy; the bicameral legislature and tripartite
government; the careful system of checks and balances; the protection of basic rights
from government interference: these are all, though we seldom discuss them in these
terms, intended to protect the individual from the potentially tyrannical effects of
democracy. When commentators speak of the genius of the American system, whether
they realize it or not, it is to this central fact that they refer. So while critics have
struggled to understand a false dichotomy in Burke's thought, we (and to a lesser extent
the Brits) have enjoyed the fruits of a political system which assumes that his critique of
democracy is less theory than received wisdom. For whatever reason, it took two
hundred years and countless millions of lives before the rest of the world recognized what
Burke (the bard) and Madison (the draftsman) had known all along; two centuries that
proved them indisputably correct.