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On a Few Words from Edmund Burke

Read this. Seriously, read it. I'll wait.

Done yet? Okay, good. Then we'll continue.

I've been circling around this passage for a few days now--I've tweeted it, and I've posted it to my Facebook page. (Friend me if you haven't!) I originally heard a small quotation from it years ago, when I was just a wee Erik, in the movie musical (yes) 1776. Set during the Second Continental Congress and centered around the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence, this was one of my favorite movies as a child and continues to be so to this day. John Adams is trying to wrangle a unanimous vote in favor of American independence, and he needs the new delegate from Georgia, Dr. Lyman Hall, to vote his way if he's to carry the day. Dr. Hall is for independence, but his constituents, the people of the colony of Georgia, are against it. Initially, Dr. Hall is unsure of how to exercise his power; while he figures it out, he decides he should cast his vote they way he thinks the people would wish him to, and he initially votes against the resolution declaring independence. It's nothing Adams says, though, that changes the Georgian's mind--instead, in the privacy of his cloister, Dr. Hall is thinking, and he decides to take the advice of a very wise man: Edmund Burke, then a member of the British Parliament. Lyman slightly misquotes, I believe, but the line deserves to be quoted in full: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion." Lyman chooses his judgment over that of his constituents, changes his vote, and, well, you know how the story ends.

Even as a child, the power of Burke's words struck me. Edmund Burke is credited with being the father of modern political conservatism, and, reading the speech that the quotation comes from, it's not hard to see why. See, conservatism in this sense is not the modern American conservatism of lower taxes and no abortions. Rather, it's conservatism as opposed to radicalism. It's conservatism that has a belief in a natural aristocracy that, through elections, will be chosen to rule over the masses. In essence, Burke is saying, "You should vote me in to office not because you trust that I will make the decision that you would; rather you trust that I will make the right decision for you." He's claiming, not even subtly, that his judgment is superior to that of his constituents. If that's not an argument for some sort of natural aristocracy, I'll eat my Chucks.

We Americans have a serious problem with this sort of conservatism. Due, I think, at least in part, to the American ethos of self-reliance and individual liberty, we're loathe as a nation to accept that certain people are more informed, more rational, more foresighted, and generally better at making decisions on complex matters than others. It's actually a rather fascinating phenomenon: let's say I gather ten random Americans, and asked them to decide a few matters about, let's say, engineering. The first question they would ask would almost certainly be, "is anyone here a engineer?" However, if I get ten Americans in a room and ask them about the best way to provide health care to poor Americans, suddenly everyone's an expert.

America is not a democracy. Somewhere in elementary school, we all learn that, but I think most of us forget it. We like to think we're a democracy, because it sounds nice. In reality, though, we're a republic. Except for a very few cases, we don't make governmental decisions.* Instead of making the decisions ourselves, we elect people to make decisions for us. There are about a zillion good reasons for this, but the most salient one is that governing, as much as we like to disparage it, is not easy. It is an art form, and requires skilled practitioners. As such, we hold elections during which we vote for people who we think will make the right choice.

However, as soon as the questions they are called to decide become controversial, we become adamant that "we pay their salaries" and that they should do what we want them to do, not what they think is best. We scream, we shout, we picket and we fume. We can't believe that those idiots in Washington have done something that we don't agree with, forgetting that we've made an arrangement: we send them to Washington, Richmond, and the county commissioners' office to make the hard decisions; if we choose, we can remove them at the next election. Until then, we can delve into the issue, talk to our representatives, and find out what they were thinking. In the end, they may just say that they did what they thought was best. And it's at these moments that I suggest we all take a step back, take a deep breath, and think of the fictionalized Dr. Lyman Hall from Georgia, while never forgetting the very real and powerful words of Edmund Burke.



*In small New England communities, town meetings are still held, and these work well since the issues are generally extremely local and understandable. Just look to the insanity of California's ballot initiative system to see what happens when direct democracy is attempted on a larger scale with vastly more complicated issues.

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