Where Burke-ian Ideals May Fall in Modern Politics

If my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “You’ll be a great lawyer.”

I’ve been told this by teachers, coaches, and older family members way before I had any interest in the profession—even before I was entirely sure what a lawyer was. I’m not saying this to be conceited—in fact, more often than not the phrase was used as a subtle insult—I’m trying to make a point. These remarks were usually made in response to an instance in which I had challenged an opinion that the majority of others had widely accepted; when I’d challenge a parental decision, talk back to a referee, or argue that a teacher had not given us adequate study time. I was a frequent arguer, and this quickly earned me the reputation growing up as the kid who just liked to stir the pot and a negatively connoted remark about lawyers from my superiors.

It seems that, at least in our class, Edmund Burke and modern conservatives have earned a similar reputation. Considered one of the earliest conservatives, advocating for traditional values and criticizing radical change, we have mostly labeled Burke stubborn, blind and irrational. I think that today’s conservatives are often defined in a similar fashion. This undoubtedly has something to do with the theme of resistance: the refusal to adapt even when presented with so much evidence that change is, in fact, the right move.

Now, I can’t say for certain that Burke in particular thought this way—I never knew the guy, and his way of thinking was described as a plea to not rock the boat in class—but at least my perception of him and modern conservatism leads me to think that the Burke-ian mindset might be a little misunderstood. I’ve always had a passion for things being fair, and I often challenged authority with justice as my primary goal. Although I looked stubborn and irrationally unwilling to just accept a punishment, bad grade, or a penalty on the soccer field, I was doing so not for the sake of argument, but try to control, as best as I could, the fairness of a situation. Similarly, instead of innate stubbornness or fear of change, I think Burke-ian resistance to change might be better attributed, like me, to a deeper, more pressing moral conscience.

Fittingly, I found one of the most striking thoughts in Burke’s excerpts to be that whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things.” I liked that it addressed, in my opinion, a common misconception between equality of opportunity and entitlement, and shared it with the class. What resulted was a debate very related to the themes in Burke’s excerpt about estate tax. Rationally, an estate tax makes a lot of sense. The tax money deducted would theoretically benefit the masses in terms of health care, entitlements, and public services, would have little to no effect on the taxed family because a large sum of money would remain, and the person taxed would not be affected by the tax at all because they are deceased. This evidence suggests that an estate tax would greatly benefit the masses with few to no negative consequences, and I do not refute this. I do resist the idea of an estate tax, not because I am stubborn, but because I have a moral opposition to it.

I don’t think it’s morally acceptable to take someone else’s money. I understand the unfortunate need for income and maybe sales taxes (although I am not very fond of those or their layout), but I have never believed it is okay to take significantly more money from the wealthy because we feel they can “handle it.” Even if this is true, and even if the money would benefit those less fortunate, I don’t think it is ethical to take so much of someone’s hard-earned money—especially money that they wish to give someone else—regardless of the potential benefits. To me, this just isn’t morally justifiable. It isn’t fair.

I know that some people will always call this way of thinking, like Burke’s (or conservatives’ in general), stubborn, or maybe even naive. I’m ok with that. I just want to suggest that peoples’ resistance to change may stem from something other than pigheadedness or fear. Although it is undoubtedly sometimes true, resistance isn’t always blind: it has the potential to be thought-out and rational. We’re all going to have differing political beliefs, but questioning, argumentation, and challenging shouldn’t be condemned; they should be encouraged.

Regardless of what it entails, standing up for your own moral compass in the face of condescending eyes is courageous and good. In fact, my experience with this has inspired me to pursue law as a profession, and I have eventually grown to think this quality encompasses what a true lawyer is. So, to everyone who made those snarky comments about me being a great lawyer one day: