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J. Bradford DeLong: August 5, 2009

Standing Athwart History Yelling “Stop!” J. Bradford DeLong University of California at Berkeley and NBER August 5, 2009

The Nineteen-Year-Old is reading William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale in the back seat, and occasionally exploding with laughter. It was bad, you see, when Yale taught Protestantism—when students were taught that the Pope was the Antichrist. But it is also bad, Buckley thinks, when Yale students are not taught that Jews are banned from the New Jerusalem. “[T]he ne plus ultra of contemporary liberalism,” Buckley writes (and to be the ne plus ultra of contemporary liberalism is not a good thing) is the religious tolerance of the Yale Daily News: The next time a Religious Emphasis Week rolls around... let’s have a forum in which we would hear, as well as the Christian, the Taoist point of view, the Buddhist, the Mohammedan, the Jewish, the Hindu, and so on. Here would be some real meat for thought...

For us economists, however, we are more interested in noticing Buckley’s lament that: The individualist counter-Keynesian theory that an untrammeled free market, mobile wage rates, and decentralized non-political credit policies, can in the long run cope with economic fluctuations far more efficaciously than can the government... If mentioned at all, is scorned.... We are thus introduced to the necessity of accepting “drastic action” by the government, for without it we must face the fact “that it


J. Bradford DeLong: August 5, 2009

is as hard for wealthy nations to avoid unemployment... as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle” (Samuelson, p. 17)...

“Decentralized non-political credit policies” is code for the Classical Gold Standard not as it really worked—with the Bank of England as the activist policy-making conductor of the international orchestra—but rather how America’s right-wing at the start of the 1950s imagined that it had worked, as the antithesis of all things Rooseveltish. Perhaps Ron Paul wishes to deal with high unemployment today by having the Federal Reserve raise its hands, slowly back away from the economy, and cease providing the “elastic currency” the Federal Reserve Act requires it to do. But he is alone. Buckley seeks to have Yale required to teach for all time the doctrines of a particular historical moment that he likes. It’s not “tradition” that Buckley is attached to: the “tradition” of Yale was originally that Catholics were, if not converted, excluded. And the tradition of William the Conqueror was that one became powerful not by inheriting wealth from a rich father but by bashing Saxons and Capetians on the head in William’s service. The same seems always to be true of “conservatives”. Economist Tyler Cowen muses and political philosopher Jacob Levy laments <http://> that “none [of the 20th century conservatives] have held up particularly well”: This is a particular problem because of race in America—no mid-20th century work is going to endure as a real, read-not-just-namechecked, classic of political thought that talks about how everything will go to hell if the South isn't allowed to remain the South...

But it applies everywhere in the conservative canon: [Michael] Oakeshott has his own version of these problems; doesn't “Rationalism in Politics” end up feeling faintly ridiculous by the time he's talking about women’s suffrage?...

I would say much more than faintly ridiculous: thoroughly ridiculous.


J. Bradford DeLong: August 5, 2009

And this week we have the young Matt Zeitlin <http://> reading Princeton’s Robert George on gay marriage, and finding that: What’s interesting about [Robert George’s] pretty simple natural law argument for why gay marriage is a bad idea is how, well, silly it is...

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer famously wrote in the sixteenth century that marriage was: an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained...

And those causes were three: First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body. Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace...

Even in Cranmer’s day the procreation of children was only one of the three purposes for which marriage was instituted—the channeling of


J. Bradford DeLong: August 5, 2009

sexual desire and “mutual society” being the other two. And as we have gone from the average woman spending five years of her life pregnant to one and a half, the focus of the institution has come to rest more and more on the latter two. Odds are that a century ago it will be as impossible to read Robert George’s work seriously as it is today impossible to take seriously a nineteenth century conservative work like Thomas Carlyle’s “Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question.” Yet through all of this there is one conservative whose works survive, and still have hold on us: Edmund Burke. And this is so even though the cause Burke argued for in his Reflections on the Revolution in France—that the monarchs of the House of Bourbon should continue to reign in Paris—is one that has no supporters at all today. How is it that Burke is different? I think that Burke is different because he is not really a conservative, but rather a cloaked and masked liberal. Burke, you see, does not believe that Tradition is to be Respected. Instead, he thinks that good traditions should be respected—and he, unlike Buckley, unlike Oakeshott, unlike George, believes that you have to have reasons and arguments for why a tradition is good. You cannot, in Burke’s world, merely point to a Tradition as Traditional and think that you have settled anything. When Edmund Burke argues that Britons should respect the tradition of English liberty they have inherited from the Ancestors, it is because in this particular case Burke thinks that the Ancestors—not his personal ancestors, note—were wise. Whenever Burke thought that the inherited political traditions were not wise, the fact that they were the inherited Wisdom of the Ancestors cut no ice. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke doesn't argue that Frenchmen should build on their own political traditions—the traditions of Richelieu and Louis XIV, that is. He argues, instead, for a revival of the ossified and petrified: old [E]states [General]... [which] had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests... which, in the... political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe.... If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre... you might have... derived your claims from a more early


J. Bradford DeLong: August 5, 2009

race of ancestors.... Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.... [Y]ou would not have been content to be represented as a gang of Maroon slaves, suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage.... Would it not... have been wiser to have you thought... misled... by... fidelity, honour, and loyalty [to your absolutist kings]... that you were not enslaved [to them] through any illiberal or servile disposition... [but] by a principle of public spirit, and that it was your country you worshipped, in the person of your king?...

Burke’s argument is not that France in 1789 should have followed its traditions. Burke’s argument, instead, is that France in 1789 should have gone up into its attic and dug through its past until it found suitable furniture for the present. This isn’t an intellectual argument about how to decide what institutions are good. It is a practical-political-rhetorical argument about how to build good institutions by making them facts on the ground. And if you ask Burke what good institutions are, you find that he is very close to James Madison: checks-and-balances, separation of powers, rights of the subject, limitations on the state. Burke’s views on what good institutions are Enlightenment views—that branch of the Enlightenment that took people as they are and politics as a science, that is, rather than the branch that took people as Jean-Jacques Rousseau hoped they might someday be and politics as the striking of an oppositional pose. Nearly every political conversation I have these days passes at some point through mutual horror at the state of the Republican Party, which appears enslaved to (a) health insurance companies, (b) global warming denialism, and (c) a belief that an upwardly-mobile native Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx with type I diabetes is a member of an unjustly exalted and privileged caste of nonwhite liberal overlords. And I share the horror. I see no way for the Republicans to be a constructive and conservatism to the Democrats until they learn the lesson that Burke knew: that a good “conservatism” is much more a matter of rhetoric than of attachment to the past, and that its most important task is to think very hard about which Traditions are worthy of being Respected.


Standiing Athwart History  

Edmund Burke is the only credible conservative