During this campaign season, no description is more coveted among Republican candidates than “conservative.” In order to vest themselves with the mantle of conservatism, they habitually articulate a litany of the ways they are like Ronald Reagan.
While I am far from belittling Reagan, conservatism’s roots are much older and go much deeper than his presidency. Modern conservatism finds its source in the thought and writings of Edmund Burke, especially in his venerable and profound Reflections on the Revolution in France. In it, Burke assesses the best possible background for producing an authentic statesman, from among which he lists the physician, the businessman, the financier, the lawyer, and the historian.
Reminiscent of Jesus explaining the soils upon which the Word of God fell as a seed, soils that did not permit good rooting or good growth, Burke rejects the first four as typically unsuitable: (1) Doctors do not make good statesmen because “the sides of sick beds are not academies for forming statesmen and legislators.” (2) Businessmen, whom he calls traders, know a bit about the order and function of contemporary society, yet they have little in-depth understanding of “anything beyond their counting house.” (3) Financiers are expert only at dealing in “stocks and funds,” and in moving from one type of commodity to another, as they do when they “change their ideal paper wealth for the more solid substance of land,” none of which is the same as grasping the reins of government and steering it rightly onward. (4) Lawyers “are habitually meddling, daring, subtle, active, and litigious,” which is poison to political prudence.
These backgrounds frequently fail to produce great statesmen because skill at these particular functions is not a qualification for leading the affairs of a great nation. The doctor is not trained to heal what truly ails the polity; the businessman can make profitable deals, but the President or the Prime minister of a great nation is not its CEO, and to think so is grossly myopic; the financier makes profitable investments, but making profitable investments is not interchangeable with steering the ship of state adeptly along the course of greatest prudence; the lawyer might be technically proficient at the subtleties of law and litigation, but the statesman is far more than a legal technician.
Those best suited by background to the demands of statesmanship, Burke says, are the historians because by study and by profession they are more likely have “knowledge of mankind,” and “experience in mixed affairs,” by which Burke means “a comprehensive connected view of the various complicated external and internal interests which go to the formation of that multifarious thing called a state.”
That, in brief compass, is Burke’s assessment of the background of the current crop of Republican candidates, whether they are doctors (Paul), businessmen (Cain), financiers (Romney), lawyers (Santorum and Bachmann), or historians (Gingrich).
As usual, I think Burke is spot on.