Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Edmund Burke and Richard Nixon

What does the U.S. president from 1969 to 1974 have to do with the Irish-English political philosopher who analyzed the American and French Revolutions? Nixon's administration was brought down in a scandal, and he became the first - and, so far, only - president to resign.

Reflecting on Nixon's demise, one of his aides later commented that these events evoked from him a "frank acknowledgement that of the human disposition to make wrong moral choices and inflict harm and suffering on others." The official concluded that this observation is "empirically validated by thirty-five centuries of recorded human history."

Responding to those who hope to refine our political system so that such scandals never happen again, he said, this "worldview has proven to be utterly irrational and unlivable. The denail of our sinful nature, and the utopian myth it breeds, leads not to beneficial social experiments but to tyranny. The confidence that humans are prefectible provides a justification for trying to them perfect ... no matter what it takes. And with God out of the picture, those in power are not accountable to any higher authority. They can use any means necessary, no matter how brutal or coercive, to remold people to fit their notion of the perfect society."

Not only can we not fine-tune our system in order to avoid all future mis-uses of power, but it is exactly such an attempt which leads to the abuse of power, because this attempt to protect people from bad rulers is carried out by giving total control to the rulers.

The notion that humans and human society are perfectible entails, and is entailed by, the denial of any concept of natural law and the rejection of any standards of good and bad. But it is exactly this concept and these standards which have "historically proven to be the most dependable defender of human liberty," according to Nixon's assistant. "The commitment to a higher law," he continues, puts one "on the front lines in resisting laws or actions contrary to that law." It was Nixon's belief in the ultimate value of his own ability to organize a good society, his belief that his programs would be a great step forward for the nation, which caused him to decide to violate laws; if Nixon could truly create a little piece of utopia, then it would be OK to break a law or two to achieve this, right?

This "view was argued eloquently by the British statesman Edmund Burke during a famous 1788 debate in the House of Lords over the impeachment of the governor general of India. The governor general had claimed a right to arbitrary authority over the unruly nationals, arguing that they were, after all, used to despotism. Burke replied with these wonderful words: 'My lords, the East India Company have not arbitrary power to give him [the governor general]. The king has no arbitrary power to give. Neither your lordships, nor the Commons, nor the whole legislature, have arbitrary power to give. Arbitrary power is a thing which no man can give ... We are all born, high as well as low, governors as well as governed, in subjection to one great, immutable, preexisting law ... This great law does not arise from our combinations and compacts; on the contrary, it gives to them all the sanctions they can have.'"

Burke, and Nixon's aide who here quotes him, points out the two-fold danger of utopian thinking: first, it justifies "by any means necessary" thinking, for if we can truly create a wonderful utopia here and now on earth, then it would certainly be worth breaking a few rules to get there, or even killing a few people to create a paradise for the human race; second, it places absolute power in the hands of a few people, or even one person, who has the alleged vision and knowledge about how to create this utopia, because that person has to control all the variables of society carefully and precisely in order to form the perfect organization.

Behind this kind of thinking, Nixon's aide continues, is the "notion that human nature is essentially good ... Utopianism says: if only we create the right social and economic structures, we can usher in an age of harmony and prosperity. But Christians can never give their allegiance to utopian projects."

Burke had a realistic view of human nature. Humans are wonderful, rational, skilled, and creative, but they are not perfect. Humans will, from time to time, fail. They will sometimes choose evil instead of good. They will sometimes seek to harm instead of help, sometimes be selfish instead of selfless.

Burke rejected the type of view held by Hobbes, in which human nature is only selfish and violent; but he also rejected the views of Rousseau, which said that humans are naturally good. Burke saw humans as a mixed picture, sometimes doing good, and sometimes evil.

If we lose sight of the fact that humans are limited, if we trust too much in human plans and project, we end up at Watergate: Nixon's aide momentarily lost sight of those basic principles we call "rule of law" and "natural law", and followed the president into the scandal; when it all came undone, he commented that "the human propensity to evil and disorder must be hemmed in by law and tradition." Burke would have agreed.