2017-12-30

People will not look forward to posterity who do not look backwards to their ancestors

Lord Adonis has resigned, almost quoting Burke: people will not look forwards to posterity who do not look backwards to their ancestors. Sadly, the man ain't got no culture: it should be "forward", not "forwards". Tch, youth nowadays. LA was Chair of the independent National Infrastructure Commission, and therefore not only in favour of but actively pushing HS2, and is therefore an idiot, so we should not take his opinions too seriously.

The interesting problem is, what does the quote mean? The question is asked and (IMO incorrectly) answered at englishforums.comIf you are not interested in your ancestors, you will not expect future generations to be interested in you when you are dead. This answer doesn't really make any sense; or is no clearer than the original.

To understand what Burke meant, it probably helps to know that "in the twentieth century he became widely regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism" (quotes are from wiki; don't get the idea I know anything about Burke). This makes him an odd source for a Labour peer, but the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. Perhaps a quote is in order:

Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it... Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it... Do not burthen them with taxes... But if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question... If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery.
Burke is a small-c-conservative: opposed to revolution (indeed Reflections on the Revolution in France is helpful), focused on the practicality of solutions instead of the metaphysics, writing "What is the use of discussing a man's abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In this deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor".

So Burke is not advising people to be "interested" in their ancestors, in any historical or theoretical sense. He wants people to adopt, continue, know the living breathing traditions of their ancestors. It is a desire for a "common law" approach, rather than a legislative approach. It is analogous to Hayek's scepticism of central planning, and in favour of incremental change. LA is, of course, a central planner. Perhaps he was quoting Burke ironically?

But enough of this, what would Burke have thought of Brexit? I don't know, of course, but that won't stop me making something up. The most facile response would be that he would oppose the massive change it represents. But then again, he was for thinking in the long term, so might have regarded our brief membership of the EU as an anomaly to be reversed; he would have probably opposed Brentry in the first place.

Refs


Should we care about the world after 2100?
My idiot sons could run this country better than you, Queen tells May
The White Witch as Tragic Figure
Open science and science communication at #EGU18, the European Geophysical Union General Assembly - VV. Quote: I hope that at least outside of Anglo-America it is uncontroversial for scientists to inform the public and policy makers of their findings... When it goes further, trying to convince people of certain solutions, please let go of your saviour complex, you will mostly like not achieve much. The way scientists are trained to think and communicate works well for science, but it is not particularly convincing outside of it. The chance you are good at convincing people is not much better than the chance of some random dude or grandma down the road.

15 comments:

David B Benson said...

William, you don't know anything about Burke and yet you go on and on?

"Whereof one cannot speak, ..."

William Connolley said...

Err, well, I can read his words. Unlike Nietzsche's. Did you find anything you disagreed with?

John Bowles said...

Hey WC can you please direct me to your blog post, if any, describing your thoughts on how the world should be, what you would change, etc. and generally how you came to your opinions about government, economics, the role of politics and the individual? I take it you lean to the left, you want (the US to be) a country like China with little if any democracy, or like Russia, or some ideal state where everyone has the same amount of money, there is central planning and no elite class...or...? It would make an interesting read!

Tom said...

...and while you're at it, could you build me a canoe out of birchbark? And a cup of tea would be nice...

William Connolley said...

Tea is indeed nice. But it is always flattering to be asked for one's thoughts.

Russia, while I may habitually refer to them as "Commies", are not really "left" any more. Centrally they're a dictatorship / kleptocracy / insert-your-term-of-opprobrium-here. But it hardly matters: even more than before, they are not a role model anyone sane would wish to learn from.

China is an interesting experiment; as you say it combines little political freedom with a great deal of economic freedom. I lack direct experience, but my image is that over there, if you're explicitly apolitical and bribe the right folks you can do almost whatever you like. That, too, is not a good role model although the gleaming toys make people envious. Its future is unclear.

The USA would be best served by paying more attention to the carefully reasoned opinions of the founding fathers. And not being so phat.

As to what I would change, I think that's clear: there would be less govt and less regulation. Of course, you can't just wave a magic wand and get that, so there would also need to be more education of the right sort.

How I came here is tangled and not entirely clear in my own mind. I have a project to read back through all my old blog posts, but there are an awful lot of them so that may not happen in a hurry.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I think you mean that we Americans are too fat. Unfortunately we are not phat enough.

William Connolley said...

Hmmm, that's not what *I* mean by it, but I can see that having my own defn might confuse, so I might have to mend my ways.

barry said...

Forward/forwards: You've pricked a pedant, I'm afraid.

OED:

"The present distinction in usage between forward and forwards is that the latter expresses a definite direction viewed in contrast with other directions. In some contexts either form may be used without perceptible difference of meaning; the following are examples in which only one of them can now be used: ‘The ratchet-wheel can move only forwards’; ‘the right side of the paper has the maker's name reading forwards’; ‘if you move at all it must be forwards’; ‘my companion has gone forward’; ‘to bring a matter forward’; ‘from this time forward’. The usage of earlier periods, and of modern dialects, varies greatly from that of mod. standard English. In U.S. forward is now generally used, to the exclusion of forwards, which was stigmatized by Webster (1832) as ‘a corruption’."

I suppose one could quibble that forward/s is being used as part of a well worn phrase and should be written as such, but otherwise it's pretty clear that direction is being distinguished.

William Connolley said...

Ah, but while one can dispute whether either version is more correct in terms of grammar or usage, one cannot dispute that it is a quote, and therefore must be quoted exactly.

barry said...

Fair enough.

Phil Hays said...

A free society, according to some libertarians, means the suppression of the majority.

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/history/2017/06/james_mcgill_buchanan_s_terrifying_vision_of_society_is_the_intellectual.html

William Connolley said...

You should not believe Nancy MacLean; her biog of Buchanan is trash. I can explain in tedious detail if you like; but https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_MacLean#Democracy_in_Chains_(2017) provides enough pointers if you care.

"the suppression of the majority" is misleading; propaganda, essentially. Consider https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyranny_of_the_majority. It is certainly true, though, that the majority may not always have its own way; you have a thing called a "constitution" I believe; perhaps you've heard of it? It guarantees freedom of speech, no matter how little the majority may like what is said.

See-also https://wmconnolley.wordpress.com/2017/10/10/gunz-constitutionalism-and-majoritarianism/.

Phil Hays said...

Oh and Brexit providing more funding to the NHS.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/16/opinion/nhs-britain-crisis.html

And the Brexit economic boom

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-42695522

William Connolley said...

> Brexit

AFAIK Carillion is nothing to do with Brexit. Certainly the article you chose to link to doesn't mention it.

> NHS

We haven't left yet.

William Connolley said...

Incidentally, Carillion have their sticky fingers in HS2, so Lord a probably gets some of the "oh you should have seen this coming" flak, if any is due.