“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth–certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and other Essays,
Many of us are unnerved by the rioting that we see in Baltimore and in the past year in Ferguson. We are disgusted by the lack of respect for the law and by the destruction of private and public property. At the same time, conservatives can and do acknowledge the grievances of those who are unjustly targeted by the police and anyone else in who abuses their power. How do we reconcile the need for reform against the need to maintain social order and respect for the law?
The essence of conservatism is a respect for the past and for what exists today and what we shall hand to future generations as good stewards. It is a respect for the ideas and institutions that were developed and gifted to us. But, in some instances, the past can act like an anchor to progress. We must be careful not to give it authority over us that is undeserved, especially so when public institutions become agents of injustice.
Edmund Burke is considered to be the first person to articulate the modern political philosophy of conservatism. His late 18th century writings delve into the importance of preserving our links to the past. Burke was a supporter of the American Revolution, but he saw the destructive French Revolution as a threat to civil order. He carried on a very public and nasty debate with another Tea Party favorite, Thomas Paine.
Burke defended conservatism against the threat of radical Enlightenment liberalism. He believed that this upstart philosophy would wipe away the old order and centuries of social progress. He saw the existing civil society, social norms, and political order as the result of many generations of development. The wisdom of each successive generation built on and improved on the gifts of the past. Burke felt that the each generation owed it to future generations to act as good stewards of these gifts.
Burke was no stick in the mud though. He defined conservatism as a philosophy of reform. He believed that change should be slow and deliberate, so that it would not damage the good that had been done by prior generations. Burke’s conservatism was not static, it was evolutionary.
Fifty years after Edmund Burke’s death, Henry David Thoreau wrote his essays on civil disobedience. His philosophy on civil disobedience was conservative in its nature, but radical in it words. If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth–certainly the machine will wear out… , a very Burkean idea. On the other hand, he only had so much patience: …but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.
I’ve heard, since the beginning of the Tea Party movement, talk of rebellion and resistance. It never seemed to spark a revolution though. As frustrated as we feel with the evil of our out of control government, we have yet to be the counter-friction necessary to stop the injustice of the machine of government. This isn’t because we don’t care enough. It’s because we love our country so much that we are not ready to destroy the civil order that protects us from anarchy and much worse forms of injustice.
We can be allies with all those that seek to uproot injustice. While we share that goal, we oppose their chosen methods. Patience, conviction, and persistence will eventually wear out our rusty clunker government and its injustices that we now suffer. It’s quite a behemoth though. It’s taken decades to build. It will take decades to dismantle. Ours movement is based upon a philosophy of slow and deliberate reform. This patience is a virtue that will reward us with a stronger and freer country. In the end, a social order strengthened by the test of time will be victorious in the contest of ideas.
Worcester Tea Party