Burkean democracy

Nathan Smith
Insights Newsletter
24 July, 2020

The white doors opened gently and in strode the great Irish statesman Edmund Burke. He was five minutes late for the interview, but given that he’d just been reincarnated, I let him off.

We shook hands and made small talk about the “crazy” New Zealand politics. For someone who had missed the last 223 years, he was less curious about the lapel microphone being placed on his shirt than he should have been.

The cameraman flicked off the lens cover. Explaining the last 14 days in New Zealand politics to a 18th century gentleman was a bit more difficult. He muttered about how the lofty goals for democracy always collide with the foibles of the humans involved.

“There is no safety for honest men except by believing all possible evil of evil men,” the philosopher quipped. “Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist.”

Corruption? Evil? Democracy can’t be all that bad, can it? I responded.

“But that’s the point. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle,” Burke shot back.

Shifting to make myself more comfortable, I mentioned that he was against the French Revolution precisely because its proponents didn’t take into account the complexities of human nature and society. Does he now feel vindicated?

“I am no stranger to the faults and defects of the subverted government of France. Of this I am certain, that in a democracy, the majority of its citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of policy, as they often must.”

Burke began waving his hands like a rational madman and the lapel mic slipped down into his cravat. The cameraman sighed.

“So, you’re saying democracy means we get the leaders we deserve and it is silly to expect them to be saints since subversion is true of all humans and governments?” I asked, proud that I’d remembered some of Burke’s own quotes.

“Listen here, you scrubby gollumpus, rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.

“I’m saying politics ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings but to human nature, of which reason is but a part and by no means the greatest part. Sounds like your democracy is working out just as I expected,” he said.

And in a puff of Whiggish smoke, Burke disappeared, leaving behind a stray cigar butt and the lapel mic.

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