02/11/2014 03:47 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

Howard's Daily: Clashing Currents of Political Philosophy

Michael Gerson's column today is the latest in a series of thoughtful essays on the meaning of conservatism prompted by Yuval Levin's book The Great Debate, comparing the philosophies of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.

Burke believed in organic change, working with society as he found it. Paine wanted to rebuild it from the ground up, on rationalist enlightenment principles. Burke believed in family and community and the authority of social norms -- certainly harmonious with certain modern conservative principles. Paine's vision was one of radical individualism -- not far from the Tea Party's demand for deregulation. 

I am much more sympathetic to Burke's vision, like most commentators. Tocqueville too warned against atomistic individualism (see Patrick Deneen's excellent essay here). Burke's warning against Paine's utopian remake of society soon became real in the horrors of the French Revolution.

But there's a second-level conflict within conservative ideology: It's impossible to achieve anything like Burke's organic vision by using Burke's organic methods. Modern government is structurally paralyzed. Bureaucracy is everywhere. No human has authority to make any judgment. Being practical, using common sense, acting on norms of right and wrong -- all these choices are basically illegal.

The modern state is organized to avoid human choice. This too flows from philosophical premises, as I write elsewhere. Conservatives want to put officials in rigid legal shackles. Liberals want to put business in legal shackles. That's why, as I wrote yesterday, we get thousand-page laws. Without the authority of humans to make choices it's impossible to embrace Burke's vision of an organic society.  

Incremental reform won't work. That's what Obama tried to do -- bringing in the brilliant and enlightened Cass Sunstein to head the effort. But you can't prune a jungle. There is a flaw in the premise -- democracy is not supposed to be a jungle, but a governing process grounded in human responsibility and accountability. Mindless compliance with a bureaucratic instruction manual is not what our founders had in mind. 

The ultimate paradox is this: To achieve anything like Burke's organic vision of organic state, we must embrace a Paine-sian approach to starting anew. The new vision is relatively easy to come up with. For example, streamlining environmental review -- so that projects get approved in 18 months instead of (sometimes) 18 years -- mainly requires giving an EPA official the authority to decide when there's been enough review. (Common Good is building a coalition to try to achieve this. See here.)

Sometimes it seems to me that, on balance, philosophy causes more mischief than good. The human instinct toward rationalization and systems undervalues life's complexity and nuance. Certainly the quest for certainty, both in philosophy and law, offers ample evidence of philosophical failures. But humans have a need for philosophy, so embracing the humanistic, organic philosophy of Aristotle, Burke, Tocqueville, Berlin, Havel, and many others is where I think individual and social fulfillment can be found. Ultimately, what matters is what works.

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