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As previously noted, Burke’s notion of freedom anticipates elements of the negative construct of liberty that Hayek describes in The Constitution of Liberty. The contrast for Burke, then, was not so much in the proposition of an opposing ideal as it was in the placement of that ideal within the reality and context of human life. Burke’s concept of freedom may therefore be seen not so much as antagonistic to libertarian freedom as more contextual, descriptive, and less abstract. Such placement of freedom, nonetheless, has strong implications for how we as conservatives should understand and defend freedom in politics today. These implications stem from an argument that Burke made often; namely, that the application of ideals in practice tends to be far more complex and difficult than in theory.
To begin with, freedom as Burke understood it demands a responsibility to its nature, a disposition which Burke called maturity. Without this recognition, freedom may actually be far more dangerous than helpful. As Burke wrote in 1789, “Men must have a certain fund of natural moderation to qualify them for Freedom, else it become noxious to themselves and a perfect Nuisance to everybody else.” Burke again took up this train of thought in his work Reflections on the Revolution in France by asking, “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” Thus a population with high temperaments of self-respect and esteem for others is one in which individual freedom is widely sustainable and helpful; inversely, where widespread self-destruction and hate lurk just below the surface, the move to induce freedom is an invitation to chaos.
For Burke the task of deciding precisely how mature a society is, and thus how much freedom should be permitted, is a highly difficult and complex process that should never be left up to government alone. Instead it requires a continual interplay between the people and their elected officials. Generally prescribed rules aid in this endeavor but do not fully resolve it, for as Burke argued before Parliament, “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rater to be happy citizens, than subtle disputants.” Achieving the proper balance of rights is thus no simple or straightforward matter. It forever requires the time and persistent effort of conservative politicians as well as the informed, active electorate who would hold them accountable.
Given Burke’s understanding of descriptive freedom and its eternally unsettled nature in political affairs, what tools does Burke offer to help conservatives in the “compromise and barter” of safeguarding freedom? What virtues should facilitate and govern the ethical interplay between the members of a civilized society and their government? To ask such questions is to invite the recognition that there is more than a single root of conservatism, that individual freedom exists and grows best when it is accompanied and respected by other virtues. Fortunately, Burke provides much in the way of identifying those virtues and explaining precisely what they mean. Examining these additional roots, as we shall do in my next post, allows us to envision the full complexity of an intellectually robust, ethically sound, and politically formidable conservatism – precisely the type that should inform our politicians and voters today.
 Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France, pxix.
 Ibid, p208.
 Burke, Edmund. “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies.” Liberty Fund, Select Works of Edmund Burke: Vol 1.
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