Chapter 5 of The Great Debate, “Reason and Prescription”, opens our conceptual War Chest to see something left for us by prior generations. Anyone with even a modicum of wealth has inherited a defensive weapon – what Edmund Burke calls Prescription. Prescription is a Roman property law concept whereby ownership comes from long-term use, not by formal deed. Burke uses the term to describe how ancient practices and institutions are given the benefit of doubt against reforms that might undermine them – humility and gratitude before the wisdom of the past. It keeps our family values and wealth safe from radical thinkers.
Our liberties and private property rights are an entailed inheritance, derived from our forefathers and transmitted to posterity – a life estate enjoyed by each generation, protecting property owners against radial innovation in law and politics. Burke’s model of inherited wisdom “leaves acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires. Whatever advantages are obtained…are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement.” Burke admires the legal profession and its reliance on precedents because lawyers understand that the authority of law depends on its stability so people can build their lives around certain assumptions that should not be needlessly disrupted.
Political problems are not about what is true and what is false. They relate to what is good and what is evil. A focus on practical and not theoretical allocation of power is morally superior. Prudence and measuring success by what has worked in keeping people safe, happy and free is what makes our society stable. Institutions that have developed over many generations may not seem “fair” to some but attempting to force them into a theoretical structure foreign to their development would be disastrous. “The old building stands well enough, though part gothic, part Grecian, and part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then it may come down upon our heads altogether.”
Our nation has deep roots in common law, customs and moral habits. A working regime with a profound heritage and a history of incremental development should be given the benefit of the doubt and “should not be subjected to the searing light of the Enlightenment philosopher’s misguided investigation, driven as it is by an exaggerated notion of the power of reason.” Radical Leftist thinkers are the opposite of humble and grateful – they want to strip away ancient wisdom and construct a utopian new world. The arrogance of their pretension is astounding.
We’ll conclude our War Chest journey through Chapter 5 of Levin’s book next week by looking at Thomas Paine’s attack on inheritance rights and why he was so logically and morally wrong on that issue.