Revolution vs. Reform


Chapter 6 of The Great Debate is Thomas Paine’s argument for total radical revolution in the name of justice – which is answered by Edmund Burke’s cautionary retort that reforming a regime is vastly superior to trashing the whole system.  Burke writes:

An ignorant man, who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is however sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces, and put together at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance and complexity, composed of far other wheels, and springs, and balances, and counteracting and co-operating powers. Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand.  Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption.


Burke was ahead of his time articulating a lucid, effective socio-economic political philosophy. He even predicted the rise of Napoleon after the impetuous, intellectually arrogant revolutionaries in France disassembled the French government.  A regime based on faith in pure choice, equality and individualism is doomed to fail.  Revolution should always be the last resort after reform efforts fail to redress only the most abominable conditions.  Abrupt revolution is almost always impractical and immoral extremism.  Here’s another of Burke’s illustrative metaphors:  “He that sets his house on fire because his fingers are frostbitten can never be a fit instructor in the method of providing our habitations with cheerful and salutary warmth.”


Paine and other revolutionaries seem to derive macabre pleasure in thoughts of destruction. They were practically giddy as French nobles got their heads chopped off.  Burke believed that this hunger for ruin and violence is a function of a lack of appreciation for the given world – an ungrateful, conceited worldview focused not on gratitude for what works in society but rather bitter outrage at what does not work.  More importantly, opting for radical revolution instead of gradual reform places an unhealthy emphasis on the present and the living, while ignoring the respect and obligation that we so clearly owe to countless deceased generations and to generations yet to be born.  The Estate Planning War Chest turns to them next week.


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