Johnson, Burke and the “Contraction of Power”

Lately I haven’t had much time to read and have continued my leisurely perusal of Boswell, which includes Johnson’s conversations (April 1778) with the exiled Corsican patriot, General Paoli, and General Ogelthorpe, founder of the Georgia colony. In this Boswellian dialogue some interesting themes crop up. One deals with government. Another is economics, which I’ll cover in a separate post.

It also happens that I’m reading Russell Kirk’s commentary on Edmund Burke. In hindsight it is clear how much Johnson had in common with Burke, though the two men often disagreed during their lifetime. Things that loom large in one generation seem less important to us. That is not to say that they are trivial, but this realization may help to keep our own egos and opinions in perspective. Johnson was an old-fashioned Tory, verging on Jacobite. Burke was a Whig or “classical liberal”; a staunch reformer, but never a revolutionary. Whatever their differences, they agreed on the fundamentals of human conduct and society.

In one passage of The Conservative Mind Kirk quotes the saying that “if men would cultivate the individual virtues, social problems would take care of themselves.” He goes on to comment: “There is a good deal in this observation, although it is more nearly true of Johnson than of Burke. It is not the whole of Burke’s opinion upon the ills of society, for no one knew better than he the power for good or evil that lies in establishments; but it is true that Burke saw politics as an exercise in morals.”

Johnson understood that the virtues of the governed precede questions of how people are governed. The latter can never supplant the former. But the two definitely reinforce each other. The gargantua of English prose was a strict monarchist, albeit a constitutional one. He understood the need for checks and balances, even if he was not as familiar with the concepts of Montesquieu as Burke. Johnson explains:

The more contracted [concentrated] that power is, the more easily it is destroyed. A country governed by a despot is an inverted cone. Government there cannot be so firm, as when it rests upon a broad basis gradually contracted [through subsidiarity], as the government of Great Britain, which is founded on the parliament, then is in the privy council, then in the King.

At a time like this, when our country sees the rapid erosion of ancient liberties, it is clear that centralized rule encourages the egoistic libido dominandi of the ideologues. In a democracy, that “contraction of power” must be opposed in the voting booth, to prevent the despotism that Johnson warned of.

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