Tradition!

A commenter on the petition/secret ballot thread writes,

The petition process has always been public, from the days when a list of names was nailed to a courthouse door. If you want to express yourself privately, write a letter.

As the world adjusts to an age with so much electronic communication, it’s so odd to see “conservatives” pick and choose which traditions need to be respected and which can be upended.

I’m not a “conservative,” or for that matter a “libertarian” — I’m a guy who sometimes agrees with libertarians, sometimes with conservatives, and sometimes with others.

But even thoroughgoing conservatives must “pick and choose which traditions need to be respected and which can be upended.” I know of no conservative who believes that every single tradition must be followed, especially in a time of rapid technological change, but even in other times. Conservatives generally believe that most traditions tend to be wise. But conservatives acknowledge that some traditions may have been unwise from the outset — and many more may no longer yield the benefits that they once yielded, given changing circumstances. Change is a constant of modern human existence. Blind adherence to all tradition is a parody of conservatism, not the genuine belief of most conservatives (at least among conservative intellectuals). Certainly Edmund Burke, often cited as a main intellectual guide for modern conservatives, was no believer in respecting (in the sense of following) all tradition.

Now conservatives might well tend to prefer to stick with traditions until really good reasons are given for departing from them. They tend to be suspicious of radical change. When change happens, they prefer that the change be gradual, and that it adapt existing traditions rather than entirely discard them. For instance, a conservative might be open to keeping initiative and referendum petitions as secret as possible, precisely because of the analogy to the secret ballot — modest change — and the fact that some states already don’t publicly release the names of signers — change that has already been tested. But a conservative might be cautious about more radical changes that would make the initiative and referendum into something very different.

The one thing that virtually no conservative would do, I think, is to simply say that we cannot pick and choose among traditions, and that we must always adhere to all of them. (Some religious conservatives might think that about certain religious matters, but not about all social traditions; indeed, they might be quite willing to entirely jettison human social traditions that they see as conflicting with religious teachings.) So don’t ascribe to your political adversaries foolish commitments, and then fault them for failing to live up to that folly.