pageok
pageok
pageok
Pitfalls of Burkean Conservatism:

In this post, I am going to discuss two major shortcomings of Burkean conservatism: its excessive deference to tradition and its failure to recognize that rapid change is often preferable to a more gradualistic approach. I know that there is a controversy among Burke experts about the extent to which Edmund Burke himself actually held these views. So my objections are principally aimed at modern exponents of what is usually called "Burkean" conservatism, irrespective of whether Burke himself would have endorsed their views (e.g. Jonathan Rauch in the article on McCain that we have been discussing).

I. Overvaluing Tradition.

Rauch identifies "respect [for] long-standing customs and institutions" and reluctance to override tradition as key attributes of Burkean conservatism. Burkeans do not claim that tradition should be maintained at all costs; but they do accord it a high degree of deference and a presumption of validity. The obvious objection to this idea is that there have been many harmful and oppressive traditions, including very longstanding ones. Slavery, racism, sexism, authoritarian government, and - in the former communist world - socialism, are obvious examples. But the issue is not just that there are some very bad traditions. Burkeans could counter this point by arguing that, on balance, most traditions are good. The more fundamental problem is that there is a systematic category of traditions that are likely to be harmful because they are the result of coercion and imposition by one group (usually a dominant elite) on others. Most of the harmful traditions that I listed above fall into this category.

Coercively imposed traditions do not deserve any deference or presumption of their validity. It may sometimes be difficult or impossible to change them. But there is no reason to assume that they have any inherent value, as Burkean conservatives too often do. And it is important to recognize that Burkean appeals to tradition were in fact used to justify the continuation of slavery, racism, sexism, political authoritarianism, and communism when efforts to abolish these institutions got underway.

Burkeans such as co-blogger Dale Carpenter correctly point out that we sometimes fail to "fully appreciate the wisdom of longstanding practices and institutions." But this point cuts both ways: we also often fail to fully appreciate the harm they cause. And the latter bias is likely to be more common than the former. Most people have a strong tendency to take the validity of their longstanding practices for granted without serious questioning. As Dale knows better than I, until recently the vast majority of heterosexuals took the validity of homophobia for granted and grossly underestimated the harm it causes. Many hold such views even today.

Burkeans are probably on firmer ground in urging respect for traditions that emerge from voluntary interactions, such as business arrangements between willing buyers and sellers. Unfortunately, however, all too many Burkean conservatives have not limited their deference to tradition to such cases.

To make the point completely clear, I am not arguing that tradition, even coercively imposed tradition, is always harmful. I merely suggest that coercively imposed traditions deserve no presumption of validity. Indeed, we should view them with great suspicion unless and until a compelling justification is offered.

II. Undervaluing the Potential Benefits of Rapid Change.

Rauch also identifies opposition to "radical change" as a key attribute of Burkean conservatism. This view, I think, fails to recognize the potential advantages of rapid change.

There are many historical examples where the rapid elimination of oppressive traditions and institutions turned out to be wiser than a gradualistic approach. Slavery in the United States and serfdom in Russia were both eliminated very rapidly in the 1860s. This was almost certainly better than a gradual elimination over a period of several decades (as urged by some moderate abolitionists), which would have consigned several more generations to bondage. In the 1960s, Congress' rapid dismantling segregation in the South worked more effectively and caused less violence and "massive resistance" than the gradualistic approach the Supreme Court pursued in the 1950s. The rapid destruction of dictatorship and swift transition to liberal democracy in countries such as Germany, Japan, Italy, Grenada, and Panama has worked quite well. Most recently, those post-communist nations that made a rapid and complete transition from communism (e.g. - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia) have done far better than those such as Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, which adopted a more gradualistic approach - one which has led to lower economic growth and a resurgence of authoritarianism.

There are two systematic lessons to be learned from these cases. First, rapid change has the advantage of making it more difficult for supporters of the oppressive status quo to mobilize to prevent reform. For example, the Supreme Court's initial gradualistic approach to desegregation gave the southern states time and opportunity to pursue their strategy of "massive resistance" and gave groups such as the Ku Klux Klan the opportunity to resist with violence. In Russia, the failure to fully dismantle the communist power structure enabled the KGB and other communist institutions to retain some of their power and eventually install one of their own (Vladimir Putin) as president, thereby reversing some of the gains of the 1990s. In addition to denying them time for mobilization and counteraction, rapid change can also destroy some of the power structures these reactionaries need to make their resistance effective.

Second, to the extent that the tradition at issue harmful or oppressive, a gradualistic approach necessarily perpetuates the suffering it causes for a longer time than gradual change would. For example, a gradualistic approach to the abolition of slavery necessarily means that at least one additional generation will remain in bondage.

These potential advantages of rapid change are sometimes outweighed by its costs. I do not mean to endorse any general principle that rapid change is always superior. However, I do think that Burkean conservatives are wrong to argue for a general presumption in favor of gradualism. Whether rapid change is preferable to a gradualist approach will vary from case to case. It depends on how bad the status quo is, how much opposition has to be overcome, how effective reactionaries will be in taking advantage of the respite granted by gradualism, and other such factors.

Burkean conservatism isn't always wrong. But its advocates do tend to overvalue tradition and undervalue the potential advantages of rapid change.

UPDATE: In response to various comments, I suppose I should clarify that I am opposed to either gradual or rapid change for the worse. Thus, there is no need to point out that, e.g., communists supported rapid changes that I would consider harmful. Adherents of virtually any ideology oppose what they consider to be change in the wrong direction. The distinctive aspect of Burkean conservatism is the strong preference for gradualism even with respect to beneficial change. That is the tendency I seek to criticize. I do not believe that change as such is either good or bad. It depends on the direction of the change and how it is implemented.

UPDATE #2: This response to my argument claims that Edmund Burke didn't hold the views I attribute to Burkean conservatives. Perhaps not. But as I noted in the original post, I am criticizing modern writers who consider themselves Burkean conservatives. I take no position on the question of whether they interpret Burke's own views correctly. And these writers do place a strong emphasis on deference to tradition and opposition to rapid change - even if the change is in a beneficial direction.

SIG357:
Slavery is brought up a lot with respect to conservatives supposed dogmatic defense of the past. It's worth pointing out that Burke was an early advocate for the abolition of slavery, unlike such supposed liberals as Madison and Jefferson.



I merely suggest that coercively imposed traditions deserve no presumption of validity.

All traditions are coercively imposed, very much including the ones which replaced the traditions you mentioned.

You mention homosexuality - the change in attidues towards this has been the result of top-down coercion. The question is, is top-down coercion justified sometimes? And if so, who decides when?

The second question is rethorical, since it's the "top", the people with control of societies levers, who decide. Just keep in mind that you won't always like what they decide.
5.4.2008 6:13pm
loki13 (mail):
Prof. Somin,

I worry about you. Really, I do. Not in the condescending manner that presupposes that you are wrong. Often, I find myself agreeing with you (especially when it comes to the Red Sox). Rather, I worry about the insidious nature of ideology and intelligence. You are clearly intelligent, and in the manner of many intelligent people, you have taken to an approach (libertarianism) and fit all the pegs you find into the holes of your beliefs. But I am not sure that there is a difference between the extreme collectivism of a Trotskyite and the extreme individualism of a libertarian. This is not meant as an idle insult to you, given that I know from your posts that you have ample disregard for the former Soviet Union; rather it is an observation of the extreme utopianism that I see.

Burke is a realistic antidote to that. Burke never argued that *bad* traditions should be discarded; rather, it was the idea that there is some value in not re-inventing the wheel every day. An acknowledgment that are ancestors may have had some wisdom, and that there should be a compelling reason to deviate from past principles. Sort of like a constitutional stare decisis.

I think there is some value in that. There have been many smart people in history. All have been wrong about something. There have been many ideologies. None have worked at all places and at all times (the end of history and all that). So, you know, keep on truckin'.
5.4.2008 6:16pm
loki13 (mail):
two corrections:

are ancestors = our ancestors
constitutional stare decisis = societal stare decisis
5.4.2008 6:18pm
SIG357:
In Russia, the failure to fully dismantle the communist power structure enabled the KGB and other communist institutions to retain some of their power and eventually install one of their own

Of course you fail to note that "rapid change" and the method you describe of overwhelming resistence was employed by the communists in setting up the Soviet Union in the first place.



the Supreme Court's initial gradualistic approach to desegregation

Considering that the Supreme Court had no authority to do the things they did, I'd have to say that attacking them for being too "gradualistic" is peculiar.
5.4.2008 6:19pm
SIG357:
First, rapid change has the advantage of making it more difficult for supporters of the oppressive status quo to mobilize to prevent reform.


Think about what you just wrote, and ask yourself if Lenin would have found any fault with it.
5.4.2008 6:24pm
Gabriel (www):
my understanding is that jonathan rauch himself makes a "gradual change can be worse than radical change" argument in the context of gay marriage. specifically, he notes that domestic partnership is often posed as a gradualist or compromise position and that even if there is something to the speculation that gay marriage will dilute the procreative conception of marriage, this is small potatoes compared to the structural changes implied by the legal institutionalization of marriage-lite. therefore this implies that if the status quo is not a politically feasible option (or perhaps even if it is) that we are better off opting for radical change rather than gradual change.
5.4.2008 6:31pm
AnonLawStudent:
I would point out the problem with several of Prof. Somin's examples of "rapid change." The abolition of slavery and the "rapid destruction of dictatorship and swift transition to liberal democracy in . . . Germany, Japan, Italy, Grenada, and Panama" each required violence on a massive scale, as did the imposition of communism cited by SIG357. I'm not saying that these changes were wrong, but Prof. Somin neglects to acknowledge the very real cost of rapid change. Indeed, one can argue that the Civil Rights Era was as *relatively peaceful* as it was only because an elected body legitimized the change, and imposed much of it over a period of several decades.
5.4.2008 6:32pm
b.:
doesn't the recognition that certain traditions are in fact coercive and therefore illegitimate as social/political-practices strike at the very foundations of conservatism? in a context of less than perfect homogeneity, is it not necessarily the case that certain stakeholders' interests will always be subordinate to others' and that this subordination can not persist, absent perfect consent, but for coercion of some form?

how do conservatives turn this slippery slope into a sticky step if not by the exercise of arbitrary and therefore coercive judgments either that (a) homogeneity should at some point be presumed by a refusal to recognize a diversity of interests, and/or (b) social utility is an adequate substitute for consent and that parity can be reached between the two through the practice of certain traditions?
5.4.2008 6:33pm
donaldk:
Guidance by the Burke tradition avoids insofar as possible, unintended consequences. It does not mean "whatever is, is right." There exist evils that must be overthrown as rapidly as possible, e.g. slavery, segregation. But there are not many of them.

Burke surely opposed reform of the franchise. This seems outlandish to us. Reform came slowly, slowly, actuated by the rise of the industrial capitalist class. It is difficult for us to imagine a time when it was a novel idea that a cotton mill owner was at least the equal of a landed aristo. Burke, I believe, would have opposed it in his time, according to the maxim
"If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change."

A recent example of this is Britain's alteration of the House of Lords. Yes, it looks ludicrous that a legislative body should be peopled by inheritance. But look at it this way: Let's imagine a House chosen at random - by Buckley's first hundred names in the phone book. Does anyone out there think it is an improvement to have it peopled by placemen of this or that political party? Look at the House of Commons before you answer.
5.4.2008 6:37pm
jim47:

Burkean conservatism isn't always wrong. But its advocates do tend to overvalue tradition and undervalue the potential advantages of rapid change.


This strikes me as an odd conclusion to spend so much time supporting, when it is just about the first thing that a Burkean conservative will concede to you.

Of course a Burkean conservative is likely to oppose sweeping changes that are good, and to retain traditions that are bad. A Burkean doesn't pretend to get everything right, he merely contends that on balance he gets more things right, and more important things right.

For every utopian scheme that a Burkean opposed, but which turned out well in the end, Burkeans have opposed dozens more that either would have, or did, turn out disastrously.

On the issue of slavery, I would also add that I am not sure it is fair to tar Burkeanism with Calhounianism, since Burke was very much a liberal, and I personally fail to see a great deal of that tradition in Calhoun.
5.4.2008 6:40pm
Ilya Somin:
Of course you fail to note that "rapid change" and the method you describe of overwhelming resistence was employed by the communists in setting up the Soviet Union in the first place.


As I noted in the post, I have never argued that rapid change is always good, or even in the majority of cases. Rather, I merely suggest that Burkeans are wrong to argue for a presumption in favor of gradualism.
5.4.2008 6:41pm
Ilya Somin:
But I am not sure that there is a difference between the extreme collectivism of a Trotskyite and the extreme individualism of a libertarian. This is not meant as an idle insult to you, given that I know from your posts that you have ample disregard for the former Soviet Union; rather it is an observation of the extreme utopianism that I see.

I don't know exactly what you mean here. But libertarianism doesn't require utopianism about either the perfectibility of individual humans or political institutions. To the contrary, many libertarians are very suspicious and pessimistic about both. Libertarianism does of course argue for major changes from current practices. But advocacy of change, even radical change, is not the same as utopianism.
5.4.2008 6:43pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
loki13-

But I am not sure that there is a difference between the extreme collectivism of a Trotskyite and the extreme individualism of a libertarian.

Why? Clearly there are differences. As collectivism is approached self-ownership goes away and people are owned by the "collective". Since politicians exercise de facto control of the collective everyone is in fact owned by politicians - basically slavery. Now why can't that be contrasted with the individualism of libertarianism?

If you maintain that the individualism of libertarianism has its own problems just as severe as that mentioned above what are they?
5.4.2008 6:45pm
Perseus (mail):
This post is a good example of the sort of thing that a philosophe would write and Burkean conservatives would berate.

Coercion is treated in the abstract and viewed as presumptively bad (consistent, of course, with the metaphysically mad views of libertarian projectors).

Communism is treated as a "tradition", when in fact it was the French Revolution on steroids!

Treating Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia as comparable to Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine in analyzing the relative merits of rapid versus gradual change commits the fatal error of arithmetic reasoning, as if the Poles and Russians are essentially the same.

And so on.
5.4.2008 6:46pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
b.-

...in a context of less than perfect homogeneity, is it not necessarily the case that certain stakeholders' interests will always be subordinate to others' and that this subordination can not persist, absent perfect consent, but for coercion of some form?

From this it sounds like you are describing second class citizens. Can you give an example of what you mean here?
5.4.2008 6:49pm
SIG357:
Since politicians exercise de facto control of the collective everyone is in fact owned by politicians - basically slavery. Now why can't that be contrasted with the individualism of libertarianism?


Because in libertarian individualism, everyone is owned by the politicians as well. Who mediates between all these squabbling individuals? Collectivism and individualism both boil down to the idea of the general will, and both have their origins in Rousseau.
5.4.2008 6:55pm
vassil petrov (mail):
I have always thought that E. Burke was an Olg Whig, i.e. a liberal, and not a conservative. Go figure.
5.4.2008 6:56pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Perseus-

Coercion is treated in the abstract and viewed as presumptively bad (consistent, of course, with the metaphysically mad views of libertarian projectors).

That's because the term is usually used by libertarians in the context of illegal or illegitimate force. Libertarians don't have a problem with force used in a legitimate context, like true self-defense.
5.4.2008 6:57pm
jim47:

... jonathan rauch himself makes a "gradual change can be worse than radical change" argument in the context of gay marriage. ... domestic partnership is often posed as a gradualist ... this is ... the legal institutionalization of marriage-lite.

I think that argument for gay marriage and against domestic partnerships is on solid Burkean ground. Burke is reputed to have said that the challenge of a statesman is

to sluice the tides of change through the canals of custom

It certainly seems more Burkean to let the tide flow though an existing canal (alloying gay marriage) than to dig a new canal (domestic partnerships) that siphons off some of the water that used to flow in the old canal.
5.4.2008 6:59pm
jim47:

I have always thought that E. Burke was an Olg Whig, i.e. a liberal, and not a conservative. Go figure.


Conservatism devoid of whiggery is a wretched creature.
5.4.2008 7:05pm
SIG357:
Mr. Somin

I have never argued that rapid change is always good, or even in the majority of cases. Rather, I merely suggest that Burkeans are wrong to argue for a presumption in favor of gradualism.


If gradualism is good in the majority of cases, is that not an argument for a presumption in favor of gradualism? Unless you can somehow tell in advance which instances should be reserved for gradualism, and which for rapid change.

But Hayek and others made convincing arguments that possession of such knowledge is simply not possible, that "the system" is beyond any human comprehension.

To argue that such knowledge is possible, it seems to me, takes us from classical liberalism to modern liberalism. And maybe that's where liberalism lost its way.
5.4.2008 7:05pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
SIG357-

Because in libertarian individualism, everyone is owned by the politicians as well.

Not at all. One of the fundamental principles of most brands of libertarianism is self-ownership. The state can only exercise control or force over the individual in certain very narrowly prescribed situations.

Who mediates between all these squabbling individuals?

A properly functioning, objective, non-corrupt legal system. And again this can only exercise control over the individual in a few very narrowly prescribed situations.

Collectivism and individualism both boil down to the idea of the general will, and both have their origins in Rousseau.

I don't know about this, do you have a cite? If so the individualism of Rousseau bears little resemblence to the individualism of many modern libertarians. Self-ownership is one of the fundamental principles of most modern brands of libertarianism.
5.4.2008 7:06pm
SIG357:
"A properly functioning, objective, non-corrupt legal system. And again this can only exercise control over the individual in a few very narrowly prescribed situations."

Are you at all familiar with the legal system In America? Every conceivable aspect of human interaction, and some inconceivable ones, are subject to it. And it is the self-owing individuals themselves who make it that way, although the politicians (aka the "objective non-corrupt legal system") are quite happy for them to do so.
5.4.2008 7:15pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
SIG357-

Are you at all familiar with the legal system In America?

Yes, that's why I wrote a simple statement of what it should be, not how it often is now.

Every conceivable aspect of human interaction, and some inconceivable ones, are subject to it.

I strongly agree that there are too many laws and regulations today. But how the Founders set things up was clearly intended to protect individuals who owned themselves and property. Want to arrest someone? You better have a warrant and probable cause. Want to imprison someone? Better be able to prove they did something beyond a reasonable doubt in a proceeding fully adhering to Due Process principles. Etc, etc... (And I realize a lot of these mechanisms have been eroded recently, which is something that seriously needs to be remedied.)

And it is the self-owing individuals themselves who make it that way, although the politicians (aka the "objective non-corrupt legal system") are quite happy for them to do so.

Granted there are a lot of knuckleheads that don't realize people own themselves and they let other knuckleheads get away with a lot. But there are still some key mechanisms that protect the self-owning individual, if the law is enforced properly and non-corruptly.
5.4.2008 7:31pm
SIG357:
AP

I'd say that there is a vital distinction to be made between the type of citizens the Founders saw as the bedrock of this country, and much of what is called modern individualism.

If we're taking about the same type of people, we're on the same page. But it strikes me that modern individualism takes people just as they happen to be, and calls it good. The Founders all stressed that what they were setting up depended on a "virtuous people".

E.g. "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters", Ben Franklin. All the founders said the same thing.

We don't need individualism, we need the type of individuals who are capable of freedom. Whatever Bush thinks, its not a direct gift from God.
5.4.2008 7:47pm
SIG357:
I'm pretty sure that self-ownership was not on the Founders radar. Leaving aside that many of them owned slaves, their conception of the nature of people seems to have been much less "individualistic".
5.4.2008 7:51pm
merevaudevillian:
here are many historical examples where the rapid elimination of oppressive traditions and institutions turned out to be wiser than a gradualistic approach.


I think you're overstating the "wisdom" of these decisions. For instance, the prompt removal of slavery led inevitably to segregation. A Burkean would argue that, while the immediate goal of rapid change might be successful (e.g., slavery was quickly eliminated), a too-fast approach results in unconsidered collateral consequences that are not desirable. In contrast, a slow change can anticipate those collateral consequences and respond to them better. For instance, with so much focus on "slavery," there was little thought (some Reconstruction legislation notwithstanding) about what it meant for freed slaves to be citizens.

I don't intend to chronicle each such path for your examples, but I think there are often significant problems attached with rapid change, too.
5.4.2008 7:57pm
Laura S.:
The most fascinating thing for me in this discussion has been the clarity of contrast: 'Orin Kerr' Burkean and 'Ilya Somin' young-idealist.

This really highlights fusion of the modern right. Burkean... individualism..., 'values voters'...
5.4.2008 8:16pm
hawkins:

The distinctive aspect of Burkean conservatism from is the strong preference for gradualism even with respect to beneficial change. That is the tendency I seek to criticize.


And rightly so. Beneficial change? I want it now, more of it and faster.
5.4.2008 8:19pm
byomtov (mail):
In response to various comments, I suppose I should clarify that I am opposed to either gradual or rapid change for the worse.

This must qualify as one of the oddest disclaimers ever.
5.4.2008 8:53pm
SIG357:
Beneficial change? I want it now, more of it and faster.


Don't we all!!!

Now if we could just discover some way to find out which change is beneficial, and which change is disasterous, BEFORE making the change, we'd be in great shape.
5.4.2008 9:01pm
SIG357:
The more I think on this, the less well its sits. Let's take the example of government enforced anti-gay discrimination measures, mentioned above.

What these mean in practice is that the state watches the private economic transactions of individual people, then makes judgements as to whether or not they are acceptable. Examples would by hiring employment and renting accomodation.


In signing off on these laws Somin is accepting that the state has both the ability to determine whether individual economic transactions are "fair and reasonable", and the power to alter them in the direction the state feels is correct.

Once you go along with all that, what grounds are left to oppose ANY state interference in the economy, like minimum wage laws or price controls? What is left of the libertarian economic position that the state cannot know what the best economic transaction is, and the libertarian political position of a minimal government? Very little that I can see.
5.4.2008 9:14pm
Doc W (mail):
SIG357,

I agree with one of your earlier posts that liberty requires some general level of virtue. And the reverse: virtue tends to wither where liberty is absent. Encroachments on liberty need to be resisted from the start, precisely because collectivism tends to become entrenched. When one generation accepts government paternalism, future generations grow up less able to take care of themselves. So they vote for collectivist politicians, and the downward spiral continues.

Sad irony: Freeing the slaves was probably the best thing that ever happened to American liberty, but the Civil War was probably the worst. Lincoln's war killed two percent of the entire population of the country at that time. It centralized government power, magnified the presidency, and set the stage for future assaults on the feds' Constitutional bounds.

As for gay marriage, the libertarian answer as best I can tell is to let adults associate on the basis of contractual agreements. They can call it marriage or whatever they want. Let the government enforce contracts, and leave it at that. Why should the government define "marriage?"
5.4.2008 9:42pm
sbw (mail) (www):
Why argue acceleration when it is direction that is the issue?
5.4.2008 9:45pm
Tucker (mail):
Prof. Somin, no post you could have written could have provided a better argument for the Burkean position.

Well done.
5.4.2008 9:45pm
Stacy (mail):
Assuming the change in question is really necessary and beneficial (ending slavery) then rapid change is indeed preferable to gradualism. I think the key in Burkeanism is an unstated suspicion that any given social change is unnecessary and/or non-beneficial (replacing Weimar with Hitler) and that taking a gradual approach by default offers a better chance to avoid accidents -- at the acceptable cost of occasionally prolonging injustice.
5.4.2008 9:52pm
Ilya Somin:
I think you're overstating the "wisdom" of these decisions. For instance, the prompt removal of slavery led inevitably to segregation.

I don't know if that progression was inevitable. The failure of Reconstruction was a near-run thing. But even if it was inevitable, segregation wasn't nearly as bad as another several decades of slavery would have been, especially given that many southern blacks could migrate to the less segregationist North (something that few slaves could have done).
5.4.2008 10:01pm
frankcross (mail):
Counterfactuals are always tricky, but one certainly could argue that the prompt abolition of slavery (via a terribly bloody Civil War) was inferior to a somewhat slower abolition that did not require such a war. I think that would be the better argument.
5.4.2008 10:07pm
SIG357:
Let the government enforce contracts, and leave it at that. Why should the government define "marriage?"


I'm probably going way off on a tanget here, but if marriage is a contract, and government should enforce contracts, does there not have to be a government definition of marriage? Otherwise, what does it enforce?
5.4.2008 10:15pm
David Hecht (mail):
ISTM that you are beating up a strawman, Prof. Somin. Burkeanism isn't deference--blind or otherwise--to tradition: it's merely the recognition that many things that are a certain way have gotten that way through gradual, organic change, and--perhaps most importantly--the fact that we can't articulate why these traditions (for want of a better term) are preferable to some alternative does not make them indefensible.

Allow me to submit a homely example from my actual life experience: in a certain restaurant which I frequented regularly with some friends, we always sat at a table in the middle of the room. One day, for some reason, we sat at an identical table, but against the wall. I noticed my friends were uncomfortable, and kept moving about to try and get more comfortable. Finally, they gave up trying and we moved to our old table. I said, "There you see the conservative [meaning Burkean] sensibility in action." "How so?" my (rather left-wing) friends asked suspiciously. "Well," I replied, "You have now discovered that some things that we do and have done a certain way for a long time turn out to be preferable to the alternative, for reasons that we couldn't have articulated /a priori/, but which are nevertheless very real."
5.4.2008 10:17pm
David Hecht (mail):
As to gradualism versus sudden change, I think it's at least a defensible argument that the Brazilian approach to slavery--a slow, gradual process--may have been preferable to our more abrupt approach.

Even if you discount the Jim Crow laws and other sequelae, I think it's possible that the 600,000 dead of our Civil War might agree.
5.4.2008 10:20pm
byomtov (mail):
one certainly could argue that the prompt abolition of slavery (via a terribly bloody Civil War) was inferior to a somewhat slower abolition that did not require such a war.

One could, but one would have to show that the slower abolition was going to happen without war, and then one would have to show that a few more decades, maybe, of slavery was worth avoiding the Civil War for.

So one would be faced with arguing that keeping blacks enslaved was better than getting whites, even white defenders of slavery, killed. Further, one would have to ignore the fact that the very bloodiness of the Civil War suggests that the South was a long way from giving up slavery voluntarily.

One would face an uphill battle, I think.
5.4.2008 10:23pm
SIG357:
Just a side note on Burke - he greatly admired Adam Smith, and Smith admired Burke.

Hayek was also a fan, and he seems to have described his political leanings as "Old Whig" as a tribute to Burke.
5.4.2008 10:26pm
SIG357:
Based on past experience (now there's a Burkean argument) I recommend trying to keep the discussion on the principles involved, and avoiding any mention of the Civil War if examples must be introduced. Nobody wants to go there. We'll be debating the morality of Sherman's March and Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus before you know it.
5.4.2008 10:40pm
SIG357:
doesn't the recognition that certain traditions are in fact coercive and therefore illegitimate as social/political-practices strike at the very foundations of conservatism?


I'm hard pressed to think of any traditions which are not coercive to some degree. That includes liberal and libertarian traditions which make up much of the common law in America. Men with guns will vist you if you flout those traditions.
5.4.2008 10:49pm
ReaderY:
A key feature of this post is the assumptions it makes -- they are unstated, simply assumed -- about the nature of what be regarded as good. Societies in this post seem to be judged by the benefits (other than progeny) they provide to individuals, as distinct from their survival (and the provision of progeny).

There are have doubtless been many forms of society in the past that have been far more benefical to individuals, and hence obviously better by such a standard, than our own form. We simply don't know about the ones that didn't leave any survivors.
5.4.2008 11:05pm
Oren:
Further, one would have to ignore the fact that the very bloodiness of the Civil War suggests that the South was a long way from giving up slavery voluntarily.
I don't think that follows, it is quite possible that the bloodiness of the Civil War was a reaction to outside intervention. Many societies have reflexively taken up arms to defend principles that they did not hold very strongly before they were challenged.

This was part of Burke's insight -- people's view change slowly. Of course, the freedom of human beings ought not to be contingent on their slave-holders coming to realize their error voluntarily but the longevity of Jim Crow certainly indicates that reality on the ground ran quite a bit ahead of popular opinion.
5.4.2008 11:12pm
frankcross (mail):
Well, I'm not arguing against the Civil War. I think it would have taken a long, long time for slavery to die out otherwise. But that's just my opinion. My point was that making arguments from history is very difficult, because we can't really project the counterfactuals. One can venture historical arguments, but not with terribly much confidence, in my opinion.
5.4.2008 11:54pm
TGGP (mail) (www):
One argument for respecting tradition is that it is easy. People will resist your attempt to change their traditions, making your best laid plans go awry and causing you to resort to more and more drastic coercion until their resistance is defeated.

Mencius Moldbug argues that Whiggery is a pack of nonsense disproved by history here.
5.5.2008 12:01am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Towards the question of marriage and contracts needing the term marriage to be defined, I don't see why the government would need to be the party doing the defining.

One of the greatest problems I see with current marriage practices in the US actually stems from just this sort of definitional problem. The government defines what the contract is, and usually in such nebulous terms that the true obligations aren't clear. Compounded to this is the fact that more favorable terms may arise through the simple expedient of moving interstate.
5.5.2008 12:48am
SIG357:
I don't see why the government would need to be the party doing the defining.


The government is a party in the contract, at least implicitly, so that seems like a pretty good reason. Plus, it has a stake in the outcome.
5.5.2008 1:06am
SIG357:
The distinctive aspect of Burkean conservatism from is the strong preference for gradualism even with respect to beneficial change.


That's an interesting claim, but I think it would be more correct to say that Burkean conservatism (or Burkean liberalism as some call it) takes the attitude that simply knowing ahead of time which change will be beneficial is very difficult, sometimes impossible, due to the complexity and interconnectedness of the things being tinkered with. Respect for the law extends to the law of unintended consequences, which does not like to be flouted.

Hayek seems to have agreed with this, for the most part.
5.5.2008 1:12am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
SIG357-

If we're taking about the same type of people, we're on the same page. But it strikes me that modern individualism takes people just as they happen to be, and calls it good. The Founders all stressed that what they were setting up depended on a "virtuous people".

Eh, I don't think so. The Founders made provisions for criminal and civil courts, so I don't think they were under any delusions about virtue and human nature. But they did seem to be very dedicated to creating a system that carved out a lot of fundamental rights for the individual.

E.g. "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters", Ben Franklin. All the founders said the same thing.

Yet they also created a court system with a lot of checks, controls, and demands of accountability on the government. If everyone was virtuous why would you need that? Regardless of their rhetoric in other instances, I think the emphasis on self-ownership(I realize it initially only applied to whites but it was later expanded.) was there even though it wasn't stated in those terms, although the Declaration of Independence comes close. But its pretty apparent in the operation of a number of passages in the Constitution. If the government seizes a man's person, it will be made to answer for it.(habeas corpus provision and other passages) If the government seizes a man's property, it will also be made to answer for it.

We don't need individualism, we need the type of individuals who are capable of freedom. Whatever Bush thinks, its not a direct gift from God.

But the Founders believed that nearly everyone was capable of freedom - see the wording of the Declaration. They created the courts - with strong checks, controls, and demands of accountability on the government - to handle the relatively infrequent cases of those who would infringe on other's rights.

I'm pretty sure that self-ownership was not on the Founders radar. Leaving aside that many of them owned slaves, their conception of the nature of people seems to have been much less "individualistic".

See the Declaration - it's pretty hard to have Life, Liberty, and to Pursue Hapiness if you don't own yourself.

And yes I realize that originally this mostly applied to whites and white males, but this was expanded to everyone later on.
5.5.2008 1:17am
Doc W (mail):
SIG357,

Forgive the belated response, but it doesn't matter whether you call a contract "marriage" or "chicken soup." The terms of contracts, as agreed to by those who entered into them, can be enforced.

As for leaving the Civil War out of the discussion--look, it's an example of radical societal change imposed by force of arms. The negative fallout, from 600,000 dead to Constitutional and social ramifications that persist to this day, was immense, no matter how happy we are that slavery was abolished. Perhaps the lesson is that here's no simple righting of long-term wrongs. Those who originally brought slavery to the colonies sowed the seeds of inevitable disaster.
5.5.2008 1:20am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
As an aside here I think the focus on the Civil War as an example is a little off. There were other triggering factors besides slavery.

As far as 19th century slavery elsewhere goes, I've heard it was phased out peacefully in many other places. But I wonder how slave revolts in these areas and other areas and even the Civil War influenced those peaceful transitions. For example in the HBO series on John Adams it mentioned how French colonists were running to America at the time to avoid the slave revolts in the Carribean. Anyone know how this effected the eventual transitions?
5.5.2008 1:27am
Alec:
I think the presumption that Burkeans (or those of similar ilk) attribute to gradualism and tradition is unwarranted. This is often heard from conservatives in relation to gay marriage, who argue that advocates have yet to "make the case" that marriage should be extended to same-sex couples, i.e., that they overcome the presumption in favor of marriage restricted to heterosexual couples.

This presumption doesn't make sense for a few reasons. First, obviously, there are going to be coercive traditions that do not deserve the presumption. I don't think the marriage debate falls within this category, though, because it was not homophobia or anti-gay sentiment that established or sustained heterosexual restrictions on marriage, until very recently. Certainly, however, slavery and state-sponsored racial discrimination fall within this category.

The second, and more important reason, is that the underlying basis for the "presumption" is difficult if not impossible to discern. Justifications become circular. "We have always done X" is illogical without at least a purported reason to back it up. Again, this is speaking not to the Burkean arguments generally, but to the idea of presumption in particular. For example, restrictions against same-sex marriage are not rooted in opposition to homosexuality, but in indifference to it.

Like I said, it is one thing for a party opposing something to present a prima facie case, establishing a rebuttable presumption, followed by the rebuttal. It is quite another to establish, in effect (given how the Burkeans and their ilk approach these presumptions) an irrebutable presumption of validity.
5.5.2008 1:29am
SIG357:
The terms of contracts, as agreed to by those who entered into them, can be enforced.

I'm not arguing with that. Just pointing out that the enforcer has a say in the details of the contracts it agrees to enforce. It's not the case that any two people, or group of people, can say "we have a contract" and expect the state (the rest of us) to jump up and salute.
5.5.2008 1:31am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
ReaderY-

There are have doubtless been many forms of society in the past that have been far more benefical to individuals, and hence obviously better by such a standard, than our own form. We simply don't know about the ones that didn't leave any survivors.

Are you implying that individualism or a commitment to individual rights leads to societal destruction, or making a rhetorical statement?
5.5.2008 1:35am
Doc W (mail):
AP--The elimination of slavery in the US was one of the items mentioned by Ilya Somin in his original post. That's why I discussed it. I am aware that the Civil War was triggered by other issues.

Perhaps there is a somewhat Burkean lesson: cultural capital evolves to cope with evil. When evil is removed suddenly, the now-inappropriate cultural capital remains for a time and imposes costs.
5.5.2008 1:38am
SIG357:
The second, and more important reason, is that the underlying basis for the "presumption" is difficult if not impossible to discern.

I'm not sure what your point is.


For example, restrictions against same-sex marriage are not rooted in opposition to homosexuality, but in indifference to it.


Maybe so, maybe not. What difference does the reason make? "Just because" is a perfectly valid answer.


it is one thing for a party opposing something to present a prima facie case, establishing a rebuttable presumption, followed by the rebuttal.

A society is not a court of law, and the people within it are not all either victims or defendents. Nor are you a prosecutor with authority to indict society for what you see as its crimes, still less a judge with the power to convict it. So these legal analogies are pretty silly.

If you have political arguments to make, go for it. These matters are not ones for the court system.
5.5.2008 1:39am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
>blockquote>
Just pointing out that the enforcer has a say in the details of the contracts it agrees to enforce. It's not the case that any two people, or group of people, can say "we have a contract" and expect the state (the rest of us) to jump up and salute.



The argument, however, is exactly that. People should be able to enter into contracts much more freely (meaning terms that are currently enenforceable).
5.5.2008 1:41am
SIG357:
Are you implying that individualism or a commitment to individual rights leads to societal destruction, or making a rhetorical statement?


You did not ask me, but I like the question so I'll jump in anyway, :)


Yes, individualism of some sorts does lead to societal destruction. Notably, the sort where the individual feels that his own rights and wants and needs take precedence over the best interests of the society he is a constituient member of. Obviously, once enough members of the society think this way it's headed for the scrap heap.
5.5.2008 1:45am
SIG357:
People should be able to enter into contracts much more freely (meaning terms that are currently enenforceable).


Which translates to "We all, in our collective role, should agree to give sanction to a wide range of contracts which we currently ignore or discourage".


And leads to the obvious retort, "Why should we?"

It's not sufficient that two people like the contract. If the collective "we" are to give it official backing, it has to be in our collective best interests to do so.

Marriage clearly is in our collective best interests. Some of the contracts being proposed are not.
5.5.2008 1:51am
Alec:
My point is that there is no rationale for the presumption, apart from the fact that "We have always done X." As Shirley Jackson might say, we have always had the lottery. Tradition for the mere sake of tradition is indefensible, even from a Burkean position, which rests on a more pragmatic and utilitarian grounding.

"Just because" is a perfectly valid answer.

Not really. Just because is just because. It appeals to no logic, no argument, nothing. Being generous, it appeals only to a simple fact, with no explanatory value. Thus, anti-semitism, just because, segregation, just because, the sun revolves around the earth, just because. That has no value, and the argument is ridiculous on its face. It might be a perfectly logical "political" appeal, as you insinuate, but it has no place in our court system...an integral part of our political system, part of our political "tradition" if you will.

So these legal analogies are pretty silly.

Why? Just because?

The conservative Burkean tradition appeals, implicitly, to the very idea of common law adjudication.

And the analogy is not very silly, given the existence of evidentiary presumptions in the common law. You know, the tradition Burke defended.
5.5.2008 1:54am
SIG357:
"Not really. Just because is just because. It appeals to no logic, no argument, nothing."

If all that is being offered in opposition is "why not?', which is commonly the case, then "just because" is a perfectly good answer.

Of course, if you've got logic and reason on your side, lets see it.


So these legal analogies are pretty silly.

Why? Just because?



Because, as I already explained, these are not legal matters. You are not a prosecuting attorny, I'm not a defense attorny, and there are no laws for us to argue over. What part of this did you not get the first time? These are political issues, for citizens to discuss and decide on.

"My point is that there is no rationale for the presumption, apart from the fact that "We have always done X."

In the absence of any better ideas, and few are forthcoming, then "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is the height of political wisdom.
5.5.2008 2:04am
Doc W (mail):
SIG357,

I might feel my wants and needs to be more important than everybody else's, but if I can't rob and coerce others to get my way, then I'm unlikely to be much of a threat to society. Non-coercion is the basic tenet of libertarianism. I suggest that society is most often brought down by those who, in purporting to act for the common good, make use of mechanisms of collectivistic coercion to impose their will. The end result is tyranny.

It is in "our collective best interest" that contracts be enforced precisely so that each of us can pursue our own goals and purposes through agreed-upon interactions with others. My position as a classical liberal is that government should enforce contracts. A stricter libertarian might say leave it up to private enforcement agencies in anarcho-capitalism.
5.5.2008 2:12am
SIG357:
the analogy is not very silly, given the existence of evidentiary presumptions in the common law.

Perhaps it would be easier if you told me those matters which you think do belong in the political sphere, since I gather that you believe 95% of all human existence is best dealt with by a court.

The English common law grew up in an era before elected legislative bodies. In America, law is supposed to be made by Congress, as I'm pretty sure you know. The fact that the SCOTUS has been known to go off on flights of whimsy from time to time does not alter that.

You want a law passed, petition your Congressman. It's the modern thing to do, not this medieval appeal to some guys in black robes speaking Latin to grant your indulgence.
5.5.2008 2:13am
Alec:
SIG357:

Now you're arguing some sort of populist modern conservatism, not the Burke variety. Since I was not responding to populism, I don't feel a need to address it. We were not having a meeting of minds, as they say.
5.5.2008 2:17am
SIG357:
but if I can't rob and coerce others to get my way, then I'm unlikely to be much of a threat to society.

Good grief. Ghandi was able to kick the British out of India without violence. The most effictive IRA tactic in the 1920's was not bombs and bullets, but building parallel institutions and freezing out the English ones. The Soviet Union toppled because of moral rot from within, is spite of its violence rather than because of it.

All that is neccessary for a society to fall is for for enough people to give up on it. No coercion needed, at that stage. Indifference is quite sufficient. Putting something back together afterwards is where the coercion comes in.


To quote Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
5.5.2008 2:21am
SIG357:
Now you're arguing some sort of populist modern conservatism, not the Burke variety

If you want to argue that Burke believed that political power was best concentrated in the court system, rather than in Parliment, then I'd be tickled pick to see you try. Learn some history before you comment on it.
5.5.2008 2:23am
SIG357:
It is in "our collective best interest" that contracts be enforced precisely so that each of us can pursue our own goals and purposes through agreed-upon interactions with others.

No, it is in our collective best interests that certain contracts be enforced. It is clearly NOT in our collective best interests that any contract be backed by the full weight of society, or government, to the extent they are the same thing.

If Peter and Paul make a mutal contract that Paul is to kill Bob, should we throw Paul in jail if he backs out of the deal? No come backs about non-aggression or libertarian theory please.

We don't want all possible agreed upon transactions to have our blessings. That's built into the very concept of a society. A mass of people who can all do what they want is anarchy, shortly followed by tyranny.
5.5.2008 2:34am
Ian S. Greenleigh:
I find myself struggling with the issues in this post quite often. I see myself as a conservative, or libertarian, but not as a curmudgeon or blind adherent to all things traditional. I have never had the urge to stand in the road of progress and yell "STOP"! Virginia Postrel has some interesting insight into these issues. She is a libertarian that sees real value in change, dynamism, and progress. Her website is here.
5.5.2008 2:46am
Alec:
"In a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority."

'nuff said.
5.5.2008 2:53am
Frater Plotter:
Forgive the belated response, but it doesn't matter whether you call a contract "marriage" or "chicken soup." The terms of contracts, as agreed to by those who entered into them, can be enforced.

But marriage is not strictly a contract. It provides a number of additional privileges which are not accessible by a normal contract. There is no mere contract that two people may enter into that grants them the legal right to file a joint income tax return, or grants spousal testimonial privilege, or Social Security benefits, or protects guardianship of children.

(See Wikipedia, "Rights and responsibilities of marriage in the United States" for many more.)

These are benefits which accrue to heterosexual couples who enter into marriage, and from which homosexual couples are excluded by Federal law. While some of the benefits of marriage are civil privileges such as Social Security, others deal closely with human rights such as the right of a child to parental care.
5.5.2008 3:00am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
SIG357-

Yes, individualism of some sorts does lead to societal destruction. Notably, the sort where the individual feels that his own rights and wants and needs take precedence over the best interests of the society he is a constituient member of. Obviously, once enough members of the society think this way it's headed for the scrap heap.

This isn't "obvious" at all.

Assume for a minute we are talking about a libertarian individual. If the individual's rights, wants, and needs don't violate anyone else's rights or harm anyone where does the societal destruction come about? (If they were violating someone else's rights this would be a crime and/or tort, and libertarians would agree that this is wrong.)

And note that if they're libertarian they're (if they actually follow their philosophy) going to be barred philosophically from violating the rights of others. I can't think of a scenario where this doesn't actually strengthen society.
5.5.2008 3:20am
The River Temoc (mail):
I would also argue that Turkey under Ataturk is an example of a case in which rapid change achieved far more than gradual change.
5.5.2008 10:49am
Doc W (mail):
SIG357,

Ghandi was a threat to British rule, but not to society. Giving up on empire and a bad economic system is not a bad thing. (I'm not too familiar with 1920's IRA.) Being a threat to the rule of the ruling class is not quite the same thing as being a threat to "society."

OF COURSE the government should not enforce contracts to commit aggression. (No apologies for the "libertarian comeback.")

Frank Plotter,

You're talking about the way things are; I'm talking about how they could be in a relatively libertarian society.
5.5.2008 10:51am
MarkField (mail):

But I wonder how slave revolts in these areas and other areas and even the Civil War influenced those peaceful transitions. For example in the HBO series on John Adams it mentioned how French colonists were running to America at the time to avoid the slave revolts in the Carribean. Anyone know how this effected the eventual transitions?


In general, historians believe that the revolt in Haiti, in particular, increased the levels of fear in the South, causing increased repression and harsh treatment of slaves after a period of liberalization in the late 1700s.
5.5.2008 12:08pm
Hoosier:
The irony of all this? President Jefferson and Scretary of State Madison sent covert shipments of arms to Haiti. To the SLAVES.

Because the history of Haiti just isn't complicated enough.
5.5.2008 12:27pm
Gabriel (www):
jim47,

re gay marriage per se being more Burkean than civil unions

i agree with you if we are arguing from first principles, but i was mostly saying that in practice civil unions are widely perceived (including by dale carpenter) as a gradualist or moderate step even though you, me, and jonathan rauch agree that creating a new institution is much more radical than expanding the scope of an existing one.
5.5.2008 1:18pm
SIG357:
AP

"Assume for a minute we are talking about a libertarian individual."

Given that the actual number of libertarian individuals in America could fit in a phone booth, I think you'e asking me to assume too much. That is, libertarians as you define them.


Let me point out that the majority of people we think of as "libertarians" either have been silent on the "harm principle" or rejected it. I'm thinking here of people like Milton Friedman, Hayak, Rand, etc. If the "harm principle" is to be the First Commandment of libertarianism, then it's already small numbers drop sharply.

They reason they did this was that they understood, as you seem not to, that a society by definition is a thing which exerts some degree of coercion on its members.


"If the individual's rights, wants, and needs don't violate anyone else's rights or harm anyone where does the societal destruction come about?"

Using your implied definiton of society, I'm not in a society with my fellow Americans (coercion involved) and I am in a society with people in New Dehili, Budapest, and Shanghai (no coercion involved there).


You recall our debate on the proper role of the legal system? Alec above is the norm for "libertarians".
5.5.2008 1:42pm
SIG357:
Doc W

You're talking about the way things are; I'm talking about how they could be in a relatively libertarian society.

This being a Burke themed thread, I should point out that he was strongly opposed to people who wanted to impose some abstract idea which sounded cool to them for the instititions which have been shown to work. No such libertarian society has ever existed, and there's no sign that it's even capable of existing.


Being a threat to the rule of the ruling class is not quite the same thing as being a threat to "society."


Given that your definition of "society" seems to be " a collection of libertarian individuals living according to libertarian principles", I'm sure your statement above is correct, to you. By definition, radical individualism cannot be a threat to such a society. If that's not what a society is, then you're completely wrong of course.
5.5.2008 1:51pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
SIG357-

Given that the actual number of libertarian individuals in America could fit in a phone booth, I think you'e asking me to assume too much. That is, libertarians as you define them.

I think you underestimate the numbers. Lots of Ron Paul supporters are close to libertarian and although the numbers are relatively small they are significant. And it's also a matter of education - many people don't know that their beliefs are actually pretty libertarian because they've been fed major party polarizing propaganda all their lives.

Let me point out that the majority of people we think of as "libertarians" either have been silent on the "harm principle" or rejected it. I'm thinking here of people like Milton Friedman, Hayak, Rand, etc. If the "harm principle" is to be the First Commandment of libertarianism, then it's already small numbers drop sharply.

Sort of. The subject of "harm" is hard to quantify and I debated mentioning it. It can certainly be taken too far - stalkers believe their subject is "harming" them by not loving them, rejecting them, and/or refusing to be owned by them. But I think most libertarians could agree to a reasonable definition of harm and agree that avoiding it is generally a good policy. To a degree this is pretty unneccesary because the tort system does cover a lot of harm, though not all.

They reason they did this was that they understood, as you seem not to, that a society by definition is a thing which exerts some degree of coercion on its members.

Not at all. Sheesh, SIG-world must be a pretty grim place.

Societies rise up around cooperation, association, and trade - all very voluntary things. Laws and the force to enforce them come as an afterthought, when disputes and conflicts arise. To focus on the "coercive" aspect of things seems pretty strange.

Using your implied definiton of society, I'm not in a society with my fellow Americans (coercion involved) and I am in a society with people in New Dehili, Budapest, and Shanghai (no coercion involved there).

What are you talking about? If you get caught robbing a liquor store in any of those places you are going to be punished. The coercion only comes in when you break the law. Now there might be some wacky laws in any of those places, including the US, but generally punishment comes from violating someone else's rights.
5.5.2008 5:28pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
SIG357-

You addressed these comments to Doc W, but I thought I would chime in:

This being a Burke themed thread, I should point out that he was strongly opposed to people who wanted to impose some abstract idea which sounded cool to them for the instititions which have been shown to work. No such libertarian society has ever existed, and there's no sign that it's even capable of existing.

You seem to have a strange conception of libertarianism. The original government set up by the Founders is somewhat close to the minarchy many libertarians feel would be an improvement on things as they are currently. You seem to think that libertarians want to create something that's a combination of the worst parts of Woodstock and Mad Max, that isn't really the case for the most part.

Given that your definition of "society" seems to be " a collection of libertarian individuals living according to libertarian principles", I'm sure your statement above is correct, to you. By definition, radical individualism cannot be a threat to such a society. If that's not what a society is, then you're completely wrong of course.

Strange. In a libertarian society you would be punished if you violated someone's rights, just like in today's society. There would just be a pared down legal code that would cut out a lot of criminal penalties for non-violent vice crimes.

You seem to have this view that societies have to be based on force and control. That isn't the case. Most societies developed around trade and cooperation and force only came as an afterthought to handle disputes and conflicts and to keep people from violating other peoples' rights. True, some societies formed through conquest and force but the longest-lived and most successful ones seem to be based on trade and commerce.
5.5.2008 5:48pm