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Debating Burkean Conservatism:

In his most recent post, Orin takes issue with my critique of Burkean conservatism. He argues that we should have a presumption in favor of tradition and also in favor of gradual rather than rapid change. He makes some thoughtful points; but in the end I don't feel persuaded. Just to clarify, however, I don't think that there should be any general presumption against tradition or gradualism. I merely oppose setting up a presumption in their favor.

I. Should we have a presumption in favor of tradition?

Orin argues that we should have a presumption in favor of tradition because otherwise we will tend to overestimate the problems of the status quo and underestimate its benefits:

In my view, it is smart to start with a presumption of validity of existing practice because it is human nature that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." Problems with the status quo are visible, so they get our attention, while the benefits of the status quo often blend in to the background. I think this creates a consistent bias in how we assess the costs and benefits of change. When we look to alter the status quo, we often dwell so much on the improvements we anticipate that we miss the costs that may accompany it.

Obviously, some people are biased in favor of change. Orin would probably say that I'm one of them! If so, I'm an atypical case. Bias in favor of the status quo is far more common. Scholars even have a clever, original name for it: status quo bias. And there is considerable evidence documenting its existence (see, e.g., here). On the other hand, I'm not aware of any scholarly literature documenting the existence of a comparably widespread bias in favor of change. The literature on the closely related "endowment effect" also suggests that most people are more worried about losing what they have than about maximizing potential future gains.

Moreover, as I argued in my original post, people often take the validity of longstanding traditions for granted, without even attempting to examine their costs and benefits. The average white American in, say 1920, didn't take time to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of racial segregation. He most likely simply assumed that this longstanding practice was a good one.

Finally, as also discussed in my last post, there is a category of traditions that are systematically likely to cause more harm than good: traditions that arose because of coercive imposition by one group on others. These kinds of traditions may still turn out to be beneficial in some cases. But we should at least view them with some presumptive suspicion. I do agree, as noted in the earlier post, that there may be some case for a presumption in favor of traditions that arose through voluntary relationships. However, it is significant that most of the traditions that have historically caused debates between Burkean conservatives and their critics are of the coercive variety.

II. Rapid Change vs. Gradualism.

Orin argues that gradual change is better than rapid because "If we change gradually, we can test whether our sense of the costs and benefits are accurate. We can get a feel for whether our ideas are right or if we're missing something, and we can use our experience to learn and tailor future changes." In some cases this will be true. In others, it won't be so easy to control and "tailor" the pace of change. On the other hand, as I noted in my previous post, there are several systematic advantages of rapid change as well.

Orin also claims that my examples of beneficial rapid change may be unrepresentative. They may indeed be so, though I tried to explain why these examples rest on more general advantages of rapid change. In any event, I don't believe that either gradual or rapid change is generally superior to the alternative. As I tried to explain in the previous post, whether one is better than the other will vary from case to case. Sometimes the advantages of gradualism will outweigh those of speed and sometimes not. We should not start with a presumption in favor of either.

Gerriet S:
One of your examples from the previous post was the matter of the serfs in Russia. If I remember right, they weren't actually terribly successful in that effort. I'm not sure which side of the debate it supports though.

The reform that was pushed through attempted a sort of compromise with landowners and gave the peasants less than they hoped for (and needed to be self-sufficient) but more than the landowners had wanted. So, whether this was an example of ill-considered and ungradual reform or not moving fast enough, is a matter for some discussion. As it happened, they got political but not economic freedom and it lead to the Revolution of 1905, which lead to 1917, which lead to Communism.

Again, not sure if it was too incautious or too unambitious. An interesting example though.
5.5.2008 4:12am
Ilya Somin:
The reform that was pushed through attempted a sort of compromise with landowners and gave the peasants less than they hoped for (and needed to be self-sufficient) but more than the landowners had wanted. So, whether this was an example of ill-considered and ungradual reform or not moving fast enough, is a matter for some discussion. As it happened, they got political but not economic freedom and it lead to the Revolution of 1905, which lead to 1917, which lead to Communism.

My point was that the reform abolished serfdom very quickly, which as likely better than letting the institution continue for several more decades. The peasants certainly got far more economic freedom than they had before (they could now own land and move from one village to another without the consent of landlords). Neither the Revolution of 1905 nor that of 1917 was launched by peasants, so I don't think it can be argued that either was caused by the abolition of serfdom. Moreover, most peasants were actually opposed to the communists in 1917 and in the Civil War that followed, because they resented the communists' efforts to collectivize agriculture, which they saw (correctly) as a return to serfdom.
5.5.2008 4:24am
Gerriet S:
So, without turning the discussion too far to Russian history...

I can certainly see a strong argument for abolishing serfdom quickly. While you're right about increased economic freedom they also received less land than they wanted and arguably needed. Furthermore, they had to pay back a large debt to compensate the landowners, which was a burden and an issue in 1905. Peasants didn't lead the revolution but they were an important enough factor that the settlement reduced the remaining payments to the landowners.

Also, 1917 had two revolutions, and you're right they didn't support the communists; but general unrest, including the peasants made the first, more liberal revolution possible, which as a matter of history (though not a logical extension of the first) lead to the next one.

Point being, I can also see an unintended consequences argument in this whole series of events, although it's far from being unassailable.
5.5.2008 5:38am
David Walser:
I think the presumption towards tradition reflects a desirable and practical form of humility. Too often the current generation has presumed it was wiser than the preceding generations and felt free to cast aside as old fashioned the mores, practices, and principals that reflected the wisdom of the accumulated generations of human history. Change isn't always bad and the presumption in favor of tradition does not prohibit change. It simply asks that we understand why a particular rule was in place and the consequences of abandoning the rule before we disgaurd it.

In the 1960's we junked the old fashioned sexual morality of our parents in favor of the if-it-feels-good-go-for-it lack of standard currently in fashion. The Me Generation misunderstood basic human nature and assumed promiscuous relationships would be more fulfilling than and just as stable as those based on sexual fidelity. Turns out that, no matter how broad minded we might want to be, jealously and hurt feelings seem to be a basic part of human nature. Its very hard to build a stable marriage (or a society) in the absence of a societal expectation and support of sexual fidelity.

In the 1860's we got rid of slavery. That generation understood why slavery existed and they understood the benefits and burdens of the institution. May they be ever praised for riding our country (and most of the world) of this evil! Abandoning the tradition of slavery required courage and great sacrifice. Abandoning old fashioned sexual mores only required selfishness and shortsightedness.
5.5.2008 6:48am
Helen:
Don't you guys ever sleep? These Ilya/Orin debates all seem to happen in the middle of the night!
5.5.2008 8:29am
AndrewK (mail):
One may fairly say that in Russia the tradition was a gradual movement from serfdom and that the quick emancipation might have been counterproductive-- as the second poster above notes: I would chalk the October Revolution up, in part, to a general spirit of iconoclasm.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of tradition (and the one that may play better with those who dislike arguments from tradition) is that tradition serves as a proxy for evolutionary process: traditions (and broader social structures) that are efficient in promoting physical welfare, ceteris paribus, succeed. Our long tradition of not having a "nasty comment" tort, for example, and the broader respect for our 1st Amendment, might be looked at as preventing inefficient (and evolutionarily disadvantageous) actions based upon heated arguments.

While risking burying the argument beneath ancillary matters: I have recently come to see Islam's command to convert as a highly successful epidemiological trait...
5.5.2008 9:17am
A.C.:
Another reason to favor the status quo in most cases is that we have full information about it. We know the benefits, and we also know the costs. If we try to change things, we head into an area where all the benefits and costs are speculative. Promoters of change will hype the potential benefits and opponents will hype the potential costs, but fundamentally we don't know how change will work. Unintended consequences are a fact of life.

The trick is that sometimes the status quo really is very, very bad. Slavery and segregation were two such cases, in my opinion. If the status quo really is that bad, a leap in the dark can be worth the risk. But not very often.

As for sudden versus gradual change, it depends. If we ever abolish the tax deduction for morgage interest, we should probably do it gradually to avoid financial chaos. Announce the schedule well in advance, ratchet down the deduction over a long time, and let people plan for the change. In contrast, going to war gradually doesn't seem to work very well.
5.5.2008 10:30am
MarkField (mail):

One of the strongest arguments in favor of tradition (and the one that may play better with those who dislike arguments from tradition) is that tradition serves as a proxy for evolutionary process: traditions (and broader social structures) that are efficient in promoting physical welfare, ceteris paribus, succeed. Our long tradition of not having a "nasty comment" tort, for example, and the broader respect for our 1st Amendment, might be looked at as preventing inefficient (and evolutionarily disadvantageous) actions based upon heated arguments.


I agree with this, but I think there's an important limitation which we can see in evolution itself. Evolution has a history. By that I mean that it is constrained by the historical development of the species. It can't create something out of nothing, it must adapt the existing materials to a new situation (if it can).* This means that evolution is generally what engineers would call a kluge. Sometimes it's better to start from scratch.

*Sorry for the anthropomorphizing. It's just easier to write it that way.
5.5.2008 12:00pm