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Defending Burkeanism:

My co-conspirator Ilya criticizes some modern Burkeans for over-valuing tradition and under-valuing the possible benefits of rapid change. Orin offers some responses here that seem right to me, but that don't persuade Ilya. Since I doubt Burkeans want to over-value or under-value anything (who would?), I am not yet sure there is genuine or very deep disagreement here.

A Burkean ought to guard against a slavish and mystical adherence to tradition for the sake of tradition and ought to recognize that there are some circumstances in which incremental change isn't good enough. But as I think Ilya would agree, this does not mean that everything is always up for grabs, to be eliminated as soon as someone gets the better of the argument. The general Burkean respect for tradition and presumption for incrementalism can still be defended.

First, on valuing tradition, it's worth remembering why and to what extent tradition is valuable. As Ilya acknowledges, Burkeans do not think traditions should be immune to critique and revision. In fact, the fact that present practices are often the organic and evolved product of a process of sustained critique, revision, and adaptation over time is what makes them valuable. To the extent they have been immunized from such critique and have simply been imposed in top-down fashion, as in authoritarian societies, they are surely much less valuable. If this is what Ilya means by "coercively imposed tradition" then we agree it merits little if any deference or presumption of validity. And the person who resists even thinking critically about existing practices undermines the very thing that has made those practices worth defending.

Further, respect for tradition is a continuum. The more widely a tradition is observed and the longer it has lasted, the more trustworthy it is to the Burkean and the more a presumption in its favor should be indulged. Everyone, I suppose, wants beneficial change (however defined), but the Burkean doubts our ability to know when a change really will be beneficial, when the risks of change will outweigh the expected benefits, and whether we will be able to impose it competently. For the Burkean, every change involves some certain cost in exchange for doubtful benefit, which is why we usually presume against it. Finally, even where change is warranted, the Burkean believes it ought to be based as much as possible on relevant experience and not on abstract theorizing about reform. I am not sure Ilya disagrees with these points, either.

Consider an example. I doubt that a Martian, charged with setting up a system of criminal justice in which the guilty are to be punished and the innocent are to be set free, but having no knowledge of our history or practices, would come up with our system. Some features of it, perhaps, but not all. What's the magic in juries, in the number 12, or in a requirement that the verdict be unanimous? There are many critiques of the jury system from both left and right. It is not a universal practice. It has many disadvantages and is inefficient. Juries are sometimes irrational and prone to many cognitive biases and errors. But because of its deep roots in our legal history and tradition, the Burkean would be very reluctant to give up the jury system in criminal trials without a very strong showing, based on relevant experience if possible, that a proposed replacement would be better and that we could safely and competently transition to it. Hayek and Oakeshott were clear and persuasive about how many present practices reflect, incorporate, and encode a degree of learning and experience that we may not grasp and that will be lost if we abandon them. We are not the flies of summer born into a new world every year.

Ilya rightly points to traditions and longstanding practices that we now universally recognize as oppressive and unjust -- things like slavery and denying women the right to vote. But these practices were themselves changed, one could plausibly argue, through a process of critique and revision over time building on counter-traditions and experience.

Consider slavery, often offered as the most persuasive case of sudden change. A strain of American thought building on premises in the Declaration of Independence grew slowly to resist slavery. The practice was ended in many countries around the world before it was ended in this country. It was resisted with growing ferocity in the United States through ending the Atlantic slave trade and through opposition to its expansion into new states. An abolitionist political movement grew. These developments and many others laid the foundation for the violent end of slavery in the Civil War.

The civil rights movement, too, was a decades-long phenomenon that began long before Brown, and appealed to ideals dating back to the Founding and before. Women's suffrage was first brought to the country through incremental state-by-state adoption, allowing experience and evidence about effects to accumulate, until it was finally made constitutional law by amendment in 1920. A similar story can be told about gradually increasing tolerance and respect for gay people over the past half century. Even gay marriage, which seems like such a radical and novel idea to many people, has in fact been made possible only by what Justice Scalia might call the "piecemeal deterioration" (see his dissent in Romer v. Evans) of traditional moral objections to homosexuality and by modest legal reforms over the span of several decades.

The strong objection, I suspect, might be that although many unjust practices have ended only gradually, they should have been ended much more quickly. So what if it took decades to end racial segregation? It should have been ended immediately. Yes, Dr. King quoted the Founders, but he objected passionately when well-meaning Southerners advised him, "Go slow now."

That leads to Ilya's second critique of Burkeanism: that it tends to under-value the benefits of rapid change. The most committed Burkean, and I think Burke himself, would agree that gradualism is not a satisfactory answer in at least the following two kinds of cases.

First, proceeding slowly and incrementally is often not the best answer in emergent circumstances. If the house is burning down, you douse the fire; you don't moisten it, observe the flame, and then spritz it some more. Wars and other national emergencies often call for quick and energetic responses, not gradual ones.

Second, incrementalism is not a good answer in cases of gross injustice and irreparable and great harm (leaving to one side the large question of whether we can agree on what counts as "gross injustice" and "great harm"). If the city council has long ordered that ten innocent citizens be hanged in the town square every day at sundown, you don't propose that only nine be hanged the day after tomorrow, only eight the day after that, seven the next, and so on. You insist the practice stop immediately. (Unless the choice really is to stop it slowly or not at all.) Burke himself was a harsh critic of many of the injustices of his day, like the "popery" laws persecuting Irish Catholics and the practice of punishing sodomites in the pillory, where citizens abused them.

This second category calls for hard judgments about what is so unjust and so harmful that it must be undone as quickly as possible, even if it is a longstanding practice, and even at the risk that sudden change will itself produce harms. Just as no judicial philosophy can survive modern scrutiny unless it finds some rationale for the result in Brown, no political program or philosophy can survive modern scrutiny that would tolerate even a day of slavery.

But lots of current disputes are much harder, or at least seem so now. The little libertarian in me objects to laws against prostitution and drug use, but the big Burkean in me looks around the world and sees almost universal regulation, finds longstanding restrictions in this country, worries about the unintended consequences in broken lives and more addiction, and wants to start -- if I'm persuaded to start at all — incrementally with heavily regulated brothels and medicinal marijuana in a few isolated places. The ardent advocate of gay equality in me wants same-sex marriage tomorrow in every corner of the country, by judicial decree if necessary, but the incremental and cautious reformer in me wants more evidence about its effects in the places it's being tried and proposes intermediate steps to meet only the most pressing needs of gay families.

The Burkean runs the risk that history will judge him very harshly for this caution. Some degree of injustice will be tolerated longer than, in hindsight, it should have been. But the Burkean recognizes that there are risks to incaution as well. And he thinks caution about changes in longstanding practices and traditions in particular is, on the whole, the better bet.

MarkField (mail):
I'm not a conservative, but this post describes exactly how I understand Burke. Well done.
5.5.2008 11:51am
MarkField (mail):
There are so many threads on this topic I'm not sure where to post this. Here's an interesting example for the Burkeans. The key passage is this:

"So how has Toyota stayed ahead of the pack? The answer has a lot to do with another distinctive element of Toyota's approach: defining innovation as an incremental process, in which the goal is not to make huge, sudden leaps but, rather, to make things better on a daily basis. (The principle is often known by its Japanese name, kaizen—continuous improvement.) Instead of trying to throw long touchdown passes, as it were, Toyota moves down the field by means of short and steady gains."
5.5.2008 12:33pm
Ramza:
thank you for elegantly describing the "tipping point" type of thought that seems to flow through much of Burkean philosophy.
5.5.2008 1:23pm
SIG357:
Consider slavery, often offered as the most persuasive case of sudden change.

The problem with that example is that Burke was an early advocate for the abolition of slavery, before such "libertarians" as Madison wrote in its defence.


Even gay marriage, which seems like such a radical and novel idea to many people, has in fact been made possible only by what Justice Scalia might call the "piecemeal deterioration" (see his dissent in Romer v. Evans) of traditional moral objections to homosexuality and by modest legal reforms over the span of several decades.


It's the coercive power of the state which has led to that "piecemeal deterioration" of course. And there is the paradox for libertarians - the type of people they think should exist can only be created by the coercive power of the state which they oppose. Or, more often these days, claim to oppose. Anyone curious about how classical liberalism became modern liberalism need only observe the changes occuring in the libertarian movement. It's come a long way since Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds.
5.5.2008 2:02pm
Pyrrhus (mail) (www):
"The strong objection, I suspect, might be that although many unjust practices have ended only gradually, they should have been ended much more quickly. So what if it took decades to end racial segregation? It should have been ended immediately."

Yeah I think this objection is pretty strong. Slavery ended slowly because of opposition to abolition, not because of conscious Burkeanism. If Burkeanism just describes the political fact that change DOES happen slowly, it isnt a philosophy of any value. Its more of a political theory.

You can't defend Burkeanism by just pointing at good decisions that were made slowly. You need to point at bad decisions that were made quickly and did more damage than they would have had they been done slowly. Or good decisions that were enacted quickly and caused damage that wouldn't have happened if they were enacted slowly. The Communist example, which Ilya dismisses too hastily I think, is a possible example. If Communists had been Burkeans, they would have enacted communism more slowly, and not as many people would have died.
5.5.2008 2:12pm
SIG357:
If Communists had been Burkeans, they would have enacted communism more slowly, and not as many people would have died.


If communists had been Burkeans they would not have been communists, and would not have enacted communism at all. There is a lot more to Burke than simply gradualism. In fact, it's arguable that gradualism was not even a centerpiece of his thinking.
5.5.2008 2:38pm
Pyrrhus (mail) (www):
I must be confused - it seems like the VCs are talking about Burkeanism specifically as gradualism, rather than the actual doctrine of Burke. They seem to have repeatedly specified that. I'm following suit in that conversation, not whatever side conversation you have going.
5.5.2008 3:16pm
SIG357:
it seems like the VCs are talking about Burkeanism specifically as gradualism, rather than the actual doctrine of Burke.

They may have made that mistake.

They seem to have repeatedly specified that.


They may have repeatedly made that mistake. No need we need to go along them. We are self-owning individuals, after all.


I'm following suit in that conversation, not whatever side conversation you have going.

I'm having the conversation about what Burke believed. If people want to discuss gradualism, they ought to leave Burke out of it.
5.5.2008 3:50pm
jim47:


ven gay marriage, which seems like such a radical and novel idea to many people, has in fact been made possible only by what Justice Scalia might call the "piecemeal deterioration"

It's the coercive power of the state which has led to that "piecemeal deterioration" of course.


I don't think that's universally true. To a large extent, the only reason gay marriage isn't a complete category error is that society's views of marriage have shifted over time. Marriage is now conceived as a partnership of equals, without set roles based on gender, entered into by individuals for their own purposes. Most of those things were not true in fairly recent history. And while those changes were not at all about homosexuality, they nonetheless were part of the evolution of gay marriage. (Just as the most primitive birds didn't develop proto-wings for the purpose of flying, but those developments were part of the progression toward flight.)
5.5.2008 6:08pm
jim47:

I must be confused - it seems like the VCs are talking about Burkeanism specifically as gradualism, rather than the actual doctrine of Burke.


Burkeanism is fundamentally a theory about social order, a fact that I think Carpenter talks about and conveys accurately. Gradualism and humility are two logical implications of that theory, and the Conspirators are talking about those points specifically because those are the practical considerations that are in dispute — none of the non-Burkean Conspirators are communists or progressives or french revolutionaries.
5.5.2008 6:34pm
jim47:

The little libertarian in me objects to laws against prostitution and drug use, but the big Burkean in me looks around the world and sees almost universal regulation, finds longstanding restrictions in this country, worries about the unintended consequences


I can identify pretty strongly with that sentiment. As a young libertarian it seemed obvious to me that prostitution should be legalized, but after working in the hotel industry and having to confront the actual realities of prostitution on the ground, I am much less certain about what policy regime is likely to minimize the negative consequences of prostitution, and I now suspect that the status quo is that minimally negative policy regime.
5.5.2008 6:48pm
Doc W (mail):
jim47, what you've witnessed is prostitution UNDER PROHIBITION. No?

Regarding drug prohibition, I'd have thought Burkeans above all would recognize the likelihood of substantial unintended negative consequences to simply outlawing drugs that people have been using, on the grounds that drugs are bad for people (at least some people some of the time). And there damn well have been a ton of negative consequences. Is it not precisely this sort of utopian interventionism that the Burkean philosophy would hold suspect?
5.5.2008 10:35pm