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.