Dale Carpenter's Version of Burkean Conservatism:

I agree with much of what Dale Carpenter says in outlining his insightful version of Burkean conservatism in response to my critiques of it (see here and here). However, I fear that not much is left of the Burkean presumptions in favor of tradition and against rapid change after Dale's qualifications. What remains can be embraced by adherents of most other ideologies, not just Burkean conservatives.

I. The Value of Tradition.

Dale concedes that "coercively imposed" traditions enforced from the "top down," as in "authoritarian societies," don't deserve any special deference. This is a very important concession, since Burkean conservative arguments have often been used to defend the maintenance of authoritarian or even totalitarian regimes. I would add, merely, that even in democratic societies, there are many coercively imposed policies as well. For example, the oppression of politically weak minorities by biased majorities and harmful policies imposed through the machinations of powerful interest groups. The exact boundary between coercion and consent is one that can be debated. But this concession surely eliminates a large part of the presumption in favor of tradition usually advanced by Burkean conservatives.

Dale also argues that "[t]he 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." There may be some validity to this point. However, it is in tension with Dale's concession on coercively imposed traditions. Some of the most longlasting and widely observed traditions got that way precisely because of the enormous amount of coercion used to keep them in place. Slavery and the inequality of women (both near-universal traditions until the 19th century) are excellent examples. I would also argue that longlasting traditions are particularly prone to engaging our natural biases in favor of the status quo. Dale "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." There is some merit to this point too. But we must also doubt our ability to know when the status quo is really beneficial, and our ability to properly assess its costs and benefits. As a general rule, social science research suggests that we are more likely to overvalue the benefits of the status quo then undervalue them.

Once we take proper account of coercively imposed traditions and status quo bias, I'm not sure much is left of the Burkean presumption in favor of tradition that adherents of numerous other ideologies can't also accept.

II. Rapid Change and Gradualism.

Dale also wants to maintain the Burkean presumption in favor of gradualism as against rapid change. But here too, he carves out major exceptions. For example, he concedes that "incrementalism is not a good answer in cases of gross injustice and irreparable and great harm." That is a major concession, because now the real action in most debates about change shifts to the question of whether there is "gross injustice" or "irreparable and great harm." For example, Dale argues that we should move slowly in abolishing the War on Drugs, if at all. In my view, that war causes both gross injustice and irreparable and great harm and so should be abolished relatively quickly. The presumption against rapid change will not play any significant role in the debate between us on this subject. A large proportion of the cases where Burkean conservative arguments are deployed involve situations where one can credibly argue that the status quo causes gross injustice, irreparable harm, or both.

Dale also argues that gradualism isn't a good approach in "emergent circumstances," by which I think he means emergencies. This further narrows the scope of any presumption in favor of gradualism.

Dale contends that change should only be adopted on the basis of "relevant experience" rather than "abstract theorizing." At that level of - yes - abstraction, it's hard to disagree. Who could be against taking account of "relevant experience"? Unfortunately, however, even the most relevant possible experience doesn't analyze itself. We need "theorizing" to determine what aspects of experience are relevant and how to weigh that evidence.

Finally, Dale notes that some of the changes I described as "rapid" (e.g. - the abolition of slavery) actually resulted from ideas and criticisms developed over a long period of time. I agree. But I think we have to distinguish between the development of ideas behind a change and the implementation of the change itself. It is the presumption in favor of gradualism on the latter that I have been criticizing. Hardly any major change is likely to be imposed immediately after the ideas behind it was first invented. Even the French Revolution - the classic Burkean rapid change bogey - was the product of Enlightenment ideas that had developed over the course of more than a century. Soviet communism, another paradigmatic example of harmful rapid change, was the end result of at least 100 years of socialist thought and criticism of capitalism. If the period of time during which the ideas behind change germinate counts in determining its speed, then virtually any major change can be considered gradual.

Once we purge Burkean conservatism of various weaknesses as Dale has done, it becomes much more attractive. Unfortunately, however, these modifications also empty Burkeanism of most of its distinctive content. Even a fairly radical libertarian like me can endorse most of what remains. But if I too can be a Burkean conservative in Dale's sense, that strongly suggests that the term has been hollowed out and lost most of its utility. That said, I don't object to Dale using the term to describe his ideas. I just think that his version of Burkean conservatism has much less distinctiveness than the package of ideas that usually go by that name.