Is everyone Burkean now?

The exchanges Ilya, Orin and I have had about Burkeanism have helped to sharpen where the real disagreements are. There is more common ground than at first it seemed, though after Ilya's latest post I do see more clearly where we may differ.

It turns out that Ilya's view of "coercively imposed traditions" — practices to which little if any respect should be given — is much broader than mine. If I understand him correctly, for Ilya it means any tradition that may be viewed as oppressive (unfair?) to a group of people, even if democratically arrived at and even if subject to critique and revision over time. When I refer to practices imposed by authoritarian societies, which never grew from the common sentiments and culture of the people but are simply imposed by some dictator like Stalin or Hitler, I mean only that. If tradition is accorded no respect except when practically everyone agrees with it, and can be said to have assented to its continuance, then indeed it hasn't much force. Burke did not think that, and neither do I. The respect for tradition in Burkean thought is more robust.

Also, as against my claim that we should doubt our ability to impose beneficial reform, Ilya observes that "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." Here I think there is a real difference between Burkean and non-Burkean thought. As between doubts about the value of a longstanding practice and doubts about the expected benefits of changing it, the Burkean will resolve doubts in favor of the tradition. I don't think that's the case with many other approaches to policy and law, which seem much more sanguine about the prospects for change. Here, I think a Burkean would regard something called "status quo bias" as a good thing, not a bad one.

On the appropriateness of rapid change where there's gross injustice or great harm, the difference between a Burkean and non-Burkean approach would start with the willingness to see things as so wrong and harmful they must be changed immediately. I use this term to mean things like slavery, and comparably great evils, and not much else.

By contrast, as I tried to suggest in the case of laws against drug use, the very fact of near universal regulation, a longstanding practice of disapproval, and great concerns about unintended consequences, would lead a Burkean to think the case has not been made for an immediate and wholesale end to the war on drugs. It's obvious to a pure libertarian that the war on drugs must end and end now because it violates postulates of individual freedom, arrogates much coercive and intrusive power to the government, and has resulted in identifiable harms, but a Burkean would not analyze the problem the same way. Burkeans are not slow libertarians.

So for a Burkean there is a very broad range of traditions that should be accorded respect and a presumption in their favor and a very narrow range of historical cases where incremental change seems inadequate. Much as I would welcome everyone on board, I think that makes Burkeanism distinct from the methodolgy of many who advocate libertarianism, modern political liberalism, and indeed much right-wing ideology.

Tradition is to politics what stare decisis is to law - a presumption in favor of the decision made earlier in time. Not an unalterable presumption, but a presumption all the same.
5.5.2008 5:11pm
Tim Dowling (mail):
I haven't been following these threads, and so this passage might have been quoted already. But if not, here's an interesting, Burkean perspective on tradition, from Chesterton's "Ethics of Elfland":

"Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea."
5.5.2008 6:40pm
Doc W (mail):
If Burkeans would not support an immediate and wholesale end to the war on drugs, should they not also have resisted the immediate and wholesale illegalization of drugs in the first place? If people had smoked opium for ages, was not prohibition precisely the sort of thoughtless utopian interventionism that Burkeans would be expected to oppose?

Alcohol prohibition is an even clearer case. Burkeans must respect the fact that people traditionally have imbibed alcohol. But once prohibition is in place for awhile, the same considerations militate against repeal. So what can Burkeans really stand for?

I suggest that we can give Burkean concerns their fair due, but no more. Customs, norms, traditions, common practices, and other institutions evolve to cope with the problems of living in society. Laws may be set down for the same purpose. Where such have existed for some time in societies that themselves continue to persist (perhaps prosper) in a dangerous and uncertain world, then they may possess functionality that is not obvious to the analytical mind. Hubristic tinkering may well produce highly negative unintended consequences.

But what if the problems, the ones that institutions have evolved to cope with, include one or more major evils? Like slavery. Or communism. Surely the evil must be undone. But beware: laws can be repealed, but the customs, norms, traditions, common practices--the cultural capital--will not disappear immediately. Now they may be worse than useless.

Example: the endemic corruption on all scales that developed under Russian communism, by which people were able to acquire needed goods and services outside the socialist straightjacket. But the cultural capital, the whole mindset appropriate to a free economy is quite different. So the overthrow of communism results in some level of turmoil for awhile. Perhaps there is even backsliding into the familiar, though oppressive and unproductive, old regime. I think a similar picture can be drawn in the case of abolishing slavery.

Burke can't tell us whether to change or not, whether to do so slowly or quickly. But the lesson of Burke, augmented by Hayek, is that change brings unintended consequences, that some of these are likely to be negative, and these considerations deserve to be weighed carefully before embarking.
5.5.2008 11:46pm
Is Ilya a fan of any laws, traditions, or constraints of any kind? If he's going to make the case for anarchy every time the Conspirators want to debate textualism, Burke, stare decisis, the role of the judiciary, representative democracy, etc., he should do so openly.
5.6.2008 12:45am
Thales (mail) (www):
I oppose Burkeanism, as actually expounded by Burke, or especially as by neoBurkeans, because it is a radical break with tradition that has no clear benefits over incremental reform of social philosophy. Cf. Thomas Paine, the Rights of Man.
5.6.2008 1:37pm