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A Few Final Thoughts on Burkean Conservatism:

Dale's helpful latest post helps clarify and sharpen our remaining disagreements about Burkean conservatism, the degree of deference due to tradition, and the costs and benefits of rapid change.

Dale continues to agree with me that "coercively imposed traditions" are not due any presumption of validity. But he clarifies his stance by stating that this category should be limited 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." This is still a very important narrowing of the Burkean presumption in favor of tradition. Most of the world's governments throughout history have been authoritarian or totalitarian, and Burkean conservative arguments have often been deployed against proposed changes in those governments' structure and policies. Even in many democratic societies, there are important policies that have been left in place from pre-democratic times because of the force of inertia, status quo bias, or accumulated interest group power.

However, Dale is right to suppose that my notion of "coercively imposed traditions" is broader than his. I do not claim that any tradition that some people consider "oppressive" is coercively imposed. However, I do believe that this is true of traditions imposed on a large group of people against their consent, even in the case of democratic societies. There is a possible exception for policies imposed for the purpose of eliminating preexisting coercion (e.g. - the abolition of slavery, which was imposed over the objections of slaveowners). And obviously, the definition of "coercion" is itself contestable in lots of ways I can't even begin to address in this post.

In general, however, democratic process has too many flaws for us to assume that a policy has a presumption of validity simply because it has been enacted and maintained by democratic means (widespread political ignorance on the part of voters is one such flaw, but by no means the only one). This is especially true in the case of policies that victimize groups who have little or no influence over the political process. For example, gays and lesbians had very little political influence until fairly recently, because it was too dangerous for most of them to openly identify themselves, and thereby almost impossible for them to mobilize politically. This is, to my mind, a compelling reason for denying antigay policies enacted during that period any presumption of validity - no matter how long they have been in place. Such policies might still be persuasively defended (though I doubt it); but it would have to be on grounds other than a presumption in favor of tradition.

Democratically enacted policies are probably better, on average, than those enacted by dictatorships or oligarchies. But there is no reason to presume that status quo democratic policies are necessarily better than market processes or than new policies enacted by the very same legislative processes that produced the old ones.

Another difference between us is that I continue to believe that status quo bias is a serious problem, whereas there is no comparably widespread irrational bias in favor of change. As I discussed in a previous post, I think the social science research generally supports me on this. If I am right, a Burkean presumption in favor of tradition is likely to reinforce harmful preexisting biases.

Finally, Dale says that the Burkean presumption against rapid change should only be set aside in the case of "slavery, and comparably great evils, and not much else." This is a narrower formulation than his original statement that it should be set aside whenever there is a "gross injustice" or a "great" and "irreparable" harm. To my mind, the new formulation is too narrow, and I like the earlier one better. I don't see why a policy that causes "only" half has much harm and injustice as slavery should be subject to a presumption in favor of gradualism. Moreover, the new formulation also ignores the other potential advantages of rapid change that I discussed in my first post in this series.

That said, I will end by reiterating my view that there should be no general presumption in favor of either gradualism or speed. The optimal pace of change will vary from case to case. There are situations where even a very great injustice should be eliminated only gradually, because the costs of rapid change are too high.

On balance, I think Dale's version of Burkean conservatism is more appealing than many others because he wisely jettisons some of Burkeanism's most indefensible baggage. However, I think the logic of his limited concessions to the value of change is compelling enough to justify going further in the same direction.

bdeck22 (mail):
Democratically enacted policies are probably better, on average, than those enacted by dictatorships or oligarchies

This assumes a lot about "better." At bottom, all questions like this must, but I'd just like to point it out.

I continue to believe that status quo bias is a serious problem, whereas there is no comparably widespread irrational bias in favor of change.

Bringing Tocqueville into it for a moment--the mores of a society have a strong influence on their political order, correct? And would you suggest that it's hard to point to instances of a mania for the new in our society? Isn't progressive a byword for good in political circles?
5.5.2008 8:55pm
Arkady:

But [Dale] clarifies his stance by stating that this category should be limited 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."



Mildred Jeter Loving, 68, a black woman whose refusal to accept Virginia's ban on interracial marriage led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1967 that struck down similar laws across the country, died of pneumonia Friday at her home in Milford, Va.

The Loving v. Virginia decision overturned long-standing legal and social prohibitions against miscegenation in the United States.
5.6.2008 7:55am
sbw (mail) (www):
no general presumption in favor of either gradualism or speed

As kids in the back of the car argue whether we should accelerate faster or slower to reach the speed limit, I am bemused. The better question, what the speed limit should be, is not at all related to how fast we reach it.

But kids will be kids, and occupy themselves with pretty much anything to relieve the boredom during the trip. At least they are not continuously chanting, "Are we there yet?"
5.6.2008 8:44am
ctw (mail):
(Sorry to digress, but I came to the thread late.) In your reply to DC's first post, you suggested that a McCain victory would create divided government, ie, that one or both houses would remain D. Is that a numerical inevitability or a speculation?

If the latter, given the actual results of recent mostly undivided R rule, do you consider the chance of undivided D rule unequivocally more worrisome than the chance of undivided rule by essentially the same Rs?

Thanks - Charles
5.6.2008 10:16am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
You give the market too much credit. How on earth is the market going to solve problems like discrimination against gays (or any other minority group that is less than a critical mass of the population)? This country has demonstrated over and over again from the native population to the Irish, to blacks, to homosexuals, that tradition can and does trump your mystical marketplace.

You noted that you object to civil rights legislation that prohibits private action. It really boggles the mind to imagine how the South would have achieved the progress it has in the last 40 years if only government-mandated segregation had ended but businesses and private entities were still free to discriminate with impunity. And in your world where private discrimination would still be allowed, would the courts enforce restrictive covenants that prevented the sale of real estate to Blacks, Jews or Russian Immigrants?
5.6.2008 10:30am
Roscoe B. Means:
"I continue to believe that status quo bias is a serious problem, whereas there is no comparably widespread irrational bias in favor of change."

Obviously, the author of that comment has been asleep for the last 40 years, and has not been paying attention to the Democratic primary campaign.
5.6.2008 3:50pm
Doc W (mail):
In response to J. F. Thomas, I'd like to point out that it's not the fault of any free marketplace if the government coercively discriminates against or requires discrimination against minorities or gays. As I recall, segregation was enforce by law in the Jim Crow South. True, if individuals are free, they are free to discriminate. The world is not perfect, and anyone who expects it to become so through government interventionism is living in Fantasyland. But the market does leave people free to pursue advancement through non-coercive interaction with others, and it provides persistent incentives to do business on the basis of "business" considerations rather than personal bias. One small example that I can think of off-hand: I believe it is well-known that minimum wage laws were enforced in South Africa under apartheid precisely to prevent blacks from competing with white workers by underbidding on wages.
5.6.2008 4:25pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
As I recall, segregation was enforce by law in the Jim Crow South.

There was both mandatory and voluntary segregation in the south. Some public accomadations were required to segregate their facilities whether they wanted to or not, but many businesses were free to deal with whomever they wanted yet still chose to segregate their facilities or exclude blacks altogether. Of course if a shopkeeper decided to exclude blacks, the law would enforce his decision for him.

The Civil Rights Act effectively made discrimination by private parties illegal. Apparently, for Ilya this was a step too far. But if contracts are to be enforced, then the government would still be involved in discrimination (restrictive covenants based on race and religion were quite common).
5.6.2008 4:53pm
Almijisti:
Most of the world's governments throughout history have been authoritarian or totalitarian,

I don't see how such a blanket statement can be made. There's a world of difference between, say, a theoretically authoritarian government (e.g., feudal monarchy) and a modern totalitarian state. The former may will claim absolute rights from God, but practically speaking, monarchs historically had little or no direct control over their subjects' daily lives except indirectly, through the medium of accepted traditions (and a near universal acceptance of precepts of natural law, in one form or another).

Before the modern age, authoritarianism was limited by the lack of massive armies, primitive modes of transportation, and few if any methods of propaganda. I cannot agree with the notion that most or even a significant minority of the world's societies have actually been authoritarian or totalitarian in any useful sense of those terms. What the rulers may have wanted and what they got were quite different things, prior to the 20th century.

The perceived lack of change in past societies has nothing to do with "Burkean" defenses of the status quo—on the contrary, it was rarely necessary for Burke and his fellow travelers (or precursors) to opine at all about the need for tradition as the vast majority of people have been satisfied with their lot in life, or, if not, they have been far more concerned with day-to-day affairs that typically would not have been viewed with an eye toward larger political and cultural currents.

The obsessive belief that political change (i.e., macro-economic, geo-political events) is or should be the concern of the average citizen is itself a modernist bias bordering on a totalitarian impulse. It is not for nothing that many persons view political activism with suspicion—more often than not, those espousing greater "rights" are, perhaps unwittingly, seeking to impose changes that would be not far removed from cryptofascism.
5.6.2008 9:47pm