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Is John McCain a Burkean Conservative?: Jonathan Rauch makes the case over at TheAtlantic.com. I hope he's right. Thanks to Instapundit for the pointer.
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Is John McCain a Burkean Conservative?

Jonathan Rauch argues that John McCain is a "Burkean conservative," which Rauch defines as "respecting long-standing customs and institutions" and opposing "radical change." I'm a big fan of Rauch's work, but in this case I find his argument unconvincing.

Most of Rauch's evidence consists of political compromises that McCain has accepted as a senator and presidential candidate. However, as a "maverick" senator viewed with suspicion by both his own party and the Democrats, McCain had little choice but to compromise if he wanted to see any of his ideas enacted into law. Similarly, McCain had to accept some compromises and trim his sails in order to win the nomination of the Republican Party, most of whose activists were hardly enthusiastic about his candidacy.

On some issues, however, McCain has indeed endorsed "radical change" that runs counter to tradition. For example, he has repeatedly made clear that he wants far more sweeping regulation of political speech, going well beyond the compromises embodied in his McCain-Feingold law. Rauch describes the Iraq War as inconsistent with Burkean conservatism (because it was an effort at rapid transformation of a tyrannical society). Yet McCain has consistently supported the war just as enthusiastically as President Bush (albeit advocating what I think is a more effective and realistic strategy than that pursued by Bush and the Pentagon during the first several years of the conflict). If McCain becomes president, he will face fewer external constraints and will therefore be able to pursue his more radical preferences more aggressively.

Nonetheless, there is a good reason for Burkean conservatives and others opposed to rapid change to prefer a McCain victory. If McCain wins, divided government will be preserved, and divided government makes it difficult for either the President or Congress to enact radical new policy initiatives. It also plays a valuable role in constraining the growth of government. If one of the Democrats wins, he or she will have a cooperative Democratic majority in Congress (probably a bigger one than currently exists) and there will likely be several radical new policy initiatives and a major expansion of the size and scope of government. Thanks to divided government, a McCain victory might well lead to Burkean conservative results even if that isn't McCain's personal preference.

At the same time, I should note that I am not a Burkean conservative myself, and my reasons for preferring a McCain victory have more to do with the usefulness of divided government in constraining the growth of government than with any general opposition to rapid change. If time permits, I will do a follow-up post on the shortcomings of Burkean conservatism, which I think overstates the virtues of tradition and underestimates the possibility that rapid change is sometimes a good thing.

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McCain and Burkeanism:

Burkeanism isn't so much a philosophy as it is an attitude or disposition. As I see it, Burkeanism is not primarily about a commitment to any particular set of policy outcomes, though respecting tradition and continuity will tend to confine one's choices about policy in the short- and medium-term. Instead, Burkeanism suggests great humility about our capacity to effectuate significant change, distrusts a priori reasoning and abstraction, doubts our ability to fully appreciate the wisdom of longstanding practices and institutions, and worries a great deal about the unintended consequences of change. It isn't opposed to reform, of course, but is very cautious about it. Thus, the Burkean tends to favor incremental over convulsive change. For my brief description of Burkeanism (in the context of the debate over gay marriage), with relevant quotes from Burke, see this post.

Here is an example of what I mean by a Burkean attitude or disposition. I do not think there is a determinate answer to the question whether a Burkean, in 2003, should have supported the war in Iraq. But the reasons why one might have supported that war could be either Burkean or very un-Burkean. Supporting the war for reasons of national interest or security would have been defensible on Burkean grounds. Opposing the war for those same reasons would also have been defensible from a Burkean perspective, since ultimately the necessary judgments about the facts and the consequences of inaction were debatable. But supporting the war because one believed it would be possible by foreign invasion to "remake" Iraqi society, and "transform" the Middle East, would have been un-Burkean. Burkeanism is deeply hostile to the utopian concept of "nation building."

Further, the Burkean in one society will tend to have different policy preferences than the Burkean in another because his views will be shaped by his own society's customs, practices, traditions, and history. In this country, for example, the Burkean will be more committed to liberal and democratic values than to authoritarian and theocratic ones. When Burke expressed sympathy for the American rebellion, he did so on the grounds that the Crown had usurped the traditional rights of Americans as Englishmen.

Jon Rauch, always a thoughtful analyst, makes an interesting case in the Atlantic for John McCain's Burkeanism, at least as contrasted with many movement conservatives today. As Rauch argues, many people who call themselves conservatives are not very Burkean. Whether it's in the realm of foreign policy or judicial philosophy, they are too confident about their ends and too eager to use any means to have their way. They are too willing to ignore tradition and precedent, to be Burkean. They are too hard and pure. Right-wing ideology is not Burkeanism. McCain's legislative record demonstrates pretty clearly that he is no conservative ideologue, which is one reason so many of them have no patience for him.

Ilya correctly notes that some of McCain's political compromises have been necessary to get legislation passed, rather than an expression of what he really wanted. But compromise for a general conciliation is a Burkean move, and bowing to this kind of necessity is not a universally shared trait among today's conservatives. McCain was strongly criticized by movement conservatives, for example, for joining the Gang of 14 Senators who preempted a "nuclear" showdown in the Senate on judicial nominees that would have ended the longstanding practice of allowing filibusters. That was a Burkean moment for him, sharply criticized by those who wanted more radical and swift change.

Nevertheless, I am not sure whether McCain is really Burkean. The simple fact that he has taken particular policy positions doesn't answer the question. There is no Burkean tax plan.

The question of temperament, which Rauch does not discuss in his excellent Atlantic essay, is more important than any single policy position. What matters most to the question of whether McCain is Burkean, I think, is how he tends to approach public policy questions. Is it with caution and humility, with a preference for evolution rather than revolution? Or is it with a reformer's zeal, one who has an unshakeable goal in mind and will let nothing stand in the way?

On some issues and at some times, McCain has seemed the former. If memory serves, he supported the Iraq war on national-security grounds, not Wilsonian ones. On other matters, notably his enthusiasm for campaign finance regulations, he has seemed more the latter. If reports from some of his colleagues in the Senate are correct, McCain can be pretty arrogant and hotheaded. Those are not very Burkean traits. But if, at the end of the day, he's better described as patient and deliberate, there's reason to believe that he's closer to Burke than to Burke's critics.

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Pitfalls of Burkean Conservatism:

In this post, I am going to discuss two major shortcomings of Burkean conservatism: its excessive deference to tradition and its failure to recognize that rapid change is often preferable to a more gradualistic approach. I know that there is a controversy among Burke experts about the extent to which Edmund Burke himself actually held these views. So my objections are principally aimed at modern exponents of what is usually called "Burkean" conservatism, irrespective of whether Burke himself would have endorsed their views (e.g. Jonathan Rauch in the article on McCain that we have been discussing).

I. Overvaluing Tradition.

Rauch identifies "respect [for] long-standing customs and institutions" and reluctance to override tradition as key attributes of Burkean conservatism. Burkeans do not claim that tradition should be maintained at all costs; but they do accord it a high degree of deference and a presumption of validity. The obvious objection to this idea is that there have been many harmful and oppressive traditions, including very longstanding ones. Slavery, racism, sexism, authoritarian government, and - in the former communist world - socialism, are obvious examples. But the issue is not just that there are some very bad traditions. Burkeans could counter this point by arguing that, on balance, most traditions are good. The more fundamental problem is that there is a systematic category of traditions that are likely to be harmful because they are the result of coercion and imposition by one group (usually a dominant elite) on others. Most of the harmful traditions that I listed above fall into this category.

Coercively imposed traditions do not deserve any deference or presumption of their validity. It may sometimes be difficult or impossible to change them. But there is no reason to assume that they have any inherent value, as Burkean conservatives too often do. And it is important to recognize that Burkean appeals to tradition were in fact used to justify the continuation of slavery, racism, sexism, political authoritarianism, and communism when efforts to abolish these institutions got underway.

Burkeans such as co-blogger Dale Carpenter correctly point out that we sometimes fail to "fully appreciate the wisdom of longstanding practices and institutions." But this point cuts both ways: we also often fail to fully appreciate the harm they cause. And the latter bias is likely to be more common than the former. Most people have a strong tendency to take the validity of their longstanding practices for granted without serious questioning. As Dale knows better than I, until recently the vast majority of heterosexuals took the validity of homophobia for granted and grossly underestimated the harm it causes. Many hold such views even today.

Burkeans are probably on firmer ground in urging respect for traditions that emerge from voluntary interactions, such as business arrangements between willing buyers and sellers. Unfortunately, however, all too many Burkean conservatives have not limited their deference to tradition to such cases.

To make the point completely clear, I am not arguing that tradition, even coercively imposed tradition, is always harmful. I merely suggest that coercively imposed traditions deserve no presumption of validity. Indeed, we should view them with great suspicion unless and until a compelling justification is offered.

II. Undervaluing the Potential Benefits of Rapid Change.

Rauch also identifies opposition to "radical change" as a key attribute of Burkean conservatism. This view, I think, fails to recognize the potential advantages of rapid change.

There are many historical examples where the rapid elimination of oppressive traditions and institutions turned out to be wiser than a gradualistic approach. Slavery in the United States and serfdom in Russia were both eliminated very rapidly in the 1860s. This was almost certainly better than a gradual elimination over a period of several decades (as urged by some moderate abolitionists), which would have consigned several more generations to bondage. In the 1960s, Congress' rapid dismantling segregation in the South worked more effectively and caused less violence and "massive resistance" than the gradualistic approach the Supreme Court pursued in the 1950s. The rapid destruction of dictatorship and swift transition to liberal democracy in countries such as Germany, Japan, Italy, Grenada, and Panama has worked quite well. Most recently, those post-communist nations that made a rapid and complete transition from communism (e.g. - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia) have done far better than those such as Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, which adopted a more gradualistic approach - one which has led to lower economic growth and a resurgence of authoritarianism.

There are two systematic lessons to be learned from these cases. First, rapid change has the advantage of making it more difficult for supporters of the oppressive status quo to mobilize to prevent reform. For example, the Supreme Court's initial gradualistic approach to desegregation gave the southern states time and opportunity to pursue their strategy of "massive resistance" and gave groups such as the Ku Klux Klan the opportunity to resist with violence. In Russia, the failure to fully dismantle the communist power structure enabled the KGB and other communist institutions to retain some of their power and eventually install one of their own (Vladimir Putin) as president, thereby reversing some of the gains of the 1990s. In addition to denying them time for mobilization and counteraction, rapid change can also destroy some of the power structures these reactionaries need to make their resistance effective.

Second, to the extent that the tradition at issue harmful or oppressive, a gradualistic approach necessarily perpetuates the suffering it causes for a longer time than gradual change would. For example, a gradualistic approach to the abolition of slavery necessarily means that at least one additional generation will remain in bondage.

These potential advantages of rapid change are sometimes outweighed by its costs. I do not mean to endorse any general principle that rapid change is always superior. However, I do think that Burkean conservatives are wrong to argue for a general presumption in favor of gradualism. Whether rapid change is preferable to a gradualist approach will vary from case to case. It depends on how bad the status quo is, how much opposition has to be overcome, how effective reactionaries will be in taking advantage of the respite granted by gradualism, and other such factors.

Burkean conservatism isn't always wrong. But its advocates do tend to overvalue tradition and undervalue the potential advantages of rapid change.

UPDATE: In response to various comments, I suppose I should clarify that I am opposed to either gradual or rapid change for the worse. Thus, there is no need to point out that, e.g., communists supported rapid changes that I would consider harmful. Adherents of virtually any ideology oppose what they consider to be change in the wrong direction. The distinctive aspect of Burkean conservatism is the strong preference for gradualism even with respect to beneficial change. That is the tendency I seek to criticize. I do not believe that change as such is either good or bad. It depends on the direction of the change and how it is implemented.

UPDATE #2: This response to my argument claims that Edmund Burke didn't hold the views I attribute to Burkean conservatives. Perhaps not. But as I noted in the original post, I am criticizing modern writers who consider themselves Burkean conservatives. I take no position on the question of whether they interpret Burke's own views correctly. And these writers do place a strong emphasis on deference to tradition and opposition to rapid change - even if the change is in a beneficial direction.

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A Defense Of Burkean Conservatism: It won't surprise readers of the recent Ilya-Orin exchanges on constitutional interpretation that Ilya and I sharply disagree on the cluster of ideas generally grouped together as "Burkean conservatism." Indeed, I have often thought that our exchanges on constitutional interpretation were really just an application of our broader disagreement on Burke's ideas (or rather, what passes today as Burke's ideas — I agree with Ilya that we should accept the label as a given). Given that, I want to respond to Ilya's post and explain why I disagree with him on the alleged pitfalls of Burkean conservatism. Specifically, I want to make the case for presumptively valuing tradition and for presumptively favoring gradual change.

  First, the case for valuing tradition. In my view, it is smart to start with a presumption of validity of existing practice because it is human nature that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." Problems with the status quo are visible, so they get our attention, while the benefits of the status quo often blend in to the background. I think this creates a consistent bias in how we assess the costs and benefits of change. When we look to alter the status quo, we often dwell so much on the improvements we anticipate that we miss the costs that may accompany it. This is sometimes called "the law of unintended consequences," but I think it's more just a failure to prospectively assess costs of change in the same way that we prospectively assess benefits.

  Valuing tradition is a smart counterweight that protects against this common human error. In my view, valuing tradition has nothing to do with blindly deferring to something just because it has been around for a while. Instead, it means looking carefully at the functions that the tradition serves and appreciating those functions even if they are not "squeaky wheels." My sense is that in most cases this will tend to facilitate a more accurate and realistic sense of costs and benefits of prospective reforms.

  The case for gradual change is related to the case for valuing tradition. If we change gradually, we can test whether our sense of the costs and benefits are accurate. We can get a feel for whether our ideas are right or if we're missing something, and we can use our experience to learn and tailor future changes. This isn't always possible because some problems are non-linear; a small step may not correlate to a small version of the change that a big step would produce. But I think it works often enough that it's a smart strategy to use as a default.

  My difficulty with Ilya's opposing case is that it is based heavily on a few specific examples, and yet we don't know if his examples are representative. Without question, we can look to examples of extremely bad things in the past and say it would have been better to end them quickly rather than slowly. But we can also look to examples of extremely bad proposals for change in the past and say it would have been better to try them slowly or not at all rather than to have embraced them. Because choosing the example picks the lesson, I tend to think that the anecdotal approach doesn't get us very far. One side picks slavery as the lead example and the other side picks communism, and neither can convince the other that their example is more illuminating.
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Debating Burkean Conservatism:

In his most recent post, Orin takes issue with my critique of Burkean conservatism. He argues that we should have a presumption in favor of tradition and also in favor of gradual rather than rapid change. He makes some thoughtful points; but in the end I don't feel persuaded. Just to clarify, however, I don't think that there should be any general presumption against tradition or gradualism. I merely oppose setting up a presumption in their favor.

I. Should we have a presumption in favor of tradition?

Orin argues that we should have a presumption in favor of tradition because otherwise we will tend to overestimate the problems of the status quo and underestimate its benefits:

In my view, it is smart to start with a presumption of validity of existing practice because it is human nature that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." Problems with the status quo are visible, so they get our attention, while the benefits of the status quo often blend in to the background. I think this creates a consistent bias in how we assess the costs and benefits of change. When we look to alter the status quo, we often dwell so much on the improvements we anticipate that we miss the costs that may accompany it.

Obviously, some people are biased in favor of change. Orin would probably say that I'm one of them! If so, I'm an atypical case. Bias in favor of the status quo is far more common. Scholars even have a clever, original name for it: status quo bias. And there is considerable evidence documenting its existence (see, e.g., here). On the other hand, I'm not aware of any scholarly literature documenting the existence of a comparably widespread bias in favor of change. The literature on the closely related "endowment effect" also suggests that most people are more worried about losing what they have than about maximizing potential future gains.

Moreover, as I argued in my original post, people often take the validity of longstanding traditions for granted, without even attempting to examine their costs and benefits. The average white American in, say 1920, didn't take time to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of racial segregation. He most likely simply assumed that this longstanding practice was a good one.

Finally, as also discussed in my last post, there is a category of traditions that are systematically likely to cause more harm than good: traditions that arose because of coercive imposition by one group on others. These kinds of traditions may still turn out to be beneficial in some cases. But we should at least view them with some presumptive suspicion. I do agree, as noted in the earlier post, that there may be some case for a presumption in favor of traditions that arose through voluntary relationships. However, it is significant that most of the traditions that have historically caused debates between Burkean conservatives and their critics are of the coercive variety.

II. Rapid Change vs. Gradualism.

Orin argues that gradual change is better than rapid because "If we change gradually, we can test whether our sense of the costs and benefits are accurate. We can get a feel for whether our ideas are right or if we're missing something, and we can use our experience to learn and tailor future changes." In some cases this will be true. In others, it won't be so easy to control and "tailor" the pace of change. On the other hand, as I noted in my previous post, there are several systematic advantages of rapid change as well.

Orin also claims that my examples of beneficial rapid change may be unrepresentative. They may indeed be so, though I tried to explain why these examples rest on more general advantages of rapid change. In any event, I don't believe that either gradual or rapid change is generally superior to the alternative. As I tried to explain in the previous post, whether one is better than the other will vary from case to case. Sometimes the advantages of gradualism will outweigh those of speed and sometimes not. We should not start with a presumption in favor of either.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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