Are Big Ideas Bad Ideas?

Some conservatives argue that "big ideas" about politics are generally bad, and that conservatism should instead focus on protecting tradition and avoiding big ideas. Steve Bainbridge, the outstanding legal scholar and conservative blogger, provides a good example of this view:

I can't think of anything more contrary to the spirit of Burkean conservatism than a seach for the "next big thing"....

Instead, it is the Libertarians and the progressives who are Big Idea people. Despite their obvious differences in philosophy, they share the absurd belief that if only their big idea(s) came to pass, society would inexorably progress towards some ideal.

In contrast, I stand with Buckley ("Don't let ideologues try to create heaven on earth, because they'll deprive us of freedom and make things a lot worse") and Bill Bonner ("Traditional American conservatism was not a doctrine of world improvement, but a mood of skepticism toward all "isms" and empire builders").

Why? Think about the Big Ideas of the 20th Century: Compassionate conservatism, Objectivism, Deconstructionism, Freudianism, Nazism, Conceptualism, Socialism, Syndicalism, Minimalism, Communism, Functionalism, Postmodernism, Dadism, Fundamentalism, Fascism. All of them turned out to be basically bad ideas.

Bainbridge is right that there have been many bad Big Ideas. Nonetheless, generalized conservative hostility to big ideas is misguided for two reasons:

First, it ignores the fact that there are many big ideas that have turned out to be extremely good ones (at least relative to the alternatives). Consider Liberty, Free Markets, Democracy, racial and gender Equality, Privacy, Charity, and many more. Without these big ideas and others like them, we wouldn't have many of the greatest achievements of Western civilization. Bad big ideas are best countered with good big ideas, not with a blanket rejection of big ideas as such. The most compelling responses to the biggest Bad Ideas of the last century - Communism and Nazism - were the good Big Ideas of Liberty, Free Markets, and Democracy. I doubt we could have persuaded many intelligent people to reject communism or Nazism merely because they are "Big Ideas."

Second, conservatism hostility to big ideas is internally contradictory. It is itself a Big Idea. Like advocates of other Big Ideas, conservatives who argue for rejection of "ideological" ideas do so because they think that acceptance of this general principle will make society better. Same with the "Burkean conservative" respect for tradition that we recently debated here at the VC, and which Bainbridge seems to endorse. You can't simultaneously reject "Big Ideas" and defend the big idea of broad deference to Tradition.

UPDATE: There is a possible ambiguity in Bainbridge's post. It's not entirely clear whether he thinks we should oppose all Big Ideas or merely new ones ("the next big thing"). I suspect the former, but the latter is also a plausible interpretation of his post. Even if his criticism is limited to new big ideas, it's still misguided in my view. All the great big ideas of the past were new at one time, including the ones I listed above. We should not exclude the possibility that further new big ideas might be beneficial as well. Each new big idea should be evaluated on its own merits, not peremptorily dismissed on the grounds that big ideas are likely to be bad.

UPDATE #2: In the comments, Steve Bainbridge clarifies his position to some extent:

If I can elaborate just briefly, my basic gripe with Big Ideas is that people with Big Ideas generally want to convert other people to their ideas. And that's usually a bad thing. As the Iraq war's taught us, trying to convert people to even good Big Ideas like democracy can sometimes work out quite badly.

Thanks to Steve Bainbridge for his clarification. I think his initial post did indeed make it seem as if he wanted to condemn all "big ideas" and not just the attempt to "export" them by force. However, I disagree at least partially with the narrower anti-export point as well. Many efforts to export democracy and other good big ideas by force have succeeded. Consider the cases of Germany, Italy, Japan, Grenada, Panama, and others - all of which are relatively successful liberal democracies today because the US and allies overthrew their previous governments by force. That doesn't mean that all such efforts are a good idea as a general rule, or that Iraq was a good idea in particular. It does mean that we shouldn't categorically reject them.

McCain Dumps Hagee Over Holocaust Remarks:

Sen. McCain has rejected the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee, whose controversial, inflammatory statements on a variety of matters have caused him to be a liability to the McCain campaign. The final straw was a sermon from the late 1990s in which Hagee said, interpreted biblical prophecy about the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel: "Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun, and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter. ... How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said, 'My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.'"

This is a pretty stupid idea, but I don't find it "anti-Jewish." That's probably because I've heard similar statements from Orthodox Jews. For example, when I was in elementary school in an Orthodox day school, we were discussing why the Holocaust happened. One of my classmates volunteered that his father told him something like that it was necessary "for us to get Israel." As I understood the comment at the time and his further elaboration on it, his father was saying something like "God did something horrible to us for reasons known only to Him, and then paid us back (collectively) with a lasting benefit."

Even as a fourth-grader, I thought this was a repugnant idea, and that anyone who believed it should cease worshiping this particular God immediately, unless they were only doing so out of fear of what nutty, cruel thing He might do next (an attitude that admittedly is reflected in many Jewish prayers). But it reflects the trap you're in as an orthodox (small "o") believer trying to make sense of the Holocaust. Either (a) God really hates the Jews (and there are plenty of Orthodox Jewish rabbis who have suggested that the Holocaust was punishment for the sins of the Jewish people); (b) God isn't all-powerful, or doesn't care to use His power to prevent horrific crimes against His people; or (c) the Holocaust had to be part of some broader Divine master plan that would ultimately redound to Jews' benefit. The fact that Hagee takes the latter position hardly makes him an intellectual giant, or speaks well of his moral imagination. But color me unoffended.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Hagee on Hagee:
  2. McCain Dumps Hagee Over Holocaust Remarks:
  3. Are Big Ideas Bad Ideas?
Hagee on Hagee:

Hagee explains his remarks on the Holocaust:

What has been disappointing has been to see my life's work - the great passion of my life - mischaracterized and attacked. I have dedicated my life to combating anti-Semitism and supporting the State of Israel. In taking a stand for Israel I have received death threats from anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, and I've had the windows of my car blown out beneath the windows of the rooms in which my children slept. To hear people who know nothing about me or my life's work claim that I somehow excuse the Holocaust is simply heartbreaking.

Let me be clear — to assert that I in any way condone the Holocaust or that monster Adolf Hitler is the worst of lies. I have always condemned the horrors of the Holocaust in the strongest of terms. But even more importantly, my abhorrence of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism has never stopped with mere words.

I have devoted most of my adult life to ensuring that there will never be a second Holocaust. I have worked tirelessly to eliminate the sin of anti-Semitism from the Christian world and to ensure the survival of the State of Israel.

The fact is that all people of faith have had to wrestle with the question of why a sovereign God would allow evil in the world. After Auschwitz, this question became more urgent than ever.

Many people simply could not explain how a loving God would permit such horrors. After the Holocaust, they abandoned their faith in a sovereign God who intervenes here on earth. While I disagree with this conclusion, I would never denigrate those who arrived at such a conclusion.

But I and many millions of Christians and Jews came to a different conclusion. We maintained our faith in a sovereign God who allows both the good and the evil that is in the world. We therefore search the scriptures for an explanation for that evil. We believe that the words of the Hebrew prophets such as Jeremiah may help us understand the mind of God. But our search for an explanation for evil must never be confused with an effort to excuse it.

H/T: Rosner