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.