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.