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.