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.