Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism

NOTE: These seven essays were reproduced from my defunct blog Random Notes as they will be cited in my soon to be posted essay on common sense and pragmatism.

I wrote in my last post that conservatives are not so much attached to the past as they are wary of using novelty alone as a measure of worth. As I wrote several times, they appreciate the past as it has stood the test of time, having proved its worth, and, while they will adopt new ideas and principles, they will do so gradually, as the new ideas prove their worth, not in a rush as a trendy novelty appears on the scene. 

Conservatism is, in this way, both optimistic and realistic, showing both confidence in the human mind and a knowledge of its limits. 

First, the conservative philosophy shows respect fort he accumulated wisdom of past generations by accepting that what has "stood the test of time" is probably of some worth. After all, if generations have found it of use, then likely there is something of value in those beliefs and practices that have been handed down to us. Only a very arrogant individual would think that all past individuals were completely wrong and only HE can know the truth. A realistic assessment of our stature relative tot eh past makes conservatives recognize that, while not perfect, past practices must have had some value to have survived.

Second, conservatives recognize the limits of human intellect, as well as the power of reason, by admitting that past practices may not have been the best possible and new ideas may arise which are better. And so they allow that change may be needed. However, , again recognizing the possibility of error, they accept those changes only after they too have proved their worth, and usually only in a piecemeal fashion, adopting them a little at a time to give time to assess their worth. In that way they allow for the possibility that things might always be improved while also tempering the human passion for novelty and any excessive enthusiasm for change for the sake of change.

Actually, there is one more way in which the conservative approach shows respect for man. As I wrote before, one of the greatest things government can provide to all citizens is a predictable environment. Even if bad, predictable laws are beneficial. As I wrote before, it is better to have a predictable government, even an oppressive one, than the most benevolent capricious dictator.  And predictability is precisely what the conservative approach brings us. By instituting changes gradually, in small steps, it makes it easier for those effected by changes to adapt with the least harm. 

So, why do I bother writing all this?

That is easy to explain. In this era of the "Angry Right" and conservative calls for revolution and other dramatic change, we often forget that "conservative" means precisely that. Yes, we want to return to the government envisioned by the founders, yes we want to make some big changes in how things work, but we must not forget one other truth, that dramatic change often does more harm than good. Often making too many changes at once can produce unforeseen results, or get out of the control of those who think they are driving the change. Though we may not like the current state of affairs and wish for a big, earth shattering alteration, we must recall that 'earth shattering' change often undermines the things we want to preserve, and we might be better off fighting for a dramatic change of mind among the voters, but one expressed as a gradual shift in the government.


I know I will win no friends writing this. gradualism is never popular, it is not "sexy" and doesn't "sell well". I am sure some may even dub my a "RINO", despite my beliefs. But I believe in being honest, and in this case honesty compels me to argue that, no matter how bad things might be, we would do better to change things step by step rather than really undergo the "revolution" that seems to occupy many conservatives' day dreams. Recall that the founders themselves tried everything possible to remain loyal British subjects before finally revolting. There is a reason for that, they knew the harm revolution could bring. We would do well to keep that in mind when those on the Angry Right call for revolution.


As usual, I decided to forgo links in this post. Instead I will mention that I wrote about gradualism in my posts "Why We Need Adults", "In Praise of Slow Changes", "Misunderstanding Democracy", "The Angry Right and Conservatives" and "The Old Versus The New". I also wrote about the benefits of predictability in the posts "In Praise of Slow Changes", "Predictability", "The Problem With Cultural Relativism", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "The High Cost Of Protection", "The Problem With Evolving Standards", "England Becoming a Third World Nation", "Why Judicial Activism Hurts",  "Interpretation and Activism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Shaky Reasoning" and "Expectations".

This gradual approach also supports my federalist beliefs. One of the benefits of federalism is that each state can adopt a different position, allowing many states to compare the benefits of differing practices. States can then adopt those practices which other states have found beneficial. By allowing the slow spread of good ideas from one state to the next, this is essentially a gradualist idea. 

For more details read "Why I Am Not A Libertarian", "My Vision of Government", "My Vision of Government Part II", and "The Benefits of Federalism". I may not explicitly tie them to gradualism, but the idea is there if you look for it.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/04/28.

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