Opposite day: The limits of Burkean gradualism



Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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23 Responses

  1. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Tom and I are both Burkeans.  We just want to move gradually in different directions.  (His path, of course, given enough time, leads to total tyranny, while mine ultimately leads to perfect paradise.)Report

  2. Avatar stuhlmann says:

    I have a question more than a comment.  Many conservatives tend to be Burkeans and very cautious when it comes to revolution and radical change.  But many conservatives also like Ayn Rand, especially “Atlas Shrugged”.  Didn’t Ayn Rand propose some pretty radical changes for society?  So why do conservatives accept her dream of utopia while rejecting most others?  Couldn’t Randians be added to the French Revolutionaries or Khymer Rouge in James Hanley’s reply?Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      That’s but one of several reasons I’m not a Randian, and cast nervous glances over my shoulder at my fellow libertarians who are.

      From my perspective, even if we accept the assumption that “System X” (whether it be Randian, Marxian, or what ever other ism) will be superior to all other systems, the immense social dislocation of rapid transition is too dangerous to risk.  There will be civil war–those who cannot socially/psychologically handle such a disruption to the world as they know it will fight back, and those who are assured of the justness of the cause of System X will line the recalcitrants up against the wall and shoot them.  I’m pretty persuaded that even many of my fellow anti-coercion libertarians would be too ready to pull the trigger.

      That’s my hypothesis, anyway.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 says:

        The focus on “systems” is in itself a radical and dangerous premise.

        Tradition has shown us that free societies are always a heterogenous mix of public and private, large and small, religious and secular, where power is scattered and diffuse.

        Manmade systems tend to be inflexible and intolerant of deviant thought. This is why I am as sceptical of my fellow Occupiers who want total societal transformation as I am of  socialists or libertarians.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

          Our new pal Lib60 hits it here.  Burkean conservatives are straitjacketed into slavish defenders of their status quo, but this is caricature.

          A nation without the means of reform is without the means of survival.”–Ed. Burke

          Reform isn’t just desirable, it’s necessary.  But “conservatism” of the Burkean kind is properly understood not as an opposition to “liberalism,” but to radicalism.

          No sane man would deny that there are emergencies.  War is the biggest emergency: sometimes, after you get bombed @ Pearl Harbor or get invaded by the Nazis, what have you.  “Reform” is a peacetime thing, normative.  In emergencies, the “normative” is off.

          The thing about radicals is that everything’s an emergency, a crisis.  “The moral equivalent of war,” excusing any radical measures as necessary for survival.

          This is not “reform.”  It is radicalism, and as JHanley notes elsewhere, radicals seldom get past the tearing-down part to build something else.  And if they do, it’s pretty half-assed itself, even more rickety than what came before.  And it has no track record.

          Mankind has an infinity of bad ideas, and we’ve tried every one of them. Edmund Burke, as a student of man and a witness to history [the French Revolution, as well as the American] had his book of recipes.  Britain had had its own share of revolution in the 1600s: First the Puritan Revolution that led to Cromwell [not so great], then the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that put malleable monarchs William & Mary on the throne with the understanding that Parliament was the real king.

          Reform, but not a recipe from scratch that had never been tried.  That was the French Revolution, which kind of sucked, by most accounts.  They sure broke a lot of eggs to make that omelet.



    • Avatar James K says:

      Most conservatives are Christian, and yet Rand considered religion a form of mental illness.  All it proves is that many conservatives have trouble realising that not everyone who talks about small government is on their side.  Especially the ones who actually mean it.Report

  3. Avatar Ilarum says:

    Couldn’t Randians be added to the French Revolutionaries or Khmer Rouge in James Hanley’s reply?

    On the point of radicalism, yes. Tim Sadefur is an example of a libertarian wo is not a hayekian. (Part of this is because he is an objectivist, or has tendencies in that direction)Report

  4. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Murali: “this Opposite day has extended to the whole week”

    I think this is how schizophrenia begins actually.Report

    • Avatar Ilarum says:

      Well, to be honest I did intend us to have an opposite week because I knew how we liked to rehash issues days after the original posts. That said, if I start saying that it has become opposite month, then, we are going to have a problemReport

  5. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Has anyone gotten to Murali’s question yet?

    It seems like, when the subject of Burke comes up, “Burkeans” go into the usual spiel about how liberals are systematizers but human nature is flawed and tradition is a useful guide and other very worthwhile ideas that most of us half-remember from the Reflections on the Revolution in France (did we also read Thoughts on the Present Discontents?). There’s a great deal of wisdom in Burke, although frankly I’m not so much a Burkean as just a pessimist- my experience is that the vast majority of human endeavors end in failure (if you want the kind version of that, we can say they end in failure eventually and blame “entropy”), so it’s a lot harder to get me on board with vast and inspiring political programs than other people. I’m not signing up for the “new human system” either.

    And yet, Murali’s question (if I’m correct) is, given that “Burkeans” are people who have an emotional attachment to gradual and incremental change, what course do they take when the problems their country faces actually are really fishing pressing? I can grouse with the best of them when a politician talks about “bold steps” and “daring change”; but what course should a nation take if faced with a genuine crisis, instead of the usual manufactured variety? That’s where I come up short.Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 says:

      Which is why I have such an aversion to the lingo of “isms”; I understand it becomes a neat shorthand way of classifying ideas, but it also locks us into camps, forced to defend things we really don’t like, and attack those we aren’t troubled by. Its the turf of dogmatic ideologues.

      Burkean or not, the modern day “liberal” such as myself is actually quite conservative- we want to protect and preserve things that in our view are working just fine, such as the social safety net and government regulatory apparatus.

      To Murali’s point, a cautious incrementalist view of the world doesn’t preclude swift or strong action, it only suggests we do it prudently.

      Unless one is so enamored of their dogma that they prefer to see the building burn down so as to preserve it.

      I think it is often forgotten how much radical change can actually be accomplished via small incremental steps- for example, repeal of Glass Steagall wasn’t considered “radical” but it unleashed much of the economic panic we are going thru now; With a few simple steps as I mentioned on toher threads, most of the problems we are facing now could be corrected, even without a “total transformation of society” or whatever some fringer was quoted as saying.



      • Avatar James K says:

        I know what you mean, I call myself a libertarian because it’s the best short description of my views, but libertarianism is a very wide domain, and the label can create the wrong impression.

        Personally, I prefer to debate specific policy proposals, rather than the merits of broad idealogical positions.  I find that brings much-needed clarity to the debate.Report

  6. Avatar James K says:

    One thing that irritates me about Burkean thought is that it can be used as an excuse (this not a flaw in the idea, but rather in how it is use din practice).  Burkean logic can’t be used to oppose an idea utterly, but only to suggest caution an appropriate trials in implementing it.  Sometimes I hear people complain that we shouldn’t do a thing because its never been done before.  This can me made to be an argument against everything.

    Be cautious, experiment where possible, these are good Burkean lessons, but standing athwart history yelling “stop” is not productive.Report

    • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

      I appreciate your criticism of prudence, JamesK, sort of.  But you have straitjacketed Burkean conservatism.  The objection to radical change is most often that the radical doesn’t have a proper understanding of why the status quo is there in the first place.

      The Fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence [via McArdle]:

      “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

      This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious.

      There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        It’s true that you shouldn’t change something unless you have a good reason to believe a change will make things better, but that’s just elemental Benefit-Cost Analysis.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        The problem with this, Tom, is that it assumes a monolithic process of social institutions.

        A great many social institutions were creations of habit; some were creations of convenience, some were creations that were erected to address a problem, some were a matter of whimsy that became tradition, etc.

        Sometimes the fence was there to keep out the lions.  Sometimes the fence was there to keep in the sheep.  Sometimes the fence was there because somebody didn’t have room to put that section in the bed of the truck when they relocated the rest of the fence.

        Sometimes you can look around and say, “I have no idea why this fence was put here, but there are no lions about, nor sheep to keep in, and the previous guy was known for leaving random bits of junk about the property… so it’s going in the truck with the toilet that I found in the back 40 and the silly dragon kite I found in the garage and I’m headed to the dump.”  Sure, sometimes you find out that there’s a historical skunk problem when you get sprayed while checking the tomatoes, but cost/benefit analyses are themselves sometimes costly, and it’s not always worth the time to suss out everything.

        It’s generally a good idea to have a mix of people who have different approaches involved, so they can argue about the merits in particular cases.  As long as they’re all willing to argue honestly, you can get somewhere.  In our particular instance of Right Now Today, we have “don’t touch anything, ever!” and “ground clear everything, right now!” and nobody in the middle working on cases.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

          Pat, there is a greater fallibilism in Burkean conservatism than just that, mainly that variables cannot be isolated in something as complex as a human society.  Tear out one pillar, nothing happens. Tear out another, and the whole thing comes down.

          Even afterward, you might not know which one was bearing the greater weight, or perhaps they were working in a synergy, where you could have torn out either one, but not both.

          This is where “cases” is vulnerable, the conceit that we can fully understand any given pillar’s relation to the whole.

          This is not to say we can never tear out pillars, but the Burkean “go slow” approach does not tear two or more out at the same time.  That would be radical—imprudent—and prudence has proven its worth over the course of history, certainly more than radicalism.

          The English revolutions of the 1600s took out one pillar, the king.  The American revolution, not much more than that.  Both kept their rights regimes, “their rights as Englishmen,” as they frequently called it.

          The French not only did away with their king, but the entire ancien regime. This had the result of combining the worst features of both tyranny and anarchy, the sane man’s two biggest political fears.