Conservatism, History, and Progress

Sitting side by side in the middle of the campus of Princeton University are two small, Classical looking, white marble buildings, obscurely named "Whig" and "Clio." These originally contained rival debating societies. Although more than two centuries old, the societies still exist, now combined into one, The American Whig-Cliosophic Society, still housed in Whig. Almost lost in the mists of time, however, is the significance of the names:   but if the buildings were named today they could simply be called "Liberal," or "Progressive," and "Conservative."

"Whig," like its traditional companion term "Tory," dates back to English Parliamentary debates in 1679 over whether to exclude, because he was a Catholic, the future King James II (1685-1688) from succession to the throne. Both terms were abusive:   "Whig" was a Scottish word used to mean, among other things, "horse thief"; and "Tory" was an Irish term for Catholic outlaws, which ironically is what James II became after being overthrown in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. In time, these became the terms for, respectively, partisans of Parliamentary power and partisans of Royal prerogative. Eventually, Thomas Jefferson took "Whig" to mean, in general, those in favor of change, and "Tory" to mean those opposed to change, i.e. conservative. Since change is favored because it is thought to involve progress, the term "progressive" might be used in place of "Whig." What constitutes progress, however, is a non-trivial question.

The use of "liberal" for progressive politics dates to the program of 19th century advocates of individual freedom, like John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), since liber is the Latin word for "free." Complications later occur because what is to be done to promote freedom then depends on what constitutes freedom; and the kind of liberty advocated by Mill has suffered greatly in the 20th century from interpretations that there cannot be "real" freedom without, for instance, "freedom from want." That often amounts to limiting the freedom of some people by requiring that they provide, not just for themselves and their families, but for the needs of others whose claims are enforced by political means. The consequent abuses can range from the moderate diseconomies of a welfare state to the virtual political slavery found in communist regimes.

The Princeton debaters may have preferred the term "Whig" so as not to commit themselves when it came to the complications of defining "progress" or "freedom." On the other hand, it must not have seemed appropriate to employ the corresponding term, since "Tory" traditionally meant the party of the English Crown -- hardly the kind of thing to be promoting in Princeton, New Jersey, where George Washington won a battle and where the Continental Congress once sat. The Princeton debaters needed some different term to imply conservatism. They chose "Clio," which was the name of the Greek Muse of History. Why history should be thus invoked leads us to what conservatism has meant, indeed, historically.

Edmund Burke (1729-97) is usually regarded as the founder of modern conservative thought. This is so even though he actually belonged to the Whig party, championed the cause of the American colonies both before and during the Revolutionary War, and launched a seven year long prosecution of the former Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, for abuses committed by the East India Company against its Indian subjects. His reasons for defending the cause of the American colonies, however, were of a certain kind. That emerged in Burke's most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), where Burke turned against the tendencies of the French Revolution, even before the Reign of Terror had begun.

The difference, as it happened, between the two revolutions was that the American Revolution was based on the demand for rights that had been already recognized in English law, while the French revolution had turned into an exercise in rationalistic and a priori legislation of rights that had never existed in France. Burke is thus identified as a conservative because he distrusted the rationalistic project of the French and believed that history had accomplished what human speculation could not:   history is a kind of discovery process, a learning process, which mostly transcends the ability of individual persons at one time and place to comprehend. The products of history have proven themselves, while rationalistic attempts to abruptly institute a new order are perilous experiments that can easily cause immense damage, indeed slaughter, as the French Revolution, and later the Russian Revolution, certainly did. Tom Paine, who responded to Burke's Reflections with his Rights of Man (1791, to which Mary Wollstonecraft responded with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792), ironically escaped execution in France only because, when he was ordered to the guillotine, he was mixed up with another prisoner. He finally had to be sprung from prison by the then American minister to France, James Monroe.

The conservative aspect of Burke's thought is the dignity it gives to history and to existing institutions, yet it is also essentially about change, since history cannot prove anything unless it actually does encompass change, as the hallowed rights of the English were slowly evolved over the centuries, from the Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Burke himself said, "A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation." Yet the weakness of Burke's theory is that he does not account for the origin of the changes that do occur or, furthermore, how history can really endow the changes with legitimacy. He does not ask what the source can be for novel ideas such as became embodied in the Magna Carta or in the limitations placed on the English monarchy by the Glorious Revolution or why we should care that history has tossed these things up and preserved them. That leaves Burke's theory incomplete, but attempting to answer these questions may have serious implications for how the whole theory is to be regarded.

One idea, popular among Whigs and even used by Thomas Jefferson (whom we would otherwise regard as being in the rationalistic tradition exemplified by the French Revolution, with which Jefferson was far more sympathetic than Burke), is that the novel rights in the English tradition were not novel at all. Instead, they were supposed to really be the ancient Germanic liberties of the Anglo-Saxons, stolen in the course of the Norman conquest of England, and finally reëstablished over the centuries. The historical evidence for such "ancient liberties" was even thought to go back to the account of the Germans written by the Roman historian Tacitus. The whole theory, however, was no more than a useful myth. It certainly doesn't have anything to do with history as a discovery process, since history is thereby thought to have done nothing except betray originally existing rights and then finally restore them. It is not even very rationalistic, since modern reason obviously has nothing to do with rights that existed in the past of a preliterate culture. The force of the "German liberties" seems to come, somehow, merely from their having been there originally. This obscures the nature of their justification, since the ancient Germanic liberties cannot have been good just because they were held, if they actually were, by the ancient Germans. We would also have to ask, even if the ancient liberties have been restored, why they should be worthy of being restored. That issue doesn't get addressed, and the need to address it is merely obscured by the myth of "ancient liberties" in the first place.

Burke is actually more sophisticated and more modern than Jefferson in that respect, for nothing is older in human history than seeing the past as exemplary (the "Golden Age"), the present as deficient, and then trying to restore conditions as they used to be. Few Egyptian Pharaohs came to the throne without undertaking to restore things "as they were in the beginning." That is, of course, the hallmark of the conservatism of traditional cultures. All traditional human societies justify their practices either by saying, "that is the way things have always been," or, if origins are in issue, by saying that the gods established things that way. Mythic accounts may or may not have been offered, briefly or elaborately, to explain how or why the gods did establish things in the proper way. Eventually the explanation becomes the thing itself, and the historical dimension is simply eliminated, as religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam directly present the founding commands of God in revelatory literature. In Protestantism, the value or authority of tradition is rejected altogether, as the sole authority for present institutions is restricted to the revelatory authority of the Bible. Similarly, even though Confucius hoped to restore the golden age of "Yao and Shun," it is later the statements of Confucius himself that are regarded as authoritative.

Burke's conservatism of evolutionary history is thus a secular conception that cuts itself free from traditional justifications, whether Pharaonic, religious, or Jeffersonian. But we are still left with the original question. Just because something is, does not mean that it is good. Traditional societies may have thought just such a thing, but Burke certainly does not, yet he does not explain how innovations originate and how history can be relied upon to produce valuable results. Attempting to answer the questions about origins and justification, however, can easily produce a more conservative take on things than Burke has. That is evident enough in David Hume (1711-1776). Hume realizes that "is" does not establish "ought," which means that conclusions about value or obligation cannot be derived from matters of fact. Hume thus concludes that there is no rational justification for the propositions of morality. They are simply there. Thus we absolutely cannot answer the questions about origins or justification. This would seem to leave us unable to say why things might be wrong with the present state of things or why certain proposals to improve conditions should be tried. There is no remedy for that in Hume.

Nevertheless, Hume cannot resist some kind of explanation, so he concludes that moral and political practices have in fact been established by custom and habit in the course of history. Hume cannot put this in the same way as Burke, however; for Hume cannot say that history has discovered what is good without circularity:   our judgments about what is good will always employ the standards that history has in fact produced. We cannot get outside those empirical and historical standards because nothing exists outside of them. Hume doesn't need to say that, since he recognizes himself that the historical fact cannot prove the evaluative ought, which means that "oughts" could exist separate from history. But Hume could not allow that without abandoning his empiricism, which he will not do. So he is stuck with a much narrower and much more conservative kind of theory than Burke. How things could change for the better is mysterious in Burke but positively incomprehensible in Hume:   if things do change, Hume can say that the changes are good, but only because the changes will change the standard of goodness that we use. This is not only circular but ultimately nihilistic. The source of change could only be irrational, arbitrary, and unaccountable.

Hume's dead end can be avoided just by admitting a rational source of moral knowledge, as in Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). But that is just the kind of thing that does not satisfy Burke, since one could immediately proceed to construct rationalistic Utopias a priori, completely ignore history, and set about instituting social and political changes out of the Blue, like Robespierre (who said "Terror is naught but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue") or Lenin. Development of a theory with a Burkean regard for history, steering between the extremes of Hume's empiricism and a pure a priori rationalism, does not really come, despite mountains of conservative or historical thought, none of which really gets back to the problem of justification, until Karl Popper (1902-1994) and F.A. Hayek (1899-1992).

Popper's views follow straight from his philosophy of science, which he wished to generalize into a complete theory of knowledge. Popper thus sees history as an evolutionary process that works like scientific method. Innovations are proposed, results predicted, and then we see if the results are what are expected. This is reasonable enough, but it does raise serious questions, including an important moral issue. "Innovations" can mean anything, and it could easily include the French Reign of Terror or the police state and mass murders of Lenin, Stalin, or Hitler. Even if we conclude that much of importance has been definitely learned from these "experiments," the very idea that they would merely be "experiments" is rather appalling. "Oops, sorry, made a mistake," or "Such interesting results!" is not what we would like to hear after the massive poverty, terror, and death of the Soviet Union or Hitler's horrific war and genocide. Of course, the people who perpetrated the French or Russian Terrors did not think of what they were doing as non-judgmental experiments. They believed that what they were doing would produce virtue, social justice, the worker's paradise, or something of the sort. For that they needed to have a moral conviction quite independent from any experimental kind of attitude. That moral conviction, ironically, made it possible for them to commit crimes that otherwise we might hope moral conviction would have prevented them from committing:   but the latter sort of moral conviction would have derived from traditional inhibitions against killing, while the moral conviction to engage in mass murder was just the sort of rationalistic attitude that Burke criticized.

So Popper's theory basically leaves the moral dimension entirely in limbo. Sometimes that might be good, but from within the theory we would have no way of saying whether it was good or not. Furthermore, the scientific form of Popper theory ultimately begs any evaluative question; for even if social and political experiments produce the results that are predicted or expected, we can still ask "So what?" Just because we predict something, and it happens, this doesn't mean that it is good. However successful our scientific manipulations of history, we can still ask in the end "Is it good?" This has been called the problem of the "filtering mechanism," since we ultimately have to decide how to filter out acceptable from unacceptable results. But we really have to recognize two filtering problems:   one about means, the other about ends. The objection to revolutionary terror and mass murder is a moral objection that filters or excludes certain means, while the final evaluation of the results filters out or excludes certain outcomes.

For a way to a more satisfactory treatment we need to turn to F.A. Hayek, who explicitly seeks to expand on Popper's ideas. Hayek does so by a kind of return to Burke:   Hayek removes part of the moral problem by seeing history as having already accomplished unintentional experiments, which have produced a body of moral conviction that will impose certain limits on the deliberate experiments that might be ventured now. The moral filter thus consists of received moral beliefs. This leaves the ultimate question of justification still unanswered, as Hayek, like Hume, did not think it could be answered, but it does give us something to work with:   The received beliefs will contain sufficient ambiguities and inconsistencies to allow for a range of interpretation that opens the way for reasonable innovations. The inconsistency of the principles of the Declaration of Independence with the existence of slavery and status of women was thus noticed almost immediately by many and was vigorously pursued through political causes, Abolitionism and Woman's Suffrage, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.

One of Hayek's most important observations was that in modern times "received moral beliefs" contain an important discontinuity:   the difference between (1) the principles of hierarchy and collectivism in which, theoretically, the better off hold power and wealth in order to do good for all, where there seems little difference between the Egypt of the Pharaohs, China of the Confucian Mandarins, and the France of Louis XIV, and (2) the principles of political equality, private property, and individual liberty, first evident in the Netherlands and England and then deliberately systematized, within limits, in the United States, where the better off derive their status from private effort, not from public status, and the purpose of government is not to do good for all but merely to protect the individual liberty, property, and equality before the law that allow for private prosperity. This is the contrast, in short, between the immemorial values of what Popper called the "Closed Society," which stretch from prehistorical tribalism to the sophisticated structures of Mediaeval feudalism, and the novel values of the liberal, capitalistic "Open Society" that evolved in the modern commercial republics.

Much of the great conflict that has occurred in the 20th century, with almost unimaginable horror and loss of life, has been from a great reaction in favor of the immemorial values against the innovations of modernity, even as the latter themselves continue to be extended, often enough through actual confusion between the older and the new principles. Marxism thus could see itself as supremely modern, scientific, and progressive, and even use the language of freedom ("economic freedom" as opposed, or in addition to, "political freedom"), even while it reproduced precise analogues to mediaeval institutions:   a quasi-divine hierarchy (e.g. the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China), often with a virtual god-king (Comrade Stalin or Chairman Mao), based upon faithful subscription to revealed truths (Marxism-Leninism), a paternalistic and supposedly compassionate state (the Soviet Union) whose avowed business was the wellbeing of all, and, in the end, a suffocation of the sources of wealth, of innovation, of creativity, of enterprise, and of the material wellbeing of most. Even such modest and apparently moderate and modern institutions as labor unions, since they are based on the denial that a free market in labor can be expected to produce the best outcome for wage laborers, begin to faithfully reproduce, when successful enough, the forms and evils of the mediaeval guild. Jack London, the famous author but also a serious Marxist, memorably claimed that any worker who worked harder or was more productive than his fellows was already a "scab," i.e. a traitor to the cause of the workers' union. Since unions typically negotiate wages based only on seniority, or (in a more professional context) on credentials, there certainly is no incentive for workers to work harder or be more productive. But if productivity in general were to cease to increase, wealth would cease to increase and it would become impossible for life to improve.

The principles of modernity are vulnerable to this conflict not just because they are different from more traditional values but because, having grown up piecemeal and often in confusing circumstances, or randomly mixed in with older ideas, it is difficult to say just what they are and if, indeed, they produce a result that we ultimately want to accept. That raises, with respect to Hayek, the same kind of ultimate question as Popper:   What is the filtering mechanism for the outcome? Relying on the evolutionary paradigm, Hayek's answer is the Darwinian one:   Survival. Traditional societies did not stand a chance as European powers essentially conquered the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century the conflict turned into one between liberal, capitalistic powers and those that sought to reintroduce traditional collective principles under a modernistic veneer:   Socialism, Fascism, and then Communism. Fascism, although self-consciously modernistic and revolutionary in the 20's and 30's, was decisively discredited by the horrors and crimes of World War II. Communism, although discredited to the perceptive in the very same period, hung on with enough power and enough of a show of success to deceive the credulous almost until the very moment of collapse in 1989-91. Unfortunately, this still has not discredited socialist principles in general; and the political debate still continues in capitalistic countries over devices that are often no longer even recognized as following from socialistic principles.

Successful as liberal and capitalistic societies seem to be, survival as such is not a matter of value; and it is clear enough studying natural evolution itself that often the "fittest" do not survive, merely the lucky. Human morality and religion have often done what Nature never could:   to ask whether survival as such is actually worth it. Few criticisms of capitalism are more constant than religious objections to "materialism" and commercial values that contravene "higher" or "spiritual" values. The marriage of Marxism and Catholicism in "Liberation Theology," although paradoxical in terms of the originally atheistic, modernistic, and materialistic self-image of Marxism, is perfectly natural in terms of the common disparagement of money, of profit, of interest, and of other commercial devices and values by both the mediaeval Church and the modern revolutionaries. Hayek's appeal to evolution, like his Burkean appeal to history, seems to get us a fair distance down the road, but still leaves the ultimate questions unanswered and so cannot directly address the value arguments of anti-capitalistic reaction from either left or right.

This leaves us with no other recourse than the rationalistic one. There can be no other source for the justification of evaluative propositions than in evaluative discourse, which is logically independent of matters of fact, whether about history or anything else. Kant ultimately was right; and Hayek himself famously stated:   "I am not a conservative." But if a rational source for judgments about value must be taken seriously, however, the legacy of Burke, Hayek, etc. must be to impose a certain caution and modesty on the project. There must be a middle way between attributing authority to history as such and naively supposing that a priori reasoning will easily produce genuine a priori knowledge.

Since history occurs as it does in great measure because of people's judgments about what is right and wrong or good and evil, the middle way will consist of considering the relationship of those judgments to what people intended and what actually happened. The inconsistencies in people's beliefs and between their intentions, actions, and what really happens provide almost limitless material for rational analysis, just as Socratic Method always began with what people actually thought and did. That, indeed, combines what is actual, the factual issues of what people believe, do, etc., with what is evaluative, the moral content of those actual beliefs. Rational knowledge a priori thus does not begin ex nihilo from an empty foundation but proceeds from what is given in already existing judgments, both evaluative and factual. Marx's expectation and prediction that the abolition of capital, property, and money would produce even greater industrial production and wealth than capitalism thus may be interestingly compared with defenses of Castro's Cuba as having produced an "ecotopia" of little industrial production and wealth, which supposedly turns out to be better because poverty is kinder to nature. If such an apologetic is to be accepted, then clearly Marx's entire theory of history as a process by which wealth always increases through successive dialectical turns would have to be drastically revised. Usually, it is easier, if someone like Castro is to be defended, to try and avoid such discouraging reevaluations of a larger theory.

Archimedes told the tyrant of Syracuse that there is no royal road to geometry. Similarly, there is no royal road to truth or progress. Neither history or reason automatically produce either. In fact, the limitations on our individual knowledge and ability to reason make us dependent on history and on received opinion, even as we are aware that moral and political truths cannot be based on history. As Immanuel Kant said:   "But though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience" [Critique of Pure Reason, Norman Kemp Smith translation, St. Martin's Press, 1965, p. 41, B edition p. 1]. That is the fundamental distinction:   we find judgments about value in history, but they are not, as such, justified by history. Yet history represents the articulation of understanding we inherit. Starting that process all over again would leave us no more sophisticated than Australopithecines. Instead we have a heritage of understanding upon which we can, and must, build. Edmund Burke's own middle way is evident enough in his prescient support for one revolution, which led to a generally peaceful and prosperous republic, and his rejection of another, which led to terror (indeed, the original Terror), dictatorship, and, in effect, a World War that lasted the better part of twenty years. It is thus revealing that F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman are commonly thought of, like Burke, as conservatives, although both explicitly deny that they are anything of the sort. This kind of confusion we may take to be inevitable when the interrelated roles of history and reason are given their due. Since the differentiation of "Whig" and "Clio" represents historical progress over the unconscious and religious conservatism of most of human history, the next step must be to understand how both represent different aspects of the same process of discovery.

The Paternal State, the Liberal State, and the Welfare State

The State of Nature and Other Political Thought Experiments

Political Economy

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