Providential Progress – Part 6 (The Great Filter)
Conservatives have a reputation for being stalwart opponents of change. While this disposition is not always unfairly attributed to individual conservatives, conservatism itself has actually been as much a force for change as it has a guardian of tradition. As the historian Stephen Tonsor observed:
“From Burke to Buckley [conservatism] has combined conservative ideas with revolutionary politics and economics. Capitalism and personal freedom are the two most revolutionary ideas in modern society. And, even more important, we live in a revolutionary society which will not be deflected from the course of change. Technologically and socially we are in the grip of vast and constant changes. There is no turning back. Indeed, there has been no turning back in our dynamic Western society since the tenth century.”
Those who embrace the conservative worldview out of a misguided notion that it wants nothing more than to set the clocks back in search of some nostalgic era of yesteryear will soon be disappointed to learn just how much change conservatism both allows and encourages. Yet, as we have seen up to this point in the series, conservatives do not view all change aimed at addressing contemporary grievances as beneficial nor are they ambivalent about the modes of change and their likely effects.
The conservative is not trying to stop change, for that would be impossible. Rather, the conservative is trying to mitigate the potential harmful effects of too rapid a change and to direct the change in such a manner that it both respects long-established modes of adaptation and does not needlessly alter the structure of society any more than is necessary. Given a choice between them, the conservative will almost always opt for gradual reform over radical revolution.
Can We Change What We Can’t Accept?
This view stands in stark contrast to much of the mindset on the Left. The Marxist professor Angela Davis summarizes this idea nicely in the quote most often attributed to her: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” While this may sound laudable and even sensible, the conservative recognizes it is anything but. Much evil is brought about by those who, desiring to do good, set about recklessly changing what they cannot accept.
At the heart of conservatism is gratitude for the things we have and the desire to protect the good in attempting to eradicate the bad. “A statesman ought to begin from gratitude for what works in his society, rather than from outrage at what does not work,” counters Yuval Levin, “He must begin from a sense of what he has and what is worth preserving and from there build toward what he wants and what is worth achieving.” Why? Because change often destroys both the good and the bad, though it may be difficult to perceive the ultimate outcome or possible unintended consequences when popular sentiment is demanding such change.
We are surrounded by constant change, both atrophy and improvement. But the default position is atrophy. Water finds its own level, objects left unattended will roll downhill, all lifeforms will eventually return to the dust. Beneficial change requires more than effort and a sense of justice: it requires much wisdom to understand the lasting effects and the patience to wait for those effects to take shape.
Levin elaborates on Burke’s understanding of how such change might move through society in a manner that’s ultimately beneficial:
“Social change can…be generally ameliorative if it is properly managed, though it is not simply progressive: it does not move in only one direction. Burke’s idea of a just society is not an end state that is the ultimate goal of all political change. Rather, a just society provides space for thriving private lives and a thriving national life within the bounds of the constitution by allowing for some balance of order and freedom. Political life occurs within that space, and political change sustains and defends that space and therefore moves in various directions as events warrant—sometimes restraining or strengthening one element of the constitution, and sometimes another…The statesman’s task is therefore not to drive society toward some particular ultimate and just condition but to create and constantly sustain a space in which the people may exercise their freedom and enjoy the benefits of life in society.”
For Burke, this method of gradual, careful change is not mere preference or even best practices, but justice in action; justice found not only in the ends but even in the means by which we arrive at those ends. Burke viewed society as a connection between generations living, dead, and unborn and the needs of each should be considered and their views consulted before we proceed. While the efficacy of séances with the dead is debatable, Burke suggested a far surer method for understanding the positions of those who are not currently with us:
“A nation is not an idea only of local extent and individual momentary aggregation, but it is an idea of continuity which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space. And this is a choice not of one day or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of ages and of generations; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice; it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time.”
Those traditions conservatives are always yammering on about are not just stuffy relics for those stuck in the past, but invaluable information for what those who are not among us might have to say. Roger Scruton described this as a “line of obligation that connects us to those who gave us what we have; and our concern for the future is an extension of that line.” We do not have the right, or even the ability, to make our nation completely anew for the simple reason the nation was here long before we arrived, and it will be here long after we are gone.
We might envision this idea as those of us alive today occupying a single neighborhood. We are but temporary residents who no more possess the neighborhood than the previous occupants or those who will occupy it in days to come. That slow children at play sign or community center may serve no practical, immediate purpose for us, but those who come after us may see the benefits in the things left by the prior residents. Perhaps some day we may have children of our own or participate in a group that meets at the community center. Or perhaps we may never get a use out of these things, but we still seek to maintain them out of the belief that they serve some purpose beyond our own needs or perhaps even our comprehension.
“As Burke sees it,” continues Levin, “each man is in society not by choice but by birth. And the facts of his birth—the family, the station, and the nation he is born into—exert inescapable demands on him, while also granting him some privileges and protections that the newborn has, of course, done nothing to earn.” The brute fact of our own existence in a world that was here before we arrived must chasten all of our beliefs about justice, duty, individuality, liberty, and, most especially, our limitations at “liberating” ourselves from the world as we find it. In other words, change must take into account not only how we want the world to be but how it actually is.
The Great Filter
But I don’t want to give the impression that we ought to anchor change in a respect for the past merely because of some begrudging obligation we have to dead loved ones. It’s also often the surest, safest, and most just way to arrive at a desired end. Tethering change to societal obligations and respect for norms is, in effect, a refining process that blunts the jagged edges of change so that it does not cause harmful, unintended consequences. By consulting generations past and yet to come we are able to see beyond our own generational blind spots. Change goes through a great filtering process so that what emerges out the other end may fit squarely with the long-established norms of the spaces we inhabit.
Burke was a strong champion of the British system of government as he believed the complexities that had evolved over the centuries resulted in a strong filtering process whereby radical change could be properly tempered into gradual reform. As Burke puts it, in his 18th century prose:
“Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, molding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varies tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression.”
Centuries later, Sir Roger Scruton, another subject of the British monarch, would offer a similar endorsement: “In the English law there are valid statues and leading cases that date from the thirteenth century, and progressive people would regard this as an absurdity. For me, it was proof that the English law is the property of the English people, not the weapon of their rulers.” Burke and Scruton both felt a sense of obligation, even affection, for the English system they were born into. While there were things to criticize—Burke himself was a member of the British Parliament and worked tirelessly to bring about reforms that were conducive to liberty and order—their critiques came from a place of devotion and love for their inheritance and a strong desire to make it even better.
Burke knew all too well the dangers in justifying change on the basis of an imagined future instead of an actual past. “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views,” he argued. “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” A strong desire for justice that breaks the generational link risks radical change aimed at a fictious future that cannot be realized in a world of limits and imperfections. The advantage of looking towards the past to understand how change might occur is that the past is anchored in something real.
The culture we’ve inherited was not provided to us by a highly intelligent elite shaping the world in their image. Rather, all cultures are a sort of survival of the fittest in which the great filtering process smooths out the rough edges so that what survives squares with reality. There may be much to criticize about our culture. Change may very well be warranted. But change that recognizes the evolutionary process whereby our culture has learned to adapt to the harsh conditions reality throws our way seeks first to restore the culture, not to pull it apart. As Thomas Sowell explains:
“While history is an explicit legacy of the past, cultural patterns and traditions are its inarticulate legacy in the differential survival of varying practices. Many who seek to subordinate history to current visions and agendas likewise seek to replace this cultural legacy. Those who regard the accumulated experiences of successive generations, distilled in social traditions, as mere ‘constructions’—on the same plan as alternative ‘constructions’ that they excogitate—are ignoring the consequential processes through which those traditions have been filtered and from which they have emerged. The viability of these traditions is attested to by the mere fact that they are still here to be criticized, while the viability of alternative ‘constructions’ has yet to be proved and they may be able to survive only in the minds of those who put them together. Notions and knowledge are different precisely because the former have not passed through the verification process, while the latter has.”
Thus, conservatism embraces change, but change shorn of its radical elements. As such, the conservative aims to progress society to an ever-greater level of liberty, order, and justice. Change must be slowed so as not to wreck the forms long-established by societal norms. But change must not be slowed to such a degree that gradual reform becomes no longer tolerable for an impatient public. And that is where we’ll pick things up in the final part to this series.