Conventional wisdom holds that conservatism is about resistance to change, adherence to customs and traditions, preservation of institutions, and defense of the status quo. This is incorrect. Those things are merely the effects of a much deeper cause. The deeper cause is an inherent respect for experience – the collected wisdom of the ages – as represented by the customs, traditions, and institutions of the culture to which those things apply.
Conventional wisdom also holds that conservatism is inconsistent because it has defended different, sometimes contradictory, customs, traditions, and institutions at different times and in different places. This too is incorrect. Human experience varies by time, place, and culture, and different customs, traditions, and institutions result. The core of conservatism is not a defense of the results for their own sake, it is a deep respect for the collected wisdom of the experiences from which they grew.
Through its core value of respect for experience conservatism is perfectly consistent across all times, places, and cultures.
“Resistance to” and “respect for” are very different things. The first makes conservatism seem intractible. It’s not. The first is difficult to defend, but since it’s not true no defense is necessary. The second is reasonable, reasonably flexible, and eminently defendable.
Conservatism understands and respects the notion that many human activities become traditions because they have been shown to work. Much of what we call tradition, or customs, or cultural norms, and even many laws and institutions, exist because of the lessons of experience. Each one was developed either as a corrective to some event or pattern of behavior that is detrimental to human society, or as a prescription for continued health.
With the passage of time we may forget the original experiences that led to our cultural institutions and laws. Some of those experiences may be hundreds of years in the past. But that in no way diminishes their value to us today, nor does it mean that they should be dismissed as no longer relevant. On the contrary, what it means is that they should be given the utmost respect, and we ignore or change them at our peril, because they represent the collected wisdom of literally generations of human experience.
In principle it’s not too different from the ideas behind ISO 9000 or Total Quality Management or any number of other initiatives within the corporate world that are designed to preserve and improve the performance of a company.
These initiatives require a company to document the processes by which it does business and then follow them. Included in the processes are provisions for how to change them. As time goes on and mistakes are made within a company, or opportunities to improve the process are perceived, the company does so by using the prescribed method for change. In this way the process represents the sum total of the experiences of all the people who’ve ever worked in the company from its inception to the current time.
If the company has been around long enough, and enough people have worked for it, then the “collected wisdom” that is built in to the company’s processes represents more brain power and more experience than any person or group of people currently within the company can possibly possess. This argues for a cautious (i.e., conservative) approach toward change no matter how great the latest great idea may seem, no matter how many people clamor for it, and no matter how passionately those people believe in it.
These ideas are not new. They have been around for centuries. Over 200 years ago, Edmund Burke believed that:
“..a nation’s institutions were the fruit of its experience, that they had taken shape slowly as the result, and were in themselves the record, of a thousand adjustments to the needs of circumstance, each one of which, if it had been found by trial and error to answer recurrent needs, had been preserved in the usages and established rules of the nation concerned. He also held that political knowledge was the fruit of experience and that reason in this field had nothing to operate on except experience; from which it followed that, since the knowledge of an individual or a generation of individuals was limited by the amount of experience on which it was based, there was always a case for the view that the reason of the living, though it might clearly enough discern the disadvantages, might not fully perceive the advantages of existing and ancient institutions, for these might contain the fruits of more experience than was available to living individuals as the sum of their personal or reported experience of the world. It also followed that since the wisdom embodied in institutions was based on experience and nothing but experience, it could not be completely rationalized, that is, reduced to first principles which might be clearly enunciated, shown to be the cause of the institutions’ first being set up, or employed to criticize their subsequent workings. There was, in short, always more in laws and institutions than met the eye of critical reason, always a case for them undiminished by anything that could be said against them.” (1)
Contrary to much of today’s conventional wisdom conservatism is not blind, unthinking adherence to traditions, customs, institutions, and religious beliefs.
Conservatism is not about resisting change and defending the status quo. Conservatism is about respecting the collected wisdom of human experience.
(1) The Historical Journal, in, 2 (i960), pp. 125-143, Printed in Great Britain, II. BURKE AND THE ANCIENT CONNSTITUTION— A PROBLEM IN THE HISTORY OF IDEAS, By J. G. A. POCOCK, University of Canterbury, New Zealand