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Conventional Wisdom, Reason and Experience

Conservatism is not Resistance to Change, it is Respect for Experience.

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


9 thoughts on “Conservatism is not Resistance to Change, it is Respect for Experience.

  1. The rationale here has 2 problems. I won’t go as far as to call the rationale “flawed” – but 2 of the examples used in defense of collected experience have rather obvious holes.

    1) The corporation analogy. The collected human experience with corporations is that any company that gets as large and institutionalized as you’ve described, inevitably becomes anachronistic and loses market share when defending “business has always been done this way” in the face of new market entrants with better ideas. Think Kodak, Ma Bell, Hughes, hell, even Microsoft… Respecting human experience means recognizing that entrenched institutions – even whole civilizations – are always replaced by new ideas.

    2) The institutions sometimes don’t actually reflect a collection of human wisdom, and often can simply be a reflection of some twisted ideologies, supported by the profits of the institutions. Your Pocock/Burke quote is naively idealistic – “the wisdom embodied in institutions was based on experience and nothing but experience.” I’m assuming you’ve heard of Philip Morris, or Enron. Not for their obvious falls from grace – but at their height, they each were massive lobbying forces employing the full financial strength that their product sales could muster. Their embodied collected experience was leveraged not for the benefit of the community or even the individual, but merely in attempts to preserve the status quo in favor of their profits, despite the known damaging nature of their products. Just because an institution has lasted the test of time does NOT mean that it’s policies or principles should be respected without deeper consideration. This is happening again now with sugar & Coca Cola, carbon emissions & Exxon, etc. – these institutions have collected wisdom about their domains, they know about harmful consequences, yet they cover it up rather than protect the community.

    Laws get passed not as pro-active measures based on experience, they get passed by the largest lobbying budgets wielding the largest leverage. That’s not deployment of collective wisdom – it’s self-interest. You’ll have to forgive liberals who are skeptical of custom and tradition. There are just too many glaring examples of “tradition” being crafted by marketing budgets, not wisdom.


    Posted by Chris Nunes (@ucnunes) | December 15, 2016, 2:16 am
    • The ONLY reason laws get passed is as pro-active measures based on experience. Even if a law is conceived, proposed, and advocated by a lobbying group it is STILL a response to the experiences of that group.

      The ONLY reason people act is self interest. There is no other motivation. See, for example, Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” or the other books mentioned in this comment. Even empathy, compassion, altruism, etc., is in the end, motivated by the self interest to assuage emotions people feel internal to them selves. Those instincts and emotions are products of evolution, and essential to the survival of individuals and of the species itself.

      A few cherry picked examples of companies that went off the rails says nothing about the process of continuous process improvement. We have no idea whether those companies were using that process at all, or if they were, implementing it properly. For all we know your examples happened because the companies did NOT use the process.

      By your logic Liberalism itself – the one-foundation ideology of “Care” – is impugned by the mountains of evidence that show “care” often does more harm than good. This evidence is documented, analyzed, and explained in scholarly books like “Pathological Altruism” by Barbara Oakley and “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom (both liberals, by the way, but scientists in the sense that they follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it leads to conclusions contrary to their own ideological predispositions), and “The Pity Party” by William Voegeli.

      Liberalism is further impugned by its rejection of collected wisdom as a source of knowledge and its faith in abstract reason as the path to moral truth. That faith is a cognitive bias or fallacy called “The Rationalist Delusion.” See the books “Rationalism in Politics” by Michael Oakeshott and “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. Also see “The Argumentative Theory,” here: https://www.edge.org/conversation/hugo_mercier-the-argumentative-theory

      See Haidt’s lecture “When Compassion Leads to Sacrilege” (video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnPFtg6YsuI&feature=youtu.be, transcript here: https://theindependentwhig.com/haidt-passages/haidt/transcript-when-compassion-leads-to-sacrilege/) in which he says the following about the “Unconstrained Vision” of liberalism:

      “The unconstrained vision, I believe, has the worst track record in the history of ideas. This is a terrible and really dangerous idea, quite frankly. Um, in the French Revolution I’ve been stunned to read this, for the book that I’m writing, to read on the French Revolution. My beef with them is that they’re rationalists, they think that reason is a reliable way to find truth, it’s great in the natural sciences, but once you care about something, if you have passions, if it’s a moral issue, reasoning is the slave of the, uh, is the servant of the, wait what is it, David Hume said that “Reasoning is the slave of the passions and can pretend to no other office but to serve and obey them.”I think Hume was right. So I’m really concerned about rationalists, but what I discovered is that in one of the few places on earth where the rationalists got control of an entire country and were able to do with it what they wanted, they created a cult of reason, they banned the clergy, they killed the nobles, ah, and what we had wasn’t oh, let’s get rid of ah, let’s get rid of nations and religion and then people will be one, no what they had was most people didn’t, or a lot of people didn’t want to go along with the revolution, and of course they’re wrong because we know we’re right we have reason on our side, they called themselves the party of reason, also the party of humanity, the French Revolutionaries ended up murdering hundreds of thousands of people. The committed a genocide in the Vendee region lining people against the walls and shooting them, putting them out into boats and sinking the boats. The French Revolutionaries committed genocide. They committed, they would round people, anybody who was accused of anything, rounded up, pronounced guilty, guillotined. We don’t usually say, “Well yeah they committed genocide but other than that oh the French Revolution was great.” So the French Revolution was based on the ex, the most extreme unconstrained view, the philosophes, Condorcet, “


      Posted by The Independent Whig | December 15, 2016, 10:10 am
  2. What you describe is known as paleoconservatism. Check it out.


    Posted by john | July 8, 2016, 3:25 am
  3. A well argued piece, and mostly true. My chief difference of opinion is in understanding that as times change and environments (whether physical or social) change, experience might be a poor guidepost. What was good practice when the Sahara was marshland may not be such good practice in the Sahara now.

    Normally this fact would call for limited experimentation and a good deal of tolerance for those who are pursuing other lines of inquiry – to allow a slow but sure movement forward – but in our current age of accelerating returns it might call for something more – the application of reason guided by as thorough a knowledge of history and human nature as can be achieved. This on the theory that sometimes taking the offensive is the best defense, and “he who hesitates is lost.” We will need as much input as we can get from conservatives and ancient institutions, as those who have abandoned the past will have little chance to understand its lessons.


    Posted by Baldur Odensen | May 10, 2016, 8:14 pm
    • I wholeheartedly agree with this: ” in our current age of accelerating returns it might call for something more – the application of reason guided by as thorough a knowledge of history and human nature as can be achieved. ”

      That very idea is at the center of my main thesis: that the greatest single reason for partisan rancor that we have any real control over is a stunning lack of even a rudimentary knowledge of human history and especially human nature.

      I try to make that point wherever and whenever I can.

      I’m currently working with two readers of my blogging who have experience in the development of training programs to create a set of lesson plans that can be used individually or as a comprehensive program or as guidance for tweaking current curricula to address this very problem.


      Posted by The Independent Whig | May 10, 2016, 8:24 pm
  4. Alas! The premise is only half-true. Conservatism – modern Conservatism, in practice – is not about respect for experience. It is, however, about contempt for difference.


    Posted by Thurdon Baines | November 28, 2015, 10:20 pm


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