Caution and conservatism

“The bad thing about conservatism,” says Tallis Piaget, “is that you guys refuse to fix something it it’s broken.” I think that a fair point. We hesitate to declare something broken, and we’re skeptical of radical changes. To my mind, caution and circumspection are core and distinctive conservative habits of mind; they are marks by which we may be distinguished from other elements in the GOP such reactionaries and libertarians.

Accordingly, I will cheerfully concede that conservatives can be slow to agree that something is a broken, a fortiori to agree to a particular remedy or change. (Of course, resistance to specific proposed changes, or even general themes of change, cannot be seen as resistance to progress in general.) And to be sure, there is a downside to that: We can be slow to identify problems or to accept the identification of problems by others. But despite the downside, I see those traits as a greater virtue than a vice. Not everything that you think is a problem is, in fact, a problem; not everything that isn’t doing what you want it to do is broken; and even when something is broken or malfunctioning, the range of solutions proposed on the bleeding edge of identification may turn out to be badly flawed, whether because they were ill-conceived, or because a critical piece of information simply wasn’t yet available. Sometimes, the right response is to do nothing—at least for the time being. Caution thus prevents overreaction: The latter often bootstraps even more demand for change, as policy reacts to the unintended consequences of the original change. Cf. Philosophy of philosophies, 1 MPA 144 (2012). Moreover, to be quite candid about it, the original identification often strikes me as a bootstrap in itself, as thinly-disguised pretext for a particular change.

By way of analogy, consider this. In the twentieth century, theologians and scripture scholars collectively lost their minds, propounding a range of new theories that were totally bogus, a movement that reached its apogee (or perigee, depending on how you look at it) in the “Jesus Seminar.” They demanded that the Church discard nineteen centuries of orthodoxy in favor of the appropriately-progressive new learning. Cf., e.g., Karl Rahner, The dispute concerning the teaching office in Readings in Moral Theology no.3 122 (Murran & McCormick, eds. 1982). Meanwhile, revolution from the left prompted reaction from the right, and suddenly we have a theological war between liberals who believe that scripture is all-but meaningless and fundamentalists who believe in a word-for-word literalism that rejects not only the revolution but the original insights that incited it. See, e.g., J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958). Today, with the dust mostly settled, the Church’s decision to ignore the revolutionaries looks pretty smart, because the shortcomings of both revolution and reaction have become pretty apparent. The revolution is basically dead; textual criticism still carries weight among liberal protestants and liberal catholics, but the former have largely self-selected into the rapidly-sinking episcopal church, and liberal catholics have failed to reproduce and are rapidly succumbing to what is sometimes called, rather mordantly, the biological solution. Today, a debate remains between Catholicism and reactionary fundamentalism (if that sounds pejorative, it isn’t intended to be so), but the revolution is over and the revolutionaries have been consigned to the ashpile. Imagine, though, if the Church had succumbed to the demands that “there’s a problem!” and “we have to fix it!” and “you must agree with my solution!”

One might fairly respond (as Tallis does) that an ability to remain steadfast in a storm is good, but rigidity against necessary change is counterproductive. Well, of course, the trick is tellin’ the one from t’other! To be sure, healthy caution can become unhealthy foot-dragging, but I think that’s essentially the divergence between the conservative and liberal psychologies. To my mind (and to those of, I think, most conservatives) the risks of acting in haste are immensely greater than the risks of waiting. Most progressives, by contrast, have what seems to us to be either boundless confidence in their capacity to size up every dimension of a problem and propose a solution that not only improves the situation but which has no significant side effects, or else a feckless indifference to such concerns.Cf. Philosophy of philosophies, supra.

Granted, as Burke pointed out, 1 there are risks of waiting, the very worst of which is revolution, which is, I suppose, to public choice theorists what a singularity is to physicists: The place where all equations break down. If an issue goes unaddressed for long enough, if it isn’t defused and doesn’t go away, pressure can build, and the chances of sudden change—perhaps violent, certainly precipitous—start to mount. That’s the biggest fear that I have on issues like immigration reform and healthcare, in fact: That we’re sitting on a time bomb and we don’t have time to come to grips with the problems and adduce optimal solutions. Even having said that, however, identifying a problem doesn’t baptize a particular solution. We must beware the politician’s syllogism: “We must do something [identification], this is something [solution], therefore, we must do this [action].” 2

Conveniently, we may end on a specific application of some of the themes just outlined. In a piece for Ars Technica, John Timmer says that “[t]he resistance to the findings of climate scientists can be a bit difficult to understand.” Is it? I should think it easy to understand, even if one disagrees. The solutions proposed are massive and radical; quite reasonably, people want to be very sure of the problem before evaluating such solutions, let alone embracing them. In view of what has been said above, that instinct seems healthy to me. Only slightly less healthy is a suspicion that the supposedly-identified problem is actually pretext; quite reasonably, again, people on one side of the political spectrum get suspicious when those on the opposite side say that the same things for which they’ve always clamored are now urgently necessary because of some new exigency. For an opposite-polarity example, back before Republicans got paranoid about Barack Obama—see my paper on Barnes v. Indiana for more on that point—conservatives were and always had been law-and-order types, and liberals raised their eyebrows when we insisted after 9/11 that the Feds needed new law-and-order powers. 3

So it’s true, I think, that conservatives are at least hesitant if not resistant when presented with a claim that something is a problem or that it’s broken. We’re all the more so when the proffered solution is such that the tendered problem starts to look like pretext for the solution. Whether one sees that kind of circumspection as a positive or negative trait will largely determine the side of the aisle on which one sits.


  1. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France 29 (1791) (“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Without such means, it might even risque [sic.] the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve”).
  2. Yes Minister: Power to the People, BBC Television, 1988, reprinted in Jonathan Lynn & Anthony Jay, The Complete Yes Minister (1989).
  3. There are people who object to the science itself , but my guess is that most of the resistance is less about the diagnosis than the remedy; we don’t like the remedy, we notice that the remedies proposed by the left are simply recycled policies in search of a justification, and so we want to take a much harder look at the diagnosis, and we’re suspicious that it may be pretext. If, fantastically, the prevailing science indicated that the solution to climate change was to ban gay marriage and abortion, and all else was held equal, I feel confident in saying that the left would be the climate skeptics, because their opposition to the solutions would lead them to be exceedingly skeptical of the supposed need that demanded them.