Friday, January 9, 2015

Conservatism and Tradition

A more common description of conservatism includes adherence to tradition.

At one level, this seems an extension of the idea of conservative temperament that feels more at ease with the familiar. People with a conservative temperaments not only might adhere to familiar ways of doing things close to home,  but also feel uncomfortable about changes even beyond their immediate world. They grow apprehensive about changes that occur across a broad spectrum of categories--cultural, moral, demographic, and political. The prefer the traditional order that they grew up with. For such people, conservatism is more of an emotion than idea.

When many people share such adherence to traditional ways, they can form a formidable resistance to change. For example,one can see examples of cultural persistence in the different regions of the United States. Despite the nationwide expansion of industrial capitalism and the pervasive presence of the mass media (including the new social media), many cultural differences still separate Americans North and South.

Temperamental conservatism and conservative cultural persistence, however,  do not necessarily translate into political action.

At another level, however, conservatism embraces tradition as a touchstone for evaluating change.

Conservatives value tradition not for the sake of tradition, but because it is the received wisdom of earlier generations. Tradition survived because other way of doing things had been rejected.

Conservatives see history as a sort of laboratory for ideas tested and lessons learned. They harbor skepticism about progressive efforts to jettison tradition in favor of untried paths. Progressives often charge Conservatives with upholding an unreasonable adherence to  tradition just for the sake of tradition. Progressives set up a false a false dichotomy by claiming that their  disagreement with Conservatives pits tradition against reason.  The contrast is really between proven ways of doing things with speculation about the future benefits of change. Libraries are filled with accounts of failed social and economic "experiments." Many of our nation's most intractable social and economic problems today result from progressive changes instituted decades earlier.

This is not to say that Conservatives hold on blindly to traditions or that they should. Some traditions are not worth conserving. Conservatives, however, understand the harm that can come from unintended consequences. Even ending a bad tradition can yield something worse.

This notion of Conservatism as a way of life devote to tradition does have its own limitations. Every society has its own traditions and a group of people loosely labeled "conservatives" who desire to preserve them. Traditions differ radically, however, society to society.

Conservatives in America seek to conserve American traditions, especially the American constitutional order. That is really the essence of Conservatism as tradition.

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