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Saturday, January 24, 2004
Respect for tradition is a love for genuine change

Madsen Pirie's essay on Hayek's political conservatism - a quality the man himself denied - is so strongly argued that it ought to be read by anyone with an interest in Hayek, or in the borders and connections between conservative and libertarian thought. What should be of interest to all politicos, however, is the sophistication of the description within of the conservative attitude to change. So often one sees conservatism confused with reaction, with a pig-headed devotion to the existing state of affairs, a desire to stand before the tides of history and yell 'stop'. The last caricature was coined by leading conservative William F. Buckley, which just demonstrates how strongly conservatism is often associated with the idea of slavish attachment to the past and present. One Liberal Democrat site defines conservatism simply as "the defence of tradition, if necessary to the detriment of progress".

Dr Pirie shows how different the reality is, how the conservative attitude to 'progress' depends entirely on who is behind that progress, and how it is to be achieved.

If we list under the banner of conservatism figures as diverse as Burke, Liverpool, Peel, and Salisbury, right down to Churchill and Thatcher, we find major differences of temperament at once obvious. Some were optimists, some pessimists. Some were gregarious, some withdrawn.

What unites them is not an aversion to change, but an aversion to imposed change. All of them have embraced certain types of change and opposed others. Some introduced change. The unifying factor is an opposition to those changes which attempt to impose a pre-conceived plan upon society. What they have sought to preserve is not any particular state of society, but its spontaneity. Their opposition has been to the type of changes which seek to produce a particular outcome and to make people live in a particular way.

... Burke's objection to the French revolutionaries was not derived from an obsessive dislike of change. He recognized that changes are sometimes necessary. What he objected to was the attempt to make society conform to a rational plan. Burke's conservatism was founded in his rejection of endeavours to produce a preconceived outcome.

... Under conservatism, people make choices. Their future, and that of their society, is not made to conform to the grand design of some idealist, but is instead a cumulative result of independent actions. The individuals do not try collectively to achieve any particular goal; the outcome is the overall result of all of their actions.

Most people follow traditions because they are brought up to do so, because they like to do so, or because it is easier and safer to do so. When traditions change, conservatives would have it that they do so because their value has declined, or because circumstances have changed, and because people have developed different traditions to replace them. What conservatives object to is the deliberate abolition of traditions because they have been examined and found wanting, because they fail to produce the social goals desired by the legislators.

The words above may be a mere exposition of conservative ideas, but they are also a very powerful argument for why those who value and accept human choices should feel themselves naturally drawn to the conservative philosophy. In its intelligence and pragmatism, the Tory conception of society - voluntary, organic, evolving and progressing, but at a rate determined by an aggregate of individual choice, not an imposition of individual preferences - trumps with ease any rationalist plan that socialists, communists or liberals have to offer.

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