Res Publica

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 405–422 | Cite as

An Epistemic Argument for Conservatism

  • Xavier MarquezEmail author


‘Epistemic’ arguments for conservatism typically claim that given the limits of human reason, we are better off accepting some particular social practice or institution rather than trying to consciously improve it. I critically examine and defend here one such argument, claiming that there are some domains of social life in which, given the limits of our knowledge and the complexity of the social world, we ought to defer to those institutions that have robustly endured in a wide variety of circumstances in the past while not being correlated with intolerable outcomes. These are domains of social life in which our ignorance of optimal institutions is radical, and there is uncertainty (rather than quantifiable risk) about the costs of error. This is an argument for the preservation of particular institutions, not particular policies or outcomes, and it specifically identifies these with the institutions that John Rawls called ‘the basic structure of society.’ The argument further implies that to the extent that there is any reason to change these institutions, changes should be calculated as far as possible to increase their ‘epistemic power.’


Conservatism Epistemic justifications Institutional change 



A much earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2010 meeting of the Australasian Public Choice Society Workshop at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand and at the 2010 meeting of the New Zealand Political Studies Association in Hamilton, New Zealand. I wish to thank Stephen Winter, Geoffrey Brennan, and Eric Crampton, as well as two anonymous reviewers, for their comments and criticisms.


  1. Aberbach, Joel D., and Tom Christensen. 2001. Radical reform in New Zealand: Crisis, windows of opportunity, and rational actors. Public Administration 79(2): 403–422. doi: 10.1111/1467-9299.00262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Albert, Michael, and Robin Hahnel. 1992. Participatory planning. Science and Society 56(1): 39–59. doi: 10.2307/40403236.Google Scholar
  3. Aslund, Anders. 1994. The case for radical reform. Journal of Democracy 5(4): 63–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Badiou, Alain. 2010. The communist hypothesis. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  5. Beetham, David. 2013. The legitimation of power, 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  6. Bostrom, Nick, and Toby Ord. 2006. The reversal test: Eliminating status quo bias in applied ethics. Ethics 116(4): 656–679. doi: 10.1086/505233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brennan, Geoffrey, and Alan Hamlin. 2004. Analytic conservatism. British Journal of Political Science 34(4): 675–691.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Burke, Edmund. 1999 [1790]. Select works of Edmund Burke: a new imprint of the Payne edition. vol. 2. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.Google Scholar
  9. Caplan, Bryan. 2007. The myth of the rational voter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. 2001. Rational ritual: Culture, Coordination, and common knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Clarke, Steve. 2010. Cognitive bias and the precautionary principle: What’s wrong with the core argument in Sunstein’s laws of fear and a way to fix it. Journal of Risk Research 13(2): 163–174. doi: 10.1080/13669870903126200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cohen, G.A. 2012. Rescuing conservatism: A defense of existing value. In Finding oneself in the other, ed. Michael Otsuka, 143–174. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Conquest, Robert. 1986. The harvest of sorrow: Soviet collectivization and the terror-famine. London: Hutchinson.Google Scholar
  14. Dean, Jodi. 2005. Zizek against democracy. Law, Culture and the Humanities 1(2): 154–177. doi: 10.1191/1743872105lw012oa.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. DeLong, J. Bradford, and Kevin Lang. 1992. Are all economic hypotheses false? The Journal of Political Economy 100(6): 1257–1272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Elster, Jon, and Karl Ove Moene. 1989. Alternatives to capitalism. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Estlund, David M. 2008. Democratic authority: A philosophical framework. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Evans, Jonathan St. B. T. 2002. Logic and human reasoning: An assessment of the deduction paradigm. Psychological Bulletin 128(6): 978–996.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gardiner, Stephen M. 2006. A core precautionary principle. Journal of Political Philosophy 14(1): 33–60. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9760.2006.00237.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Goodin, Robert E. 2003. Reflective democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hanson, Robin. 2013. Shall we vote on values, but bet on beliefs? Journal of Political Philosophy 21(2): 151–178. doi: 10.1111/jopp.12008.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Herzog, Don. 1998. Poisoning the minds of the lower orders. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Hong, Lu, and Scott E. Page. 2004. Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101(46): 16385–16389. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0403723101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ioannidis, John P. A. 2005. Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med 2(8): e124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kahneman, Daniel. 2013. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.Google Scholar
  26. Kahneman, Daniel, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky. 1982. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Knight, Jack, and James Johnson. 2011. The priority of democracy: Political consequences of pragmatism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Kornai, Janos. 1992. The socialist system: The political economy of communism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lange, Oskar. 1937. On the economic theory of socialism: Part two. The Review of Economic Studies 4(2): 123–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Leeson, Peter T. 2012. Ordeals. Journal of Law and Economics 55(3): 691–714. doi: 10.1086/664010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Márquez, Xavier. 2012. A stranger’s knowledge: Statesmanship, philosophy, & law in Plato’s statesman. Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing.Google Scholar
  32. Marquez, Xavier. 2015. The irrelevance of legitimacy. Political Studies. doi: 10.1111/1467-9248.12202.Google Scholar
  33. Milanovic, Branko. 1998. Income, inequality, and poverty during the transition from planned to market economy. Washington, DC: The World Bank.Google Scholar
  34. Mill, John Stuart. 1977. Considerations on representative government. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  35. Moore Jr, Barrington. 1978. Injustice: The social bases of obedience and revolt. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Murrell, Peter. 1992. Evolutionary and radical approaches to economic reform. Economics of Planning 25(1): 79–95. doi: 10.1007/bf00366291.Google Scholar
  37. Oakeshott, Michael. 1991 [1962]-a. On being conservative. In Rationalism in politics and other essays, ed. Timothy Fuller, pp. 407–437. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.Google Scholar
  38. Oakeshott, Michael. 1991 [1962]-b. Political education. In Rationalism in politics and other essays, ed. Timothy Fuller, pp. 43–69. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.Google Scholar
  39. Page, Scott. 2007. The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Page, Scott E. 2008. Uncertainty, difficulty, and complexity. Journal of Theoretical Politics 20(2): 115–149. doi: 10.1177/0951629807085815.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Rae, John. 1895. Life of Adam Smith. Accessed 6 Nov 2014.
  42. Rawls, John. 1999. A theory of justice, Rev ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Schweickart, David. 2011. After capitalism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.Google Scholar
  44. Sunstein, Cass R. 2005. Laws of fear: Beyond the precautionary principle. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Talisse, Robert B. 2010. An epistemological defense of democracy. Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 22(2): 281–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tetlock, Philip. 2005. Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know?. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 2007. The self awakened: Pragmatism unbound. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Vermeule, Adrian. 2009. Law and the limits of reason. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Vermeule, Adrian. 2012. Precautionary principles in constitutional law. Journal of Legal Analysis 4(1): 181–222. doi: 10.1093/jla/las003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Vermeule, Adrian. 2013. The constitution of risk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. von Hayek, Friedrich A. 1945. The use of knowledge in society. American Economic Review 35(4): 519–530.Google Scholar
  52. von Hayek, Friedrich A. 1960. The constitution of liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  53. von Mises, Ludwig. 1990 [1920]. Economic calculation in the socialist commonwealth. Ludwig Von Mises Institute.Google Scholar
  54. Williamson, Thad. 2012. Realizing property-owning democracy: A 20-year strategy to create an egalitarian distribution of assets in the United States. In Property-owning democracy: Rawls and beyond, ed. Martin O’Neill, and Thad Williamson, 225–248. Malden: Blackwell.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Political Science and International Relations ProgrammeVictoria University of WellingtonWellingtonNew Zealand

Personalised recommendations