An Epistemic Argument for Conservatism

Abstract

‘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.’

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Setting aside the occasional but rare defense of revolutionary Maoism in contemporary continental thought (Badiou 2010), many argue that, in order to address many injustices, we need to radically transform particular large-scale institutional systems, such as capitalism or representative democracy (see, e.g., on the need for alternatives to capitalism: Schweickart 2011; Albert and Hahnel 1992; Elster and Moene 1989), since only such changes can get at the ‘root’ of these injustices. Some writers also celebrate change as such, and look for institutional structures that are constantly open to radical transformation (Unger 2007). Moreover, the appeal of radicalism is not restricted to the left; ‘radical’ reform was the rallying cry of the architects of the transformation of the Soviet economy (Aslund 1994), and of the entrepreneurs of the ‘neo-liberal’ reforms in New Zealand (Aberbach and Christensen 2001).

  2. 2.

    ‘Conservatism’ is used in the sense of a skeptical orientation towards political change, not in the popular sense in which it is used in political discourse in the US and many other countries.

  3. 3.

    Hayek claimed that he was not a conservative in part because ‘spontaneous’ orders change all the time, and such change is a good thing; what he defended was not necessarily the existing order, but the spontaneous order of voluntary activity, which could be distorted by state intervention (von Hayek 1960).

  4. 4.

    For the argument that there is a genuine link between normative and factual legitimacy, and between endurance and legitimacy, see Beetham (2013); Moore (1978). For some skepticism about the strength of these connections in many circumstances, see Marquez (2015).

  5. 5.

    The avoidance of such grave evils is part of Estlund’s (2008) epistemic justification for democracy.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to Xavier Marquez.

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Marquez, X. An Epistemic Argument for Conservatism. Res Publica 22, 405–422 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-015-9296-8

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Keywords

  • Conservatism
  • Epistemic justifications
  • Institutional change