Skip to main content

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.’

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

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

References

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Albert, Michael, and Robin Hahnel. 1992. Participatory planning. Science and Society 56(1): 39–59. doi:10.2307/40403236.

    Google Scholar 

  • Aslund, Anders. 1994. The case for radical reform. Journal of Democracy 5(4): 63–74.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Badiou, Alain. 2010. The communist hypothesis. London: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  • Beetham, David. 2013. The legitimation of power, 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brennan, Geoffrey, and Alan Hamlin. 2004. Analytic conservatism. British Journal of Political Science 34(4): 675–691.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burke, Edmund. 1999 [1790]. Select works of Edmund Burke: a new imprint of the Payne edition. vol. 2. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

  • Caplan, Bryan. 2007. The myth of the rational voter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. 2001. Rational ritual: Culture, Coordination, and common knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • Conquest, Robert. 1986. The harvest of sorrow: Soviet collectivization and the terror-famine. London: Hutchinson.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dean, Jodi. 2005. Zizek against democracy. Law, Culture and the Humanities 1(2): 154–177. doi:10.1191/1743872105lw012oa.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • DeLong, J. Bradford, and Kevin Lang. 1992. Are all economic hypotheses false? The Journal of Political Economy 100(6): 1257–1272.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Elster, Jon, and Karl Ove Moene. 1989. Alternatives to capitalism. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Estlund, David M. 2008. Democratic authority: A philosophical framework. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Evans, Jonathan St. B. T. 2002. Logic and human reasoning: An assessment of the deduction paradigm. Psychological Bulletin 128(6): 978–996.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Goodin, Robert E. 2003. Reflective democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Herzog, Don. 1998. Poisoning the minds of the lower orders. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ioannidis, John P. A. 2005. Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med 2(8): e124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kahneman, Daniel. 2013. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kahneman, Daniel, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky. 1982. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Knight, Jack, and James Johnson. 2011. The priority of democracy: Political consequences of pragmatism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kornai, Janos. 1992. The socialist system: The political economy of communism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Lange, Oskar. 1937. On the economic theory of socialism: Part two. The Review of Economic Studies 4(2): 123–142.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Leeson, Peter T. 2012. Ordeals. Journal of Law and Economics 55(3): 691–714. doi:10.1086/664010.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Márquez, Xavier. 2012. A stranger’s knowledge: Statesmanship, philosophy, & law in Plato’s statesman. Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marquez, Xavier. 2015. The irrelevance of legitimacy. Political Studies. doi:10.1111/1467-9248.12202.

    Google Scholar 

  • Milanovic, Branko. 1998. Income, inequality, and poverty during the transition from planned to market economy. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mill, John Stuart. 1977. Considerations on representative government. The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill: University of Toronto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moore Jr, Barrington. 1978. Injustice: The social bases of obedience and revolt. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Murrell, Peter. 1992. Evolutionary and radical approaches to economic reform. Economics of Planning 25(1): 79–95. doi:10.1007/bf00366291.

    Google Scholar 

  • Oakeshott, Michael. 1991 [1962]-a. On being conservative. In Rationalism in politics and other essays, ed. Timothy Fuller, pp. 407–437. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

  • Oakeshott, Michael. 1991 [1962]-b. Political education. In Rationalism in politics and other essays, ed. Timothy Fuller, pp. 43–69. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

  • Page, Scott. 2007. The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Page, Scott E. 2008. Uncertainty, difficulty, and complexity. Journal of Theoretical Politics 20(2): 115–149. doi:10.1177/0951629807085815.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rae, John. 1895. Life of Adam Smith. http://www.econlib.org/library/YPDBooks/Rae/raeLS22.html. Accessed 6 Nov 2014.

  • Rawls, John. 1999. A theory of justice, Rev ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schweickart, David. 2011. After capitalism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sunstein, Cass R. 2005. Laws of fear: Beyond the precautionary principle. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Talisse, Robert B. 2010. An epistemological defense of democracy. Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 22(2): 281–291.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tetlock, Philip. 2005. Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know?. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. 2007. The self awakened: Pragmatism unbound. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vermeule, Adrian. 2009. Law and the limits of reason. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vermeule, Adrian. 2012. Precautionary principles in constitutional law. Journal of Legal Analysis 4(1): 181–222. doi:10.1093/jla/las003.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vermeule, Adrian. 2013. The constitution of risk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • von Hayek, Friedrich A. 1945. The use of knowledge in society. American Economic Review 35(4): 519–530.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Hayek, Friedrich A. 1960. The constitution of liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • von Mises, Ludwig. 1990 [1920]. Economic calculation in the socialist commonwealth. Ludwig Von Mises Institute.

  • 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 

Download references

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Xavier Marquez.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-015-9296-8

Keywords

  • Conservatism
  • Epistemic justifications
  • Institutional change