fundamental orientations to reform

(This is a rambling post written during a flight delay at Washington National. It lacks an engaging lead. In brief, I was thinking about various conservative objections to utopian reform and how social movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, can address some of those objections.)

The French and Russian revolutions sought dramatically different objectives–the French Jacobins, for example, were fanatical proponents of private property–but they and their numerous imitators have been alike in one crucial way. Each wave of revolutionaries has considered certain principles to be universal and essential. They have observed a vast gap between social reality and their favored principles. They have been willing to seize the power of the state to close this gap. Even non-violent and non-revolutionary social reformers have often shared this orientation.

I see modern conservatism as a critique of such ambitions. Sometimes the critique is directed at the principles embodied in a specific revolution or reform movement. The validity of that critique depends on the principles in question. For example, the Soviet revolution and the New Deal had diametrically opposed ideas about individual liberty. One could consistently oppose one ideology and support the other.

Just as important is the conservative’s skepticism about the very effort to bring social reality into harmony with abstract principles (any principles). Conservatives argue: Regardless of their initial motivations, reformers who gain plenipotentiary power inevitably turn corrupt. No central authority has enough information or insight to predict and plan a whole society. The Law of Uninintended Consequences always applies. There are many valid principles in the world, and they trade off. The cost of shifting from one social state or path to another generally outweighs the gains. Traditions embody experience and negotiation and usually work better than any plan cooked up quickly by a few leaders.

These are points made variously by Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maitre, James Madison, Lord Acton, Friedrich von Hayek, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and James C. Scott, among others: a highly diverse group that includes writers generally known as “liberals.” But I see their skepticism about radical reform as emblematic of conservative thought.

Two different conclusions can follow from their conservative premises. One is that the state is especially problematic. It monopolizes violence and imposes uniform plans on complex societies. Its power reduces individual liberty. Individuals plan better than the state because they know their own interests and situations, and they need only consider their own narrow spheres. They have limited scope for corruption and tyranny. Therefore the aggregate decisions of individuals are better than the centralized rule of a government. This is conservative libertarianism: the law-and-economics “classical liberalism” of Hayek, not the utopian libertarianism of Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick (as different as those authors were).

The alternative conclusion is that local traditions should generally be respected. Reform is sometimes possible, but it should be gradual, generally consensual, and modest. The odds are against any effort to overturn the status quo, imperfect as that may be. This is Burkean traditionalist conservatism. The Republican Party has very little interest in it today, but it motivates crunchy leftists who prize indigenous customs and cultures and oppose “neo-imperialism” (just as Burke opposed literal imperialism).

These two strands of conservative thought often come into conflict, because actually existing societies do not maximize individual liberty or minimize the role of the state (or of state-like actors, such as public schools, religious courts, clans, and bureaucratic corporations). Traditionalists and libertarians disagree forcefully about what to do about illiberal societies.

Take the case of Iraq under Saddam. The so-called neoconservatives (actually libertarians of a peculiar type) claimed that the main problem with Iraq was a tyrannical state, and the best solution was to invade, liberate, and then constrain the successor regime sharply. Private Iraqis should govern their own affairs under a liberal constitution. The Burkean response was that Iraq was a predominantly non-liberal society, deeply religious and patriarchal; therefore, a liberal constitution would be an alien, utopian imposition that would never work.

We can envision a kind of triangular argument among utopian revolutionaries, Burkean traditionalists, and libertarians–with strengths and weaknesses on all sides. But there is a fourth way. That is the deliberately self-limiting utopian social movement. The Gandhian struggle in India, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa shared the following features: (1) regular invocation of utopian principles, portrayed as moral absolutes and as pressing imperatives; (2) deep respect for local cultures, traditions, and faiths; (3) pluralism and coalition politics, rather than a centralized structure; and (4) strict, self-imposed limits.

The South African ANC had a military wing that aimed to capture the state, whereas Gandhi and the Civil Rights Movement were non-violent. But I would describe non-violence as simply an example of a self-limitation designed to prevent corruption and tyranny. It’s a good strategy, because violence tends to spin out of control, to the detriment of the reformers themselves. But it isn’t intrinsically or inevitably better than other strategies. The ANC managed to use violence but to restrain itself–as did the American revolutionaries of our founding era.

So now we see a four-way debate among utopian reformers, libertarians, traditionalists, and social-movement reformers. Social movements have answers to several of the chief arguments made by the other sides. They can address conservative worries about arrogance, corruption, and tyranny while also seeking to change the world in principled ways. The problem for social movements is institutionalization. Such movements tend to crest and then fall away, unlike the regimes that the other ideologies promote.

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1 Response to fundamental orientations to reform

  1. Joseph Sinatra says:

    Hey Peter,

    I was struck by some similarities between your post and something else I read this morning. Over at his “From Poverty to Power” blog, Duncan Green of Oxfam has a post on “How effective states are going to emerge in Africa” (

    One of his arguments states that:

    “In Ghana and elsewhere, the steady spread of civil society organizations, along with other checks and balances on state power such as an independent media curbs spoils politics, is paving the way for a transition towards a more accountable and effective state. Urbanization across the developing world will increase their prominence, since both are largely urban phenomena.”

    It seems that this prescription is similar to your positioning of social movements as a means towards change. What’s different presumably, are the strategies and choices that you would have as part of a movement (for civic renewal for example) and those available to Oxfam in encouraging or advocating for a movement.



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