In his October 5th column for The New York Times, David Brooks writes:
Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote, “pleasing commencements” but “lamentable conclusions.” The world is too complex, the Burkean conservative believes, for rapid reform. Existing arrangements contain latent functions that can be neither seen nor replaced by the reformer. The temperamental conservative prizes epistemological modesty, the awareness of the limitations on what we do and can know, what we can and cannot plan. Over the past six years, the Bush administration has operated on the assumption that if you change the political institutions in Iraq, the society will follow. But the Burkean conservative believes that society is an organism; that custom, tradition and habit are the prime movers of that organism; and that successful government institutions grow gradually from each nation’s unique network of moral and social restraints.
Brooks, who is not only an excellent columnist but also a fine and deep thinker, is raising a fair caution. The world is complex and change is often harder than we think—and rapid reform can often lead to “lamentable conclusions.” But let me raise a caution the other way as well.
In the mid-1990’s, some prominent conservatives opposed welfare reform on Burkean grounds. For example George Will, who traces the pedigree of his philosophy to Burke (as well as Newman, Disraeli, and others) chided welfare reformers as being “designers of a brave new world.” He praised Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s opposition to welfare reform, writing
Moynihan warns that welfare reform could produce a similar [to the “deinstitutionalization” of the mentally ill] unanticipated increase in children sleeping on, and freezing to death on, grates. . . . “There are,” says Moynihan, “not enough social workers, not enough nuns, not enough Salvation Army workers to care for children who would be purged from the welfare rolls were Congress to decree (as candidate Bill Clinton proposed) a two-year limit for welfare eligibility.”
George Will concluded his September 14, 1995 column this way:
Conservatives say, well, nothing could be worse than the current system. They are underestimating their ingenuity.
Here is the late, great Senator Moynihan, expressing (on August 4, 1996) his opposition to welfare reform:
[O]pponents of this legislation were conservative social scientists who for years have argued against liberal nostrums for changing society with the argument that no one knows enough to mechanistically change society. Typically liberals think otherwise; to the extent that liberals can be said to think at all. . . . They [the Clinton White House] have only the flimsiest grasp of social reality, thinking all things doable and equally undoable. As, for example, the horror of this legislation. By contrast, the conservative social scientists . . . have warned over and over that this is radical legislation with altogether unforeseeable consequences, many of which will surely be loathsome.
So we see that some “temperamental conservatives” opposed on Burkean grounds what turned out to be perhaps the most successful social reform of the last half-century (forgetting perhaps the fact that Burke, a Whig, was himself a reformer of some note). The unforeseeable consequences were not loathsome; they were, in fact, enormously encouraging.
When it came to welfare and the underclass, the world was not “too complex” for rapid reform—and those who argued we should reject welfare reform on grounds of “epistemological modesty” and the “awareness of limits” were wrong. The reason they were wrong is that the poor (as other conservatives argued at the time) were fully capable of responding to rational incentives. They were not helpless and in need of a paternalistic state. They were actually able to get and keep jobs. And their children were not “collateral damage in a bombardment of severities” (the phrase is Will’s).
Perhaps the lesson to take away from all this is not to draw grand, sweeping conclusions when it comes to reforms. Maybe “epistemological modesty” should be directed not at reforms per se, but at those who think they can anticipate the outcomes and assume that success (or failure) in one area will lead to success (or failure) in another. (I would add that it’s still too early to declare that the effort in Iraq, which has been very difficult, is irredeemably lost. And Brooks fails to mention that foreign terrorists like al Qaeda in Iraq, and countries like Iran and Syria, have been the loci of many of the problems we’ve encountered. The ethnic tensions and cultural divisions in Iraq are real enough—but the situation there is far more complicated than Brooks presents in his column).
It’s worth recalling, too, that those who take the rigid view that “society is an organism” and that “custom, tradition, and habit are the prime movers of that organism” would in all likelihood have found themselves, intellectually at least, on the side of Calhoun and not Lincoln on the matter of slavery and the culture of the American South. And, by the way, on the opposite side from Burke, a committed abolitionist.