Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Conserving Institutions for the Future

We enter unknown territory. We have a President-Elect, whatever we may think of him, who doesn't fit any previous model. We have a Congress that seems anxious to undo everything that has been laid down over the past eight years and longer. So giddy are some that they don't seem to be heeding warnings that dangerous cliffs lie ahead. Some of those who oppose the majority, seem eager to burn things down as well. I'm not sure this is all good news.

I am by inclination left-of-center in my politics, but I do have a conservative streak when it comes to preserving institutions that provide stability to society. My read of the political divide today is that those who call themselves conservatives are not conservative in the true sense. They're not interested in conserving things. They want to radically remake things (something they often accuse liberals of doing). Yes, there are times and places where things need to be remade -- take marriage equality, slavery, voting rights, segregation, women's right to vote. But there are also elements needing to be preserved.

My thinking on this was stirred by my reading of a book by British rationalist Julian Baggini. In writing about the "Rational State" (if only we had one going forward), he draws on a book by Roger Scruton.  According to Baggini, Scruton speaks of society as being a living organism, the parts of which "only flourish when that whole is itself flourishing."  Then he writes of the political upshot of this vision, which involves preserving the "institutions, customs and practises of our society in order for us to flourish in that society." Then he writes:
Conservativism is therefore 'an exercise in social ecology' whose goal is to 'pass on to future generations -- and if possible enhance -- the order and equilibrium of which we are temporary trustees.' What we must not do is start with a blank slate, determining what the ideal society will look like and then attempting to reorder society to meet this utopian vision, irrespective of how society is now. That way lies ruin. [Baggini, The Edge of Reason, p. 196].   
 The populist/utopian vision some promise will not lead us in the right direction. We need to be careful about the legacy that has been passed on to us. While walls often need to be take down, sometimes its easier to tear down than build up. It's not that we eschew change, but we should proceed with caution. As Baggini puts it: "The process of designing a better society has to start by looking at the society we have, since we cannot build a new one from scratch to replace it. This is using our reason in the fullest, most complete way" [Baggini, pp. 197-198]. If not for ourselves, let us do this for our children and our children's children. 

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