Being a contarian sort of creature, I’ve been wanting for some time to write a post on why the progressive instinct is sometimes the right one. I’m quite certain that neither conservatism nor progressivism, properly understood, is the only possible view for the moral and reasonable citizen — and yet I find myself impeded in this by being in fact a very temperamentally conservative person.
First off, I’d like to suggest that as most precisely used “conservative” and “progressive” (I’m avoiding the term “liberal” here because it strikes me as having an even more confusing and increasingly imprecise meaning) are very relative terms. The progressive seeks to change current social structures, attitudes and political institutions in order to make them better. He seeks to progress. Conservative seeks to preserve existing structures and institutions, and when he accedes to change he urges that it be done slowly in order to avoid the disruption which rapid change often results in.
I would argue that there are some times when we should follow the progressive instinct, others when we should clearly follow the conservative one, and many in which it is a matter of debate which should be followed.
One is best advised to be progressive, I would argue, in those situations in which current attitudes or institutions are causing a serious and obvious injustice, which would be resolved by a fairly simply and direct change in society or politics. It is also important, I think, that one look at the worldview of the reformers. For instance: I don’t think it’s a stretch to assert that the French monarchy circa 1989 was corrupt and oppressive, however the Jacobins were the very last people on earth whom one would trust to remake society according to their worldview.
One is best advised to be conservative, on the other hand, when the proposed reforms deal with highly complex situations which people do not have the ability to fully understand and re-engineer, and also at times when the spirit of the age is actively moving away from that which we consider to be good and true. In this summary, I clearly betray my Hayekian conservative leanings, in that I think many progressives would not necessarily see very large and complex problems such as running a single public school system or setting a national living wage or providing universal health care to be goals which are complex enough to have unforeseen side effects which are worse than the illness. However, even if you fall into this camp, I’m sure there must be instances you could imagine. (Picture, for instance, trying to legislate universal good parenting, with sufficient standards and oversight to assure it.)
Let me attempt to run through some examples in hopes of making my overall point clear:
In many ways, I think you could argue that the American Revolution was a progressive project, while the Tories were conservative. The founding fathers were guided by a generally sound understanding of natural law and natural rights, but in doing so they were prepared to cast off their allegiance to a monarchy which went back in fairly unbroken succession (or at least, the breaks were not ones they objected to) for over a thousand years. And while the republic which they formed was guided by continental models, it was very much created as a new thing upon the earth. At two hundred plus years remove, I think we can say they did pretty well with their progressive impulses, in part because they had a well formed worldview.
A mere decade or two later, the leaders of the Frech Revolution had a similar progressive urge to cast off the injustices of the old system, and yet the destructive worldview of its leaders led to widespread slaughter, the repression of the Church, and political instability which has led to five republics and an empire in France during the same period of time in which the US has had one. The French Revolution was such an advertisement against progressivism that it inspired Burke to write his Reflections on the Revolution in France which has remained a classic of conservative thought to this day.
In 1861, the US plunged into civil war as a result of the violent reaction against the progressive goal of limiting and eventually abolishing slavery. On the other side of the world, the Russian Tsar took more modest steps to abolish Russian serfdom, which was one of the most repressive forms of peasantry in Europe and arguably indistinguishable from slavery. Unfortunately, the Tsar’s progressive move was so conservative in its execution (the serfs were all saddled with loans from their former masters, effectively buying their freedom) that conditions only gradually improved for the Russian peasants, and after the bloodiest war in US history the Union succeeded in abolishing slavery yet failed to force enough cultural change to end the oppression of black Americans, with the result that Lincoln and the Civil War are still matters of contention between those who believe that going to war to end slavery was justified, and those who argue in retrospect that the blunt weapon of war did little to change the suffering of the former slaves and thus hold to an 1860s conservative approach to the matter.
Looking back over these and many other examples, it seems to me that it is sometimes the right course to be conservative, and at other times to be progressive. My own heavy leanings toward conservatism in this day and age (and I suspect those of many other “Christian Conservatives”) have to do with my suspicion of the modern world view. As those leaders of society who see themselves as engines of progress have increasingly shed traditional Christian morals, beliefs and ideals over the last 150 years, I think that too often the bulk of progressives have embraced morally and culturally destructive ideas: birth control and eugenics at the turn of the century, the sexual revolution in the 60s and 70s, and abortion and same sex marriage in the present day. That society is so good at producing bad ideas right now leads me to want to cling to the past as much as possible, modifying if need be those aspects which are wrong, but preserving as much as possible of the past because it represents the vestiges of a more Christian society.
This does not, however, mean that at this or any time all progressive ideas are wrong. And I think it remains important for those of us who are conservative to remember that many of the institutions which we treasure (including the very idea of “government by the people, for the people”) are in fact the products of the progressivisms of ages past. It is not enough for us to be mere reflexive conservatives, because the past was not a golden age in which all things were good. And so while we stand athwart history yelling, “Stop!” we must keep our minds open towards those times when we should follow the progressive impulse on some issue, because the change proposed is actually towards the good.