Beneficial Change Requires a Disposition to Preserve
By Gabrielle Temaat
Policy change can tend to be slow, as we often lament. But could this be a strength, rather than a weakness? How should conservatives view the speed of change?
One tenant of conservative thought is the desire for gradual change that occurs naturally or undergoes intense deliberation with eternal principles in mind, rather than rapid change in response to the whims of the public. Many prominent conservative thinkers, including Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke, discuss the importance of a deep appreciation for tradition and the wisdom of the past. We recognize that we can only see farther than those who came before us because we are standing on their shoulders.
Beneficial change, says Kirk, is rarely a result of sudden, conscious human endeavor. It never unfixes old interests at once, as we moderns are not likely to make new discoveries in politics, morals, or truths.
Conservatism recognizes man’s inherent selfishness and frequent ignorance, resulting in a reasonable reluctance toward change. Shifts in the culture or in public opinion, for example, are often products of pride and nihilism that can catalyze policy changes. Human endeavor, although often well-intentioned, should be treated with skepticism.
Rather than just tolerating the sluggishness of law, we should develop a healthy respect for it. Slight and gradual changes protect liberty and property that would otherwise decay in a system that values speed in change. Often change simply results in a new set of problems. Freedom, justice, and a well-ordered society are the products of hundreds of years of trial, contemplation, and sacrifice. Human society cannot be treated as a machine that can endure interruption or quick fixes, because it can’t. “Revolution slices through the arteries of a culture, a cure that kills” says Kirk.
We must strive for the nearest condition of true justice that is possible to attain, while striving to preserve all that is good and true. Values can be heightened, which may cause us to re-evaluate the rules and make adjustments. The fight over slavery and the civil rights of black Americans is an example of a change that was necessary and drew strength from its appeal to eternal truths of human dignity and equality. It is our recognition that truth, principle, and right reason are unchanging that will lead us both to preserve, and at times, to change.
As conservatives seeking to create a society of strong families and thriving individuals, we need this type of deliberate action informed by reliance on eternal and unchanging values. “The perceptive reformer combines an ability to reform with a disposition to preserve; the man who loves change is wholly disqualified, from his lust, to be the agent of change”, writes Kirk. Change is sometimes necessary, but often, the most beneficial change is accompanied by a hesitancy towards it. The conservative also recognizes that society will never be a utopia, as human nature is deeply flawed. Attempting to create a utopia will only give the state jurisdiction over that which should be left to God; and the state is comprised of individuals who are just as flawed as those they preside over. Ultimately, a perceptive and beneficial change-maker maintains the disposition to preserve all that is good and looks to the wisdom of the past.
Gabrielle Temaat is a senior at Arizona State University studying economics. She is currently working as a writing tutor at ASU and a communications intern at the Acton Institute.