July 22, 2005  ·  Cass Sunstein

There’s another form of information aggregation that we haven’t discussed: traditionalism. Conservatives who like traditions often build on the work of Edmund Burke, who emphasized that each of us has a small stock of wisdom, and that traditions embody the wisdom of the many. In this way, there’s a link between Burke on the one hand and Condorcet on the other — and a less direct link between Burke and Hayek. Here’s a passage from Burke’s essay on the French Revolution:

“The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution than any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree, for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes. . . . We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them.”

Burke’s claims have a lot of power; the problem is that some traditions may be a result of a cascade or group polarization (or worse).

In the meantime I’m wondering whether I’ll have the courage to say something about the Bob Dylan concert I recently attended.

  • http://jackdied.com/ Jack Diederich

    I wrote your next post for you, just cut and paste.

    What about one of the most rapid forms of Hayekian choice and preference aggregation, namely the market for youth fashion. We remember the bad decades like the 80s most vividly (an obvious example of cascading preferences) but mostly ignore the tamer decades that could be described as good choices reminicent of Condorcet Juries. I admit I don’t know much about youth fashion, would some readers like to offer an opinion?

    Please stop.

  • Corey

    “the problem is that some traditions may be a result of a cascade or group polarization (or worse).”

    I assume by “worse” you might be thinking of vested imbalances of power? If a ruling class maintains its power through physical or economic coercion long enough, say through several generations of citizens, the people may no longer remember life being any different, and now you have a “tradition” of facism.

    For this reason, tradition can never be an end in itself. Tradition may represent settled prejudices, but those prejudices are limited by the knowledge available at the time they were formed. (The Sun orbits the earth, the world is flat, africans are property, the peasants are too stupid to vote, etc…) The more you privilege “general prejudices”, the more revolutionary violence is required to overcome them when new understanding proves them wrong.

    And before we discredit revolution, lets think of our revolutionary culture heros, violent or non… Cromwell, Jefferson, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr… of course these people were just the personification of a larger minority of citizens that had discovered a flaw in the general prejudices.

    Discourse theories have to protect minority viewpoints in order to avoid supressing innovative truth, price theories have to respect idiosyncratic values to avoid oppressing those without sufficient dollar reserves to represent their interests.
    (i.e. 87 year olds being kicked out of their childhood homes in New London) Traditional status quo views have little trouble getting air time, just as market participants who are born rich often find it easier to get a good price.

    One might look at traditional values as the initial distribution of wealth in the discourse game, and study how that controls the outcome, much as one can study how initial distribution of actual dollars distorts outcomes in Law and Economics land.

  • Corey

    And of course, if one thinks that way, that neither traditional value systems nor initial distribution of wealth have any inherant claim to moral right… and then one is a revolutionary. :) Liberte’ Egalite’ Fraternite’!

  • rodander

    But how does one (or a group) discern whether a tradition is “a cascade or group polarization” or (as per Corey) a “settled prejudice”, on the one hand, or wisdom, on the other hand? In other words, how is it that Gandhi and MLK turned out to be right, while other revolutionaries (name your failure) turned out to be wrong?

    I have an answer in mind, but I wonder what the others think (before throwing out my answer as red meat).

  • http://jackdied.com/ Jack Diederich

    Hey Cory, would you encourage social justice, equality, fairness, harmony, and I-can-only-image-what as traditions worth instilling and upholding? Strangely you only list a litany of things you are against as traditional. Revolutionary? French revolutionary? Indeed. Much blood was spilled against the old order in that revolution when everyone agreed the old order had to go. They did that a few times and I’m sure you could lend some good ideas for the Sixth Republic too.

    Those who want to upset the current order are typically the current losers who hope for something better. That doesn’t mean tradition or the current order is unfair, it just means they dream of not sucking so much. Why has the American revolution held together as long as it has when its propoents were members of the privileged order ? Franklin, an old man, gladly saw his loyalist son jailed. The “Indians” in the Boston tea party were the most well to do in Boston. They held a revolution anyway and theirs currently holds the record for old age.

    Justice and change are not inherently related. Those who want change call it just because who would call themselves unjust? Ditto for the other side. Someone has a quippy name for the rule that goes “any country with Republic or Democracy in its name isn’t.”

    You may resume being 15 and disaffected.
    (apparently I’m in a bad mood today. But don’t wait for an apology)

  • rodander

    From Theodore Dalrymple, in the preface to Our Culture: What’s Left of It (I think):

    This is not to say, of course, that all criticism of social conventions and traditions is destructive or unjustified; surely no society in the world can have existed in which there was not much to criticize. But critics of social institutions and traditions, including writers of imaginative literature, should always be aware that civilization needs conservation as least as much as it needs change, and that immoderate criticism, or criticism from the standpoint of utopian first principles is capable of doing much–indeed devastating–harm. No man is so brilliant that he can work out everything for himself, so that the wisdom of ages has nothing useful to tell him. To imagine otherwise is to indulge in the most egotistical of hubris.

  • Corey

    However, people are so brilliant that they can tell the difference between tired tradition reinforcing itself and “the wisdom of the ages”. It starts with a few, then if there is truth to it, others join.

    “Tradition” is limited by memory, which is limited to lifespan of humans plus whatever myths we continue to pass on. Wisdom is lost every day, with the elderly slowly forgetting, sitting alone in the magnificant poorhouses we have invented for them. Format wars hasten the death of media content, people stop reading the classics, and the United States has a King again.

    I wish I could go back to being 15 and disaffected Jack, and you sound like you could use it too.

  • three blind mice

    Justice and change are not inherently related. Those who want change call it just because who would call themselves unjust?

    However, people are so brilliant that they can tell the difference between tired tradition reinforcing itself and “the wisdom of the ages”. It starts with a few, then if there is truth to it, others join.

    Jack Diederich 1, Corey 0

    truth, like justice, is a relative term used most often to define/defend an absolutist point of view.

    Format wars hasten the death of media content, people stop reading the classics, and the United States has a King again.

    and burnt orange is the new black.

    tastes change corey. get over it.

  • Corey

    “truth, like justice, is a relative term “

    Oooh, your moral relativism is so trendly and cool. Can
    I be like you? I so much want to wander aimlessly through life pointing out how non-absolute everything is and laughing dismissively at people who believe in stuff. How neat.

    “We are nihlists!” — The Big Lebowski

  • three blind mice

    I so much want to wander aimlessly through life pointing out how non-absolute everything is and laughing dismissively at people who believe in stuff.

    apparently, corey, you can no more do this than we can march through life with cromwellian purpose sternly insisting that our own beliefs represent the absolute truths which must be imposed on everyone else.

    “seven years of college, down the drain” – animal house

  • rodander

    But it is just so annoying, to the cool moral relativists, that some of those “beliefs” actually are absolutely true. It would be so much easier (for them) if that weren’t the case.

    “”Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” – 1984

  • knauss

    Thank you for the sharing the extended quote from Burke. I had been meaning to dig out my old college copy to hunt for this section.
    It strikes me that perhaps the free market advocates, “conservatives”, should have paid more heed to it before the utility industries were revolutionized by deregulation. It is not clear that the changes to our infrastructure institutions have been a raving success or secure for us what we need for these times. Worldcom, Global Crossing, et. al.
    Blackouts, shortages, cell phone and out of service public phones that are no use to us in an public emergancy.
    We seem to have forgotten that the institutions evolved to address concerns of public saftey and good and natural monopolies. By this train of logic, the rioters in the streets of Bolivia for water were followers of Burke not Robespierre.

  • rodander

    I’m confused by knauss’ comments. Have not communications services improved in capability yet cost less following deregulation? Can we have imagined, 30 years ago, that long distance phone calls would be as inexpensive as they are today ($10/month unlimited in some wireless plans?)? Data services for what we now pay? Being able to buy one’s one telephone handset and plug it into the wall? And in which public emergency has phone service failed that would not have failed before?

    Indeed, the failure of competitors occurs in competitive markets, esp. when fraud is involved. But really.