Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chesterton as a soft Burkean?

Megan McArdle has an interesting post up on drug development, in which she reproduces the below quote from G.K. Chesterton:

n the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

I know little to nothing about pharmaceutical development, which is the subject of McArdle's post. But the long Chesterton quote did make me think of countless arguments that I've gotten into with Burkean conservatives on gay marriage. There, they usually seem to be arguing that even if I think I understand the general history of marriage as an institution -- how it arose, what purposes it was supposed to serve, and what purposes may no longer be served, I can't possibly. It is just too darn hard. And we are all supposed to sort of sit back and let organic historical forces take their courses, which I imagine functioning sort of like tidal waves or hurricanes. Except that that has never seemed to me to be quite right, because historical forces are nothing more than the aggregate of millions of individual decisions, which are volitional acts. And one does have control over one's volitional acts -- one tiny particle of the hurricane -- even if no one does not have control of the entire hurricane.

Chesterton's formulation seems superior, in my humble opinion. He says that it is okay sometimes for individuals to change or alter social institutions once it appears that they have thought things through. One should not rush to destroy long-standing institutions. But one need not stand back and passively wait for the gales.

No comments:

Post a Comment