Liberty Matters

Policy AND or VERSUS Polity Conservatism


I'd like to thank Dan Klein for the clarification of his idea of polity conservatism, which I did not fully understand earlier. (See Daniel B. Klein, "Liberalism Remains Primary", above.) I now see better the distinction between polity conservatism and policy conservatism. However, though I see that there is such a distinction, I still am not sure why the arguments for polity conservatism would not also support policy conservatism. Take the point that established ways have been through a selection process and are thus likely to be adaptive: why wouldn't this be just as true of policies as of features of national character? Similarly, take the points that our knowledge of the workings of society is slight, and that happiness requires tranquility: wouldn't these also support policy conservatism, i.e., a reluctance to change particular government policies?
In response to my (very brief) objection to one of his initial observations, Dan points out that there is some value in people's being allowed to continue on in the ways they have grown accustomed to. Here, there may not be much disagreement between us. I agree that there is some value to this. I would give a utilitarian explanation: changing things that people have grown accustomed to often makes people unhappy (partly directly, and partly indirectly, because of the costs of finding new ways of accommodating different practices or policies). So I think we can agree that one should not change either the polity or particular policies for no reason.
I would add, however, that I don't think this consideration will make very much difference in very many cases. That is because, first, I think it is a consideration of only modest weight, since it is only a temporary cost – in most cases, when we change practices, people will shortly get used to the new practice, and it will cease to bother them. Second, I think the reasons in favor of making changes are often very weighty – often, existing practices are actually seriously unjust – or at least, the proponents of reform think that they are. So in most cases, raising this modest utilitarian concern will properly have little effect on the debate.
To take one example, many people have grown used to the current regime of drug prohibition. Drug dealers, crime bosses, DEA agents, prosecutors, and so on have all adapted to this regime. Indeed, they would suffer major losses if we switched away from prohibition. That is some reason to maintain prohibition. But that really is not an important consideration, when compared to the arguments for thinking that drug prohibition is a major injustice.
Dan probably agrees with me on that case. But a similar point applies to other cases. Suppose, e.g., that someone thinks that there is a right to health care, and therefore, the government is obligated to ensure its availability to the indigent. That person would not be and should not be impressed with the observation that many people have grown accustomed to a status quo in which there are no such guarantees – that just isn't an important consideration, compared to the issue of whether there is a right to health care.