(Fourth in the series promised here. Usual disclaimers apply: this is work in progress and so it is still a bit muddled, though comments are welcome).
One of the more promising epistemic arguments for conservatism is the argument from resilience. The general idea is that we owe deference to certain institutions (and so should not change them) not because they are “optimal” for the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but because they have survived the test of time in a variety of circumstances without killing us or otherwise making us worse off than most relevant alternatives. This argument might be used, for example, to justify constitutional immobility in the USA: even if the US constitution is not optimal for every imaginable circumstance, it is tolerable in most (“we’re not dead yet”); after all, it has lasted more than 200 years with relatively minor changes to its basic structure (save for the treatment of slavery, of course; but let us focus only on the basic structure of constitutional government); and if we have no good reason to think that changes to the constitution would improve it (because the effects of any change are exceedingly difficult to predict, and would interact in very complicated ways with all sorts of other factors, a caveat that would not necessarily apply to the treatment of slavery in the original constitutional text, which we may take as an obvious wrong), and some reason to think that the costs of ill-advised changes would be large (“we could die,” or at the very least unchain a dynamic leading to tyranny, oppression, and economic collapse), we are better off not changing it at all and putting up with its occasional inefficiencies.
The oldest and in some ways the most powerful version of this argument can be found in Plato’s Statesman (from around 292b to 302b). There the Eleatic Stranger (the main character in this dialogue) argues for a very strict form of legal conservatism, suggesting that we owe nearly absolute deference to current legal rules in the absence of genuine political experts who have the necessary knowledge to change them for good. This might seem extreme (indeed, it has seemed extreme to many interpreters), but given the assumptions the Stranger makes, the argument seems rather compelling.
The basic logic is as follows. (For those interested in a “chapter and verse” interpretation of the relevant passages, see my paper here [ungated], especially the second half; it’s my attempt to make sense of Platonic conservatism.) In a changing environment, policy has to constantly adjust to circumstances; the optimal policy is extremely “nonconservative.” But perfect adjustment would require knowledge (both empirical and normative) that we don’t have. In Platonic terminology, you would need a genuine statesman with very good (if not perfect) knowledge of the forms of order (the just, the noble, and the good) and very good (if not perfect) knowledge of how specific interventions cause desired outcomes; in modern terminology, you would need much better social science than we actually have and a much higher degree of confidence in the rightness of our normative judgments than the “burdens of judgment” warrant. Worse, in general we cannot distinguish the people who have the necessary knowledge from those who do not; if unscrupulous power-hungry and ignorant sophists can always mimic the appearance of genuine statesmen, then the problem of selecting the right leaders (those who actually know how to adjust the policy and are properly motivated to do so) is as hard as the problem of determining the appropriate policy for changing circumstances.
If the first best option of policy perfectly tailored to circumstances is impossible, then (the Eleatic Stranger argues) the second best option is to find those policies that were correlated in the past with relative success according to some clear and widely shared criterion (the “not dead yet” or “could be worse” criterion), and stick to them. Note that the idea is not that these policies are right or optimal because they have survived the test of time (in contrast to some modern Hayek-type “selection” arguments for conservatism), or even that we know if or why they “work” (in the sense that they haven’t killed us yet). On the contrary, the Stranger actually assumes that these policies are wrong (inefficient, non-optimal, unjust); they are just not wrong enough to kill us yet (or, more precisely, not wrong enough for us to bear the risk of trying something different), even if we happen to live in the highly competitive environment of fourth century Greece. (The true right policy can only be known to the possessor of genuine knowledge; but ex hypothesi there is no such person, or s/he cannot be identified). And he also assumes that we do not know if the reason we are not dead yet has to do with these past policies; correlation is not causation, and the Stranger is very clear that by sticking to past policies we run large risks if circumstances change enough to render them dangerous. But the alternative, in his view, is not a world in which we can simply figure out which policies would work as circumstances change with some degree of confidence, but rather a world in which proposals are randomly made without any knowledge at all of whether they would work or not, and where the costs of getting the wrong policy are potentially very high (including potentially state death). If these conditions hold, sticking to policies that were correlated with relative “success” (by the “not dead yet” or “could be worse” criterion) is then rational. (There are some complications; the Stranger’s position is not as absolute as I’m making it seem here, as I describe in my paper, and Plato’s final position seems to be that you can update policy on the basis of observing sufficient correlation between policies and reasonable levels of flourishing and survival even in the absence of perfect knowledge).
Does this argument work? In order to understand the circumstances under which it might work, let us recast the argument in the terminology of a “fitness landscape.” Let us assume that, in some problem domain, we have some good reason to believe that the “fitness landscape” of potential solutions (potential policies) has many deep valleys (bad policies with large costs), some local but not very high “peaks” (ok policies) and only one very high peak (optimal policies). Assume further that this “fitness landscape” is changing, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly; a reasonably ok policy in some set of circumstances may not remain reasonably ok in others. Under these circumstances, an agent stuck in one of the local peaks has very little reason to optimize and lots of reason to stick to their current policy if it has reason to think that its heuristics for traversing the fitness landscape are not powerful enough to consistently avoid the “deeps.” Conservatism is then rational, unless your local “peak” starts to sink below some acceptable threshold of fitness (in which case you may be dead whether or not you stick to the policy).
For a concrete example, consider the space of possible political systems. The vast majority of imaginable political systems may be correlated with some very bad outcomes, sometimes very bad –oppression, economic collapse, slavery, loss of political independence, even physical death. A smaller set – including liberal democratic systems, but potentially including other systems, are reasonably ok; they are correlated with a measure of stability and other good things, though (let us assume) we have no good way to know if they actually cause those good outcomes or if the correlation occurs by chance, and we have no reason to assume that these are the best possible outcomes that can be achieved, or that these good outcomes will be forever associated with these political systems. Finally, let us assume that there exists some utopian political system which would induce the best possible outcomes (however defined) for current circumstances (imagine, for the sake of argument, that this is some form of communism that had solved the calculation problem and the democracy problem plaguing “real existing communism”), but that we do not have enough knowledge (neither our social science or our theory of justice is advanced enough) to describe it with any certainty. Does it make sense to try to optimize, i.e., to attempt to find and implement the best political system, in these circumstances? I would think not; at best, we may be justified in tinkering a bit around the edges. Both the uncertainty about which political system is best and the potential costs of error are enormous, and circumstances change too quickly for the “best” system to be easily identified via exhaustive search. Hence conservatism about the basic liberal democratic institutions might be justified. (Note that this does not necessarily apply to specific laws or policies: here the costs are not nearly as large, and the uncertainty about the optimal policy might be smaller, or our heuristics more powerful. So constitutional conservatism is compatible with non-conservatism about non-constitutional policies).
On the other hand, it is important to stress that the “not dead yet” criterion is compatible with slow death or sudden destruction, and somehow seems highly unsatisfactory as a justification for conservatism in many cases. Consider a couple of real-life examples. First, take the case of a population in the island of St Kilda, off the coast of Scotland, described in Russell Hardin’s book How do you Know? The Economics of Ordinary Knowledge. According to Hardin, this population collapsed over the course of the 19th century in great part due to a strange norm of infant care:
It is believed that a mixture of Fulmar oil and dung was spread on the wound where the umbilical cord was cut loose. The infants commonly died of tetanus soon afterwards. The first known tetanus death was in 1798, the last in 1891. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, eight of every tenth children died of tetanus. By the time this perverse pragmatic norm was understood and antiseptic practices were introduced, the population could not recover from the loss of its children (p. 115, citing McLean 1980, pp. 121-124)
Though this norm was bound to decimate the population eventually, it worked its malign power over the course of a whole century, slowly enough that it may have been hard to connect the norm with the results. And, perversely, it seems that the conservatism of the St Kilda’s was perfectly rational by the argument above: a population that has that kind of infant mortality rate is probably well advised not to try anything that might push them over the edge even quicker, especially as they had no rational basis to think that the Fulmar oil mixed with dung was the root cause of their troubles (rather than, for example, the judgment of god or something of the sort).
Or consider the example of the Norse settlers of Greenland described in Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Living in a tough place to begin with, they were reluctant to change their diet or pastoral practices as the climate turned colder and their livelihood turned ever more precarious, despite having some awareness of alternative practices that could have helped them (the fishing practices of the Inuit native peoples, for example). So they eventually starved and died out. Yet their conservatism was not irrational: given their tough ecological circumstances, changes in subsistence routines were as likely to have proved fatal to them as not, and they could have little certainty that alternative practices would work for them. (Though it is worth noting that part of the problem here was less epistemic than cultural: the Greenland Norse probably defined themselves against the Inuit, and hence could not easily learn from them).
In sum, the resilience argument for conservatism seems most likely to “work” when we are very uncertain about which policies would constitute an improvement on our current circumstances; the potential costs of error are large (we have reason to think that the distribution of risk is “fat tailed” on the “bad” side, to use the economic jargon); and current policies have survived previous changes in circumstances well enough (for appropriate values of “enough”). This does not ensure that such policies are “optimal”; only that they are correlated with not being dead yet (even if we cannot be sure that they caused our survival). And in some circumstances, that seems like a remarkable achievement.