I’m catching up on email. From a reader:
I enjoyed reading yeterday’s essay. Edifying and entertaining. But one quibble. In the piece you say that “[t]he Progressives revived what amounted to the medieval view of society as a living organism with the state — run by experts — as the new king.” Now, I thought the idea that society is a living organism was an idea favored by conservatives and that it stands in marked opposition to the liberal notion that society is a machine that can be tinkered with to achieve a desired result. Allow me to quote from an essay by Owen Harries, Editor in Chief of the National Interest from 1985-2001, that appeared in the November 13, 2003 issue of the American Conservative:
Society, for [Edumund] Burke, is neither a collection of loosely related individuals nor a mechanism with interchangeable parts. It is a living organism, and anything that affects the well being of any part of it will affect the whole. It is, therefore, he insists, “with infinite caution that any man ought to venture on pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purpose of society.”
It’s my impression that, at the level of theory, the notion that society is a living organism, or at least akin to one, is extremely important to conservative thought. Any thoughts?
Me: I’ve actually thought about this quite a bit. I’ve written a lot about how I agree with Burke and Hayek about the organic evolution of society. But the key difference is that the Progressives used Organicism (if that’s a word) in a different way, even if the rhetoric sometimes sounds the same. The Progressives used Darwinian theory to annoint the State. They made it into the brain of a single organism. In his Leaders of Men, Wilson at times talks about the people like they are easily manipulated set-pieces, of no consequence as individuals.
Owen Harries’ language notwithstanding, that’s not the Burkean nor Hayekian view. Their organic society is more like an ecosystem, in which it’s very difficult to tell how everything relates to everything else. In the conservative organic society certain insitutions — Churches, traditions, customs, language etc — evolve over time and it would be folly to presume that we understand all of the collective intelligence and trial and error that went into them. So a Hayekian conservative might think it’s nuts to redefine marriage on a whim while a Progressive in the mold of Margaret Sanger would see nothing wrong with refining the rules of marriage.
Here’s how I put it an old column:
Instead, Burke — like Hayek, Chesterton, and others — put his faith in tradition. Tradition is not merely “the way we’ve always done it.” Tradition is the distillation of thousands of years of trial, error, and modest correction. Tradition contains volumes of unexpressed knowledge that has been passed from one generation to another. We do not know why we do everything we do, because we are not omniscient historians. We are not conscious of all the painful trial and error that went into our habit of cooking food, but that doesn’t mean it’s a totally arbitrary practice. Knowledge isn’t just in books and journal articles, it is in our architecture and our language and a million habits and traditions we — until recently — accepted without much questioning. Think about how much accumulated wisdom is represented in our use of currency, and yet that practice predates the written arguments for currency by thousands of years. As Friedrich Hayek (a thoroughly Burkean libertarian) wrote, “more ‘intelligence’ is incorporated in the system of rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts and surroundings.” So when Burke says, “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other,” he’s saying that tradition is a recognition of what works over what some “expert” thinks will work without benefit of precedent. “Tradition,” wrote Chesterton, paraphrasing Burke, “is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” And when we live by their example, we are giving them a vote.
The Progressives loathed tradition. They believed Darwinism proved that the old dogmas could be erased by state-empowered experts. And why not? Such experts served as the brain of the entire society.