Monday, May 5, 2008

I would have been wrong

At Volokh Conspiracy various bloggers are having an argument over Burkean conservatism. I don't in any way think of myself as a Burkean, and I am skeptical of the deference to tradition and status quo that Burkeanism includes. I will never truly understand the idea of preserving tradition for traditions sake in the face of opposition.

But there is a facet of Burke that I do subscribe to: gradualism. I think that huge problems cannot or should not be resolved quickly. I think that quick solutions either fail or simply steamroll the opposition without addressing their concerns.

What gradualism does not mean is opposition to anything happening quickly. It opposes big things happening quickly. Gradualism does not apply to whether we keep troops in Iraq, but it does apply to a general strategy of democratizing the world. In that sense, the idea that quick military impositions could overcome the systematic hurdles is totally against a gradualist approach.

But there are times I would have wanted to be too gradual and if I had been in power, I would have slowed down the progress of freedom. I also know why I would have been wrong.

For example, with regard to Apartheid, I would have favored a slow dismemberment of the system rather than the quick evisceration it got. The system went from the peak of its power in the 1980s to a 'palace coup' in 1990. Within four years, the legal framework of Apartheid was dead and a truly democratic government was elected in 1994.

This example will make me look very bad. However, it is the truth and I write it without animus. At the end of the Civil War, I would have favored a gradual approach to freeing the slaves. I would have argued, in that time and mindset, that a quick changed - and especially a move like the 13th Amendment - would create too much opposition to black freedom. I would have been too pragmatic and not idealistic enough, too willing to compromise with an evil system. Sometimes bad systems need to be shot in the head, not picked apart.

Yet, if I was a powerful person in either scenario I would have favored the side which eventually won, but opposed their methods. I've already talked about graduated emancipation as an alternative, but in a totally different context.

Why would I have been wrong in my gradualist way? Because I could not have seen the popular willingness to make radical changes. There are times when people want a big shift, and some event allows that. I would have thought that wagering so much on a hope like this was too risky, better that it happen slowly and surely. Slowly doesn't mean any specific period of time, but it does mean in stages.

So which way is better? I think more often than not, people aren't ready to make large changes. More often than not, gradual approaches don't force things along. For example, President Bush's advisers must have truly believed that Iraqis would quickly embrace democracy. That would have been a massive shift. Had it worked easily, gradualism would have been wrong again. It turns out that it was right this time; the systematic and cultural networks that would have made democratization quick and popular weren't present.

I will continue to be gradualist. When events prove me wrong, I will say so. But I believe that I will be right more often than not, and that the effect of overreaching is something to be avoided.

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