Tradition and Progress

Some have attributed the resurgence of right-wing populism as a reaction to the abrogation of traditional values. It’s easy to see the truth of this. However, it is not immediately obvious that it is distinctly right-wing phenomenon. Modern conservatism traces its intellectual roots to thinkers like Edmund Burke, who assigned traditional values and norms an important role in the maintenance of social order. Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was laying down the groundwork for the myth of the noble-savage, romanticizing tribal societies as somehow purer and more natural than those in the intensely hierarchical, increasingly market-oriented West.

In both cases, we see a peculiar reverence for traditional order, just differently construed. For Burke, inter-generational change is worthy of resistance. But for Rousseau, it is Western civilization’s centuries long fall from grace that we ought to eye with suspicion. On the right, you can see these views reflected in elderly men and women who hearken back the idealized simplicity of their childhood or a romanticized picture of the world inhabited by their recent forebears as a model for what society ought to be like. Meanwhile, staunch lefties esteem fantasies about the dietary wisdom and delicate conservationism of indigenous and preindustrial societies. What both views have in common is a fallacious tendency to equate antiquity with efficacy.

Large or small, there has probably always been some segment of every generation eager to see evil and decay in the changes wrought by the next. In some ways, it’s a sympathetic perspective. They did things a certain way and that, at least through the biased lens of hindsight, worked out well for them. Now another generation is doing things differently – sometimes radically so. This can range from the “get off my lawn, you damn kids” mentality of old men barking about changing norms around sexuality and recreational drug use to the concerns that genetically modified foods are somehow dangerous.

There is an argument to be made that an exaggerated reverence for tradition is endemic to the human condition. We may have an evolved propensity to replicate existing norms and traditions, either preferential copying the behaviors that seem most prevalent (frequency-dependent transmission), aping the habits of successful individuals (success biased social transmission), or mimicking the traits of individuals widely revered by others (prestige biased transmission). Given the social landscapes that prevailed throughout most of our evolutionary past, this is unsurprising. On generational scales, much of human history has been marked by relative stasis. Doing things the way your parents did them has often been a reliable heuristic for zeroing in on good ways of getting by. Indeed, this kind of social learning is actually quite widespread in the animal kingdom for precisely this reason. It allows organisms to home in on solutions to problems rapidly, giving them an advantage over organisms that have to rely on the accumulation of fortuitous mutations to meet adaptive challenges.

Things are different now. Since the dawn of the Enlightenment and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the rate of social and economic change has been accelerating. We have since discovered that some traditional beliefs – the divine rule of monarchs, the segregation of races, virtually every pre-scientific explanation for natural phenomena – were gravely misplaced. Further still, in our embrace of liberalized commerce and the free and open exchange of ideas, we have unleashed the most powerful and unpredictable force for social change the human species has ever known. Populations are growing larger and larger and more and more densely interconnected, creating the conditions for a nearly continuous long-run acceleration of social and technological change. In this, we are forced to recognize that tradition and liberty cannot be equally sacred. However deeply set, this may be one of the many situations in which our evolutionary priming leaves us ill-suited to deal with modern challenges.

The trick lies in recognizing that there’s nothing implicitly good or bad about traditional ways of doing things. Nor is there anything implicitly good or bad about the new ideas that replace them. Any change should be evaluated in terms of principles external to itself: harm, fairness, proportionality, the alleviation of suffering, the improvement of human life, and so forth. More fundamentally, it should be recognized that the engines of change – free speech, open debate and criticism, the processes of scientific discovery – are precious.

Inevitably, change will sometimes be deleterious. Sometimes we come up with new methods of production that are environmentally devastating and sometimes social change encourages tolerance for behaviors an older generation finds strange or anathema. To my mind, only the former is particularly problematic in any practical or ethical sense, but the larger point is that change happens. Any number of perspectives can be deployed to reveal potential problems with its fruits. But, at least in terms of  the grand sweep of recent history, it has tended to be for the best. Diseases have been cured. Global poverty has decreased. The circle of human rights has expanded. Wars have become less frequent and less costly, both in terms of lives lost and treasure wasted. Our scientific understanding of the natural world has grown.  That’s what we call progress. Its existence should serve as a caution to anyone eager to point to the habits of yesterday as the best guideposts for how to live today.

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