Back in July, I wrote the following:
To the conservative, traditions arise naturally from the workings of human nature, as part of the ontogeny and organic development of societies. They are not the result of scientific planning or sociological theorizing — and like biological species themselves, they only come into view in retrospect. They are, in a sense, part of the “extended phenotype” of our species and its various subgroups, as languages are; and just as languages do, they naturally adapt to, and come to represent, those things that actually matter to the various human groups from which they arise. (Many have been, at least up till now, more or less universal.) In this way they contain a great deal of deeply-buried knowledge about the optimal functioning of the human social organism, often for reasons, and in ways, that themselves need not be explicitly represented in the organism’s consciousness. Because of this, disrupting them will always have unknowable consequences — and so, at least, tradition justifies respect for its embodied wisdom, and caution as regards casual tampering.
To those on the Left, traditions are artifacts. Rather than being organic outgrowths and aspects of human nature itself, they are human creations; they are social technology, whose only purpose is to control and manipulate human behavior. In this view, human “nature” hardly exists at all, and traditions are wholly external things; indeed almost everything about human behavior and human life is external to the individual. This means that to mold human beings, or human societies, into any desirable configuration is simply a matter of discarding traditions, and inventing new ones, until we obtain the correct result. Because of this, tradition justifies very little indeed.
This is hardly an original idea; it has been prominent in Western discourse at least since Edmund Burke.
In his latest newsletter, Jonah Goldberg addresses this theme, in the context of a review he is preparing for Commentary of Yuval Levin’s new book about Burke and Thomas Paine.
Goldberg writes (my emphasis):
The challenge for each new generation is figuring out what’s worth keeping and what worth tinkering with. The progressive attitude is that everything is eligible not just for tinkering, but wholesale replacement. The people who lived yesterday were idiots, but we are geniuses! The conservative attitude is to assume that our parents and grandparents weren’t fools and that they did some things for good reasons. But — and here is the Hayekian part — it’s also possible that some things our forebears bequeathed us are good for no “reason” at all. Friedrich Hayek argued that many of our institutions and customs emerged from “spontaneous order” — that is they weren’t designed on a piece of paper, they emerged, authorless, to fulfill human needs through lived experience, just as our genetic “wisdom” is acquired through trial and error. Paths in the forest aren’t necessarily carved out on purpose. Rather they emerge over years of foot traffic.
This reminds me of a story Kevin Williamson tells in his book.
There is a lovely apocryphal story, generally told about Dwight D. Eisenhower during his time as president of Columbia University: The school was growing, necessitating an expansion of the campus, which produced a very hot dispute between two groups of planners and architects about where the sidewalks should go. One camp insisted that it was obvious — self-evident! — that the sidewalks had to be arranged thus, as any rational person could see, while the other camp argued for something very different, with the same appeals to obviously, self-evident, rational evidence. Legend has it that Eisenhower solved the problem by ordering that the sidewalks not be laid down at all for a year: The students would trample paths in the grass, and the builders would then pave over where the students were actually walking. Neither of the plans that had been advocated matched what the students actually did when left to their own devices. There are two radically different ways of looking at the world embedded in that story: Are our institutions here to tell us where to go, or are they here to help smooth the way for us as we pursue our own ends, going our own ways?
The paths were formally recognized by the planners only after the paths were created through human experience. In the parable of the fence, Chesterton says you must know why the fence was built before you can tear it down. But Burke and Hayek get at something even deeper: What if no one built the fence? Okay, that would be weird. But metaphorically, what if no one built it. Or what if everyone built the fence without realizing it. What if we are surrounded by fences that were never consciously built or planned but were instead the natural consequence of lived experience like the footpath at Columbia?
My inner Hayek and Burke believes this to be the case. So much of what makes civilization civilized is intangible, spontaneous, and mysterious. An unknowable number of our greatest laws are hidden, our greatest wisdom is authorless, and our most valuable treasures are in our hearts. This should foster enormous humility about how to out-think humanity.
Indeed it should, and when I began to write this post I thought I’d leave it there.
But another organic outgrowth of human nature, another feature of our extended phenotype, is relentless technological advancement, which can be as disruptive as any social engineering. Even simple ideas, like the stirrup, can have world-changing consequences — and the pace of technological change is now accelerating exponentially. The coming decades of technological innovation hold the genuine promise of revolutionary liberation — from disease, from hunger, from poverty, from toil, and even from the confines of Earth, and of our own bodies — but will also make possible terrifying new forms of tyranny, wielding powers whose breadth knows no Earthly limit, and whose depth extends into our very cells. Even the most oppressive despot of a century ago could do little to affect the day-to-day, and moment-to-moment, lives of his far-flung subjects; in recent years we have made possible, and blithely accepted, a level of surveillance and control that has never existed before in the history of the world.
While I was at Singularity University last year, I heard someone say “If you can see the road ahead, you aren’t going fast enough.” The speaker made his remark, to a room full of like-minded Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, in a spirit of can-do enthusiasm, but it made my blood run cold.
In both this newsletter and a recent column, Mr. Goldberg discusses the disruptive power of technology, and touches on one of its impending effects: that minimum wage increases are a boon to robots.
From the newsletter:
If you make human labor more expensive, non-human labor becomes more attractive. If you tell car-wash owners that they have to pay their employees $100 an hour, the owner will most likely search his desk for that business card from that salesman from Acme Robots.
Robots have lots of things going for them. They don’t steal from the cash register. They don’t show up late with some sob story about how their dog ate their car keys. They don’t spit in the customer’s food or lick the tacos and post pictures of it on the Internet. Robots don’t file sexual-harassment suits just because you got over-served at the Christmas party and thought it would be funny to hand out photocopies of your butt.
…My main point is that conservatism — full-spectrum, traditional conservatism and not just a checklist of timeless principles, or a political agenda in Washington — requires an appreciation, even love, for the way things are. And technology forces change more than ideas do (indeed, many of our ideas are simply the sparks that fly from the friction of technological change). Sure, Richard Weaver was right when he said, “Ideas have consequences.” But you know what are really consequential? Thingamabobs, geegaws, doohickeys, and whoziwhatsits.
We’ve heard before that industrial machines, and then computers, were going to cause disruptive change — and so they have. They have brought many, many blessings, but Mr. Goldberg is right to point out that robots and other intelligent systems are now about to displace a lot of working people as minimum wages rise.
This is, however, about a lot more than industrial machines and robots. I don’t think most people yet realize just how fast the arc of technological innovation is bending skyward right now, and what that’s really going to mean. I hang around with the people who are making this stuff happen, and they don’t know what it’s going to mean. Nobody does. It seems, though, that it takes a conservative temperament to find this worrisome.
We’re going so fast that we can’t see the road ahead. That may seem just about right to my friend at SU, but in my darker moments it scares the bejesus out of me.