Timothy Sandefur has another post up on gradualism, commenting on my response. Sandefur clarifies his point as a criticism of the impulse of some libertarians to invest Hayek’s view of spontaneous order with too much weight. He says,
“[The point of the post] is to point out what I think is a terrible habit among some libertarians and conservatives of abusing the concept of spontaneous order or social evolution, in ways that render the concept trivial, or that just totally ignore the actual ingredients of successful social reform.”
I wasn’t so much critiquing that point as attempting to clarify my understanding of Burke’s challenge to the French Revolution–and emphasizing that grand projects to forcibly remake the whole of society are usually doomed to failure. My point isn’t that constructivist rationalism is any worse than spontaneous order (or vice-versa), only that the institutions of society are abandoned at great peril. Partly it’s a difference between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. If the American Revolution can be seen as a sort of culmination of Enlightenment thought, the French Revolution is the culmination of Romanticism. Where the enlightenment stressed reason and political liberty, the romantics emphasized emotion over reason and were consequently more concerned with material well-being and egalitarianism than with political liberty. The result was the very romantic notion that both social structures and human nature are mere plastic to be reformed at will by benevolent governors. The problem wasn’t that the French revolution elevated “constructivist rationalism” over “spontaneous order” it was that it destroyed any semblance of spontaneous order and submitted the general will to the constructivist rationalism of a few. It didn’t attempt to make men free, it wanted to make men better–and that’s always a dangerous prospect.
The French Revolution wasn’t bad because it was sudden, it was bad because it didn’t make anybody free. Sandefur says,
“the point is that it is dishonest for Burkeans/Hayekians to use it as an example of the alleged inevitable failure of constructivist rationalism, without also keeping in mind that if nothing had been done—if “gradualism” had been the word of the day—the result would have been more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.”
But all it resulted in was “more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.” It was the mere substitution of one tyranny for another. It wasn’t a failure of constructivist rationalism for having been planned, it was a failure of constructivist rationalism because it substituted the command of the tyrant for judgment of the individual. In contrast, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement represent projects that resulted in greater liberty–they were planned, they were organized, but their goal was to allow the kind of decentralized liberty that gives rise to spontaneous order.
I take Hayek and Burke to imply that social reform must be conducted with deep concern over the freedom of the individual to make his own decisions. Neither Hayek nor Burke suggest that we abandon conscious decision making or forsake deliberate efforts to reform society, rather they remind us that we cannot substitute our own desires and prejudices for the people we purport to set free. In this sense, the indictment against constructivist rationalism is the indictment of the tyrant.
A quick aside: Sandefur quotes my comment about the civil rights movement: “the civil rights movement, while violent, was conducted entirely within the constraints and confines of the law [which is definitely not true, but let’s put that to one side].” Just to clarify, I should not have said “entirely within the constraints and confines of the law.” Sandefur is correct in pointing out the absurdity of that claim. If I could amend my claim, I would say that the movement was conducted largely within the constraints and confines of the law. The movement was at heart a movement of reform, not revolution, it sought a change in the law not a complete destruction of the law.