When it seemed that conservatism was finally settling into some defined boundaries under the presidency of Donald Trump, however fitfully—into Trump alt-populists, Never Trump former neocons, establishmentarian veterans of the two Bush administrations, expert/reform conservatives, social communitarians, big L libertarians, and a residue of libertarian-conservative fusionists—here comes Anglo-American Toryism as the proper resolution.
Princeton University Press had just published a new paperback edition of my book, Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology. It argues for using the tools given by our new computational technology to help democracy adapt to our accelerating rate of social change.
The basic insight of the book should be congenial to friends of the classical liberal tradition in political thought. It is to deploy decentralized mechanisms that modern technology makes possible to improve self-government. For instance, the internet greatly facilitates betting pools, called information or prediction markets, which permit people to bet on the occurrence of future events. Such markets already gauge election results more accurately than polls. If legalized and modestly subsidized, they could also foretell many policy results better than politicians or experts alone. We could then better predict the consequences of changes in educational policy on educational outcomes or a stimulus program on economic growth. In short, such markets would provide a visible hand to help guide policy results. Unfortunately, while such markets are a public good, our government now impedes them at every turn.
The internet today also encourages dispersed media like blogs to intensify confrontations about contending policy claims.
At the Federalist Society national student symposium, my colleague Josh Kleinfeld was the deserving recipient of the Paul Bator Award given to an outstanding law professor under 40. His beautiful acceptance speech focused on the importance of Burkean conservativism. And Kleinfeld is correct: the right owes an enduring debt to Burke’s skepticism of ordering society according to the abstractions of the kind advocated by the French philosophes. That debt is all the greater, now that these types of philosophes have gone global.
But I do wonder whether one aspect of Burkean conservatism—deference to past historical experience—deserves quite as much weight today as it once did. Burke had both religious and more instrumental reasons for valuing that experience. For Burke, history was “the known march of the ordinary providence of God.” More secularly, it was also the best repository of human prudence and wisdom and thus the best guide to policy in an uncertain world.
But the value of historical experience as a guide for policy depends on the technological and social rate of change and on the availability of alternative methods of sifting experience.
Big Data makes the past more present. Recently, a website provided a virtual tour of a picture exhibition that Jane Austen saw in 1813. This site demonstrates how information technology, including big data, can make us closer to the past than ever before. Indeed, we are becoming in some sense closer to past than the denizens of the past themselves. Few people in 1813 attended this famous exhibition, but everyone today is only a click away from a virtual tour. This increasing capacity has large implications in subjects as diverse as literary criticism and constitutional interpretation.
For instance, another example of our capacity to get closer to the past would be our ability to map all the uses of a word (like commerce) at the time that word was used in a document (like the Constitution). Few people could attend the 1813 art exhibition but no one in 1789 could systematically catalog all the uses of a word.