In my last post, I discussed how the Enlightenment gave a boost to liberty by making progress central to the aims of society and the scientific method central to its processes. But these new developments, in turn, raised serious questions about the value of tradition. If past is to be surpassed, tradition becomes less revered. If the scientific method is prized, less formal ways of knowing, like tradition, become devalued. Finally, progress continuously changes society, making traditional practices a less good guide for a future that is ever accelerating away from the past.
Thus, ever since the Enlightenment, tradition has to struggle for its place as a contending category for social organization. Nevertheless, it still has relevance. Here are three important remaining functions for tradition, ideas that have been distilled for me in my discussions at the Tradition Project.
Tradition as a Buffer. Even assuming that other methods are better at bringing out progress, progress itself has costs. It destabilizes society, and sometimes alienates citizens who do not feel they have a place in the world progress has created. Thus, even as society progresses, it must respect traditions to avoid social upheaval. Edmund Burke, the greatest defender of tradition in Modernity saw this value, among others, for tradition.
In A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy Joel Mokyr has located the source of the industrial revolution in the culture of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment prioritized the idea of human progress. As a result, people began to think constantly of finding material in the world to make new technologies for human betterment. The Enlightenment also replaced more scholastic modes of thought with scientific method. As a result, people began intensively to test both new theories to see if they explained the world and new mechanisms to see how they would move the world. As a consequence, the Western economy began to grow at a rate never before seen in history.
A Culture for Growth is a wonderful book to which I cannot do justice in a short post. Mokyr is in equal measures a great intellectual historian and a great economist. He sees the cultural change of the Enlightenment as transforming the incentives for economic and intellectual activity. It removed taboos that impeded progress and created a market where the best new ideas rapidly gained a large market share of elite approval. This book is welcome for many reasons, but not least because it is a blow to tedious, tendentious, and false political correctness about the roots our our prosperity. The Enlightenment was indeed key to material progress that helped the least well off, first in the West and now more broadly throughout the globe. And yes, it was the product almost entirely of dead white men, and relatively wealthy ones at that.
Although this is not his focus, I believe Mokyr’s book also establishes the crucial link between the levers of the Enlightenment and the growth of liberty.
The tension between conservatism and classical liberalism began with the Enlightenment’s insistence on the freedom of inquiry necessary to advance science. And science in turn was to empower man to dominate nature—learn its secrets and turn it to man’s will. Francis Bacon saw this free inquiry as creating prosperity, lengthening life, and ultimately perhaps forestalling death.
This core tenet of the Enlightenment poses profound difficulties for conservatism. It unleashes technology as a driving force in human affairs, continually upsetting the status quo and requiring the reworking of human conventions. Some of these conventions are social, like the sense of settled hierarchy that was dissolved by the markets that freedom and technological innovation generated. Other revolutions were even more profound, because they reversed conventions that defended an understanding of what was natural in man. For instance, technologies that separate birth from reproduction are the heart of the rise of family reordering and even identity politics.
But the challenge to conservatism is deeper than the new realities that technology creates. Conservatism posits that man should in some sense live in accordance or harmony with nature. Bacon’s view, in contrast, is that man should plunder nature for energy, for longevity– for everything that man desires.
The classical liberal order has a paradox at its heart. It provides everyone the liberty to pursue their own happiness. Yet it needs enough public spiritedness and virtue to maintain the order that permits the pursuit of liberty. Many internal institutions in the liberal state try to address this paradox, including the Constitution, but external factors play a role as well and one of the most important is the presence of children.
One problem for the liberal order is that individuals and groups so often consult their own interest rather than the public interest in the public sphere. At the federal level, the mild supermajority rule created by tricameralism (the two houses and the President) and stronger supermajority rule for constitutional amendments try to address this by making enactments hard to repeal. This legislative stickiness creates something of a veil of ignorance. People are not as sure where they will be in the future and thus are more likely to consider the public interest rather than their private interest in deciding whether to approve them. Children help thicken the veil of ignorance. The position of one’s children is even more uncertain than one’s own.
Classical liberal democracies also have an innate tendency to overspend and over borrow.
Fiddler on the Roof not only contains wonderful lyrics and music, but brilliantly captures an essential political dynamic of the West—the conflict between claims of tradition and the Enlightenment. It is also appropriate that the conflict takes place in the Jewish community, because Judaism prefigured that conflict. Sometimes it is said that the West is forged by the tension between Jerusalem and Athens—between religious tradition and philosophical principle, but I believe the conflict is present in the Bible, particularly in books like Job where the people of God argue with God on the basis of implicit principles. Moreover, it was Baruch Spinoza, an excommunicated Jew, who laid the groundwork of the radical enlightenment that intensified conflict with tradition and gave us modernity.
The theme of the musical is introduced in the first song, appropriately entitled “Tradition.” Tevye, the everyman protagonist, states that traditions are what keep his people in “balance.” (The song subtly implies other traditions perform the same function for other people, like Orthodox Russians). Without tradition, he says, a person is like a Fiddler on the Roof, always in danger of falling into the abyss. The entire play can be seen as a commentary on that statement, giving it shape and nuance. It becomes clear that traditions themselves are fiddlers on the roof, always in danger of falling themselves. And what prompts discarding are claims of enlightenment principles.