On the Limits of Empirical Conservatism…

British conservatism is in a depressing state. While the Conservative Party remains predominant in politics it is liberal in all but name. One of few causes for tentative optimism is the growth of what might be called empirical conservatism, defined here as scepticism towards human progress, and support for traditional institutions, based on data from the natural and social sciences. There is no movement but there is a trend. I think of Ed West on diversity, Andrew Sabisky on education, Adam Perkins on welfare, Gregory Clark on economics and Ben Southwood on city planning.

Empiricism is part of our British heritage. Ours is, of course, the nation of Newton, Darwin and Crick. As well as being a feature of our cultural traditions it befits our national temperament. We are an adventurous people, but also, if to a lesser extent in recent times, a calm, hardheaded one.

British conservatism has long been more secular and hard-nosed than its romantic and flamboyant American cousin. It has also been more academic. American conservatives remember the William Buckley of talk shows and televised debates. British conservatives remember the Michael Oakeshott of LSE study rooms.

Empirical conservatives can make full use of opportunities this tradition offers. Genetic research, demographic analysis, psychology and other areas are full of insights that lend weight to conservative principles. Human nature is constrained. Culture is deeply-rooted. Ritual is necessitous. While appealing to the public is essential, marshalling this data gives one a good means of appealing to high-status groups and individuals in a language they respect.

There are qualifications that cry out to be made. Science should not be politicised. The analysis of scientific conclusions will, of course, always be political but the process of collecting and systematising data should be objective. This is obvious but worth restating. What is also obvious but hard to accept is that one should be prepared to find data which defies one’s preconceptions as, of course, in a vast, complicated and unfeeling world there will always be phenomena that offend or irritate us.

Sometimes, then, traditional ideas will be discredited by newfound evidence. But here our empiricism confronts its limits. As rigorous as evidence-based policy wonks might be, their biases reveal themselves in their interpretations of the significance of their data. What if empirical conclusions suggest that replacing or transforming institutions will have positive effects? We should, I think, have a bias towards preserving them regardless.

Evidence for policies as yet unimplemented will always be incomplete, failing to account, at least somewhat, for consequences of scale, and for unforeseen variables of future events. The more radical the policies the more dangerous the gamble on being right.

Extraordinary evidence must exist, then, but also extraordinary reason for change. We live in societies of unprecedented peace and comfort and should not endanger such conditions without damn good cause to do so. How confident should a successful businessman be that gambling his family home and children’s inheritance will prove successful? How large does the reward for such gambling have to be? It is unexciting, perhaps, but I think “extremely” and “enormous”.

This thought was inspired by Ilya Somin, who, attempting to ease conservative fears regarding immigration, has offered evidence to believe that American immigrants assimilate successfully. All of his points are debatable. The debate should take place. But even if the evidence suggests what Somin claims, tentative evidence, based on limited numbers of subjects and limited time in which to study their behaviour, is not enough for us to judge the consequences of the rapid, unprecedented, irreversible and extensive transformation of the American national character. Americans should ask themselves if it is enough to justify the magnitude of the dangers this entails. Nations are not science laboratories and experiments should be limited by knowledge of how little room there is for failure.

Dramatic change can be justified, not least as a response to dramatic events, but conservatives should admit that in empirical debate we are not playing on level grounds. (Leftists appreciate the wisdom of this when it comes to armed intervention. As they talk about possible second order consequences of invading Syria, Marxists sound like conservative.)

Such pessimism can be unappealing, of course, but science is not enough to form a worldview. As imaginative creatures we also require narrative and ritual. But those are stories for another day.

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