In my last post, I examined Rand’s attack on the argument from faith. Now we’ll take a look at her attack on the argument from tradition:
Now consider the second argument: the attempt to justify capitalism on the ground of tradition. Certain groups are trying to switch the word “conservative” into the exact opposite of its modern American usage, to switch it back to its nineteenth-century meaning, and to put this over on the public. These groups declare that to be a “conservative” means to uphold the status quo, the given, the established, regardless of what it might be, regardless of whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, defensible or indefensible. They declare that we must defend the American political system not because it is right, but because our ancestors chose it, not because it is good, but because it is old . . . .
The argument that we must respect “tradition” as such, respect it merely because it is a “tradition,” means that we must accept the values other men have chosen, merely because other men have chosen them—with the necessary implication of: who are we to change them? The affront to a man’s self-esteem, in such an argument, and the profound contempt for man’s nature are obvious.
Once again, Rand displays her ignorance of conservatism. Conservatives like Burke don’t respect tradition merely because it is “tradition.” What they revere is the long experience that is encapsulated in tradition. As Burke pointed out, the “science of government” is “a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be.” Hayek amplifies this point as follows:
The esteem for tradition and customs, of grown institutions, and of rules whose origin and rationale we do not know does not, of course, mean—as Thomas Jefferson believe with a characteristic rationalist misconception—that we “ascribe to men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and … suppose they did beyond amendment.” Far from assuming that those who created institutions were wiser than we are, the evolutionary [i.e., conservative] view is based on the insight that the result of experimentation of many generations may embody more experience than one man possesses.
One of the central differences between Objectivism and the conservatism of Burke and Hayek is a different conception of knowledge. Rand emphasizes explicit knowledge derived from deliberate conscious reasoning. Conservatives would regard this view as naive. Society, the human condition, politics are far too complex to be mastered by any one individual, no matter well endowed intellectually. As Hayek explained:
We understand one another and get along with one another, are able to act successfully on our plans, because, most of the time, members of our civilization conform to unconscious patterns of conduct, show a regularity in their actions that is not the result of commands or coercion, often not even of any conscious adherence to known rules, but of firmly established habits and traditions. The general observance of these conventions is a necessary condition of the orderliness of the world in which we live, of our being able to find our way in it, though we do not know their significance and may not even be consciously aware of their existence…. It is indeed a truth, which all the great apostles of freedom outside the rationalistic school have never tired of emphasizing, that freedom has never worked without deeply ingrained moral beliefs and that coercion can be reduced to a minimum only where individuals can be expected as a rule to conform voluntarily to certain principles….
It is this submission to undesigned rules and conventions whose significance and importance we largely do not understand, this reverence for the traditional, that the rationalistic type of mind [like Rand] finds so uncongenial, though it is indispensable for the working of a free society. It has its foundation in the insight which David Hume stressed and which is of decisive importance for the antirationalist, evolutionary tradition—namely, that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason.” Like all other values, our morals are not a product but a presupposition of reason, part of the ends which the instrument of our intellect has been developed to serve. At any one stage of evolution, the system of values into which we are born supplies the ends which our reason must serve. This givenness of the value framework implies that, although we must always strive to improve our institutions, we can never aim to remake them as a whole and that, in our efforts to improve them, we must take for granted much that we do not understand…. In particular, we can never synthetically construct a new body of moral rules or make our obedience of the known rules dependent on our comprehension of the implications of this obedience in a given instance….
There are good reasons why any person who wants to live and act successfully in society must accept many common beliefs, though the value of these reasons may have little to do with their demonstrable truth. Such beliefs will also be based on some past experience but not on experience for which anyone can produce the evidence. The scientist, when asked to accept a generalization in his field, is of course entitled to ask for the evidence on which it is based. Many of the beliefs which in the past expressed the accumulated experience of the race have been disproved in this manner. This does not mean, however, that we can reach the stage where we can dispense with all beliefs for which such evidence is lacking. Experience comes to man in many more forms than are commonly recognized by the professional experimenter or the seeker after explicit knowledge. We would destroy the foundations of much successful action if we disdained to rely on ways of doing things evolved by the process of trial and error simply because the reason for their adoption has not been handed down to us. The appropriateness of our conduct is not necessarily dependent on knowing why it is so….
Rand operates in the rationalist tradition in which everything has to be consciuosly explained and explicitly justified. This is the tradition that dominated the Old Left and provided some of the rationalizations for various left-wing political schemes, including those that led to the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution and the horrors of the Soviet Union. Rand is unique in that she tried to justify capitalism and freedom using the same sort of rationalistic assumptions accepted by the Old Left. She insisted, just like so many of the so-called “scientific” socialists and progressives of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that everything in the political and moral realms had to be explicity justified on the basis of “reason.” But whether used to provide the rationalistic justification of socialism, capitalism, or any other ism that a febrile imagination can dream up, all such rationalisms amount to the same thing: incapacity in the face of the complexities of the human condition. Reverence for tradition is, for the intelligent, non-ideological conservative, merely a tool used to compliment less tacit forms of knowledge, such as science and individual experience. Traditional usages often have proven their worth over time, and should not be tossed out merely become some rationalist fails to explain it by “reason.” The conservative proceeds cautiously when reforming a tradition, because he knows, from long experience, how easy it is to make things worse, and that when faced with any daunting complexity, sheer trial and error is often a far better guide than the so-called “reason” of conceited intellectuals.