Friday, February 20, 2009


Whigs and Tories, Tradition and Progress

Reading Prof. Henry Smith's "Community and Custom in Property" working paper I thought of some different ways of thinking about tradition and progress. This was shortly after I was grousing yet again about how badly designed car radios are nowadays compared to the past. With digital tuning, we don't have the quick and easy controls of analog tuning, where the dial was round and quick and the pretuned buttons stuck out so you could punch them without taking your eyes off the wheel. I consoled myself with the idea that after 20 years or so the engineers would figure this out. That made me realize that progress is just the establishment of tradition-- which takes time. Starting from zero-- as one does after an innovation--- it takes time to build up a tradition. Till you have the tradition built up, change is desirable. Once you have the tradition, it's time to stop making changes unless some radically new and good innovation is found. But a fondness for tradition and a belief in progress are not incompatible.

The four parties of Victorian Britain illustrate different combinations of liking for tradition and for progress.

The Tories--- the mainstream Conservatives--- favored no change. They admired the old and disliked the new.

The Whigs--- the mainstream Liberals--- favored gradual change. They were neutral on the old and the new. They liked both tradition and progress.

The Radicals--- the left Liberals--- favored big changes. They hated the old and loved the new.

The Tory Democracy--- the "Fourth Party" of Randolph Churchill--- favored big changes. They admired the old, but rather liked the new too, as supportive of the old. Bismarck would perhaps be in this category. (They were actually not called the 4th party because of my categories here, but because the Conservatives, Liberals, and Irish Nationalists were three parties and Churchill and friends were rather like Newt Gingrich and the young House Republicans, wanting to be much more barbed and inconvenient with the ruling Liberals than their senior party members thought proper.)

I'm a Whig myself. In England, they went over to the Tory PM Salisbury, if I remember correctly, after Gladstone allied the Liberals with the Irish Nationalists, and the Whigs were absorbed into the Conservative Party. Hayek liked to call himself a Whig too.

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