Against (Actual) Conservatism

A Decent Model

Some bad ideas are overstretched good ideas. Let’s start with the good stuff before the critique.

Edmund Burke, who might be the father of conservatism, would have been a fan of Chesterton’s Fence. Here’s the basic idea from Chesterton’s The Thing:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

And here’s Burke:

People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Notice the similarity? Burke and Chesterton are conservatives in the real sense of the word. Don’t get rid of something you don’t understand. They care for tradition. A more modern conservative may be Nassim Taleb. We shouldn’t consider any of these people ‘right wing’ conservatives. They see things on a political axis of fragility-antifragility, rather than a more common compass view.

Tradition encompasses the ideas that have helped humanity get to where it is today. It is a resource of “stuff that works” even if we don’t know why. Fasting is one example. Religious fasting was once done by different people in different regions of the world. The people that fasted have been able to survive and spread their ideas. The people that didn’t fast… sometimes died. Today we know about the health benefits of fasting, but this wasn’t always the case.

Someone in the year 1917 that was thinking of holding on to this bit of their culture probably should have, even if they didn’t know exactly why the tradition existed. In that sense, I’m a Burkean as well. Chesterton is right when he says “when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” Fences, laws, and social institutions exist for reasons. If the reasons are bad, the institution need not exist. If the reason is good, destroying the institution can lead to death.


But they mix up some different ideas here. I’m as pro-antifragility as you can get, but I’m not a traditionalist. Tradition tells us what has worked in the past, not necessarily what will work in the future. When you don’t know why a tradition exists, you should defer to it. Chesterton spoke of social institutions (marriage, religion etc.) that are commonly misunderstood. But I think people take Chesterton’s ideas too far. Nassim Taleb’s views on GMO food is probably the most famous example. As he notes, the precautionary principle should be:

…neither used naively to justify any act of caution, nor dismissed by those who wish to court risks for themselves or others.

I agree, but he may be closer to the “naively justifying caution” end of the spectrum than he realizes. The world without widespread GMO nutrition in the short run would not be such a terrible place. The same world in the long run would be. If there’s a 0.1% yearly risk of civilizational collapse due to GMO food production, I’m willing to take the risk. Taleb isn’t.

A Better Model

Any social, economic or technological system is going to fail eventually. We outgrew hunting and gathering. Something will eventually push us out of fertilizer-based agriculture entirely. Personally, I think it will be lack of oil for fertilizer (thanks to Charlie Munger). It could be something else that nobody’s thought of. We must make the transition to another system before ours fails. That’s not even mentioning that enforcing a biotech ban would be less and less feasible over time. If GMO sales become illegal, people will still sell GMOs. The only difference is that you gain maybe 2 or 3 decades before someone does it, and when they do they won’t be doing toxicology research to ensure safety.

“A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” -Albert Einstein

The way that Burke, Chesterton, and Taleb think about the world is based on a particular mental model. Imagine a string that splits into multiple threads. These are the timelines of humanity. Most threads end quickly. There are many bad ways to go and only a few correct paths. We are not on those short-lived threads. Our timeline has lasted so long thanks to our traditions. Our thread runs far into the future, and humans will be able to survive for a very long time if we stick to all of these traditions.

The other way of thinking about it is that the biotech thread length is longer than the one where humans don’t use biotechnology for food production. We could theoretically learn it without a monsanto-esque profit motive, but the research would take much longer sans funding. How much time do we have before the fertilizer-based production model fails? Looking at potential thread length forces the innovative approach.

This is dangerous, but not as dangerous as sticking to the same system for eons. If we had stuck to hunting and gathering, we would eventually have been killed. Maybe it would have been our Homo Erectus cousins that got to us, or some disease that managed to wipe us out. Most species don’t get far, even intelligent ones. Just look at Homo Erectus now. If we hadn’t gotten fertilizer-based farming, the same may have happened to us. Most hunter-gatherer societies have been taken over by agricultural civilizations. In the future, someone might say that most fertilizer-based agricultural societies have be taken over by biotech-based farming.

To keep the Malthusian trap at bay, and to provide food without oil-based fertilizer when our reserves run out, we need to consider every option we can. That means hydroponic growth systems, GMOs, and whatever else we can get our hands on. I’m not sure which new technologies will be successful, but I am sure we can’t continue on the path we have now. For society to survive, it needs to change.


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