Conservationists and conservatives

by John Q on December 20, 2004

Don Arthur had an interesting response to my pieces on the precautionary principle and wars of choice[1]. Don correctly observes that this kind of argument can be used in opposition to reform, and is therefore inherently conservative. He mentions, as an instance, the possibility of making this kind of argument against gay marriage.

Don goes on to argue

The welfare state is another area conservatives might want to apply the precautionary principle. Just as environmentalists argue that we should withdraw genetically modified crops from sale until they are proved safe, conservatives could argue that welfare benefits to never-married single mothers should be withdrawn until they are proved non-hazardous to social functioning. After all, the widespread use of income support for alleviating poverty in families where a woman has had a child out of wedlock is relatively recent.

While there’s always room for dispute over what is meant by “relatively recent” here, I don’t think this argument works. The main institutions of the welfare state developed in the first half of last century, before most of us were born, and its extension to single mothers dates back to the 1960s. In this debate, the self-described advocates of welfare reform are those who want to do away with social institutions most of us have grown up with and try something radically new. The fact that reform may be sold as a return to an idealised and largely imaginary past, rather than a leap into the future, doesn’t change this. In fact, reformers of all stripes have used this characterisation of reform, sometimes validly and sometimes not, most obviously in the case of the Reformation[2].

More generally, the set of ideas associated with terms like progressive and conservative are based on the assumption, clearly falsified over the last thirty years or so, that the movement of history is uniformly to the political left. The corollaries (also false, in my view) are that leftists and socialists should favor the removal of obstacles to rapid political change – bicameralism, federalism, separation of powers and so on – and that the the precautionary principle should be viewed with suspicion.

My reading of the 20th century as a whole is that, both in the democracies and elsewhere, it is the right who have made the most effective use of concentrated power. Given the power of the opposed interest, sustainable progress in the direction of socialism or social democracy can only be made on the basis of broadly-based popular support, sufficient to overcome constitutional obstacles. By contrast, a determined rightwing government like Thatcher’s can ram through its policies on the basis of 40 per cent support, given a plurality-based system of majority government.

Coming back to gay marriage, I think it’s true that a precautionary principle argument would lead one to favor a gradual, one-step-at-a-time shift in the rules, rather than a radical reform based on purely abstract arguments about equality[3]. In the current context where a wide range of legal disabilities for gays have been removed without obviously disastrous consequences, this would suggest that civil unions ought to be the next step.

fn1. I missed this at the time, and picked it up while visiting The View from Benambra where Don’s arguments are amplified, and the Burkean nature of the principle elaborated.

fn2. Raymond Williams in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society is excellent on this, as on most things.

fn3. And, if I were to advocate a reform along these lines, it would be the removal of legal recognition for religious marriages and their replacement by civil unions for all, as is, I think, the case in France, though only for heterosexual unions.

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01.21.06 at 9:13 am



bad Jim 12.20.04 at 10:18 am

I’m sorry, but I think that American conservatives, like Don Arthur, are just using the precautionary principle to beat social democrats over the head. The question of the care and feeding of unpaired mothers antedates the institution of marriage by hundreds of thousands of years, at least among mammals.

Perhaps only an American could be so ignorant of his own country’s history, and more recent European history, as to suppose this is a pressing problem.

The point of the comment was either to discredit the precautionary principle or to repurpose it to what is now the American position, that it would damage our economy or even our very identity to limit our appetite for energy. In this view, it’s dangerous to keep oil drilling out of wilderness areas. Scraping the tops off mountains to get to the coal beneath is vital to our nation’s energy supply. Amelioration is a risk to our economy.

With respect to gay marriage, someone recently wrote, or quoted someone saying, that women are so aggravating that men will generally prefer the company of other men. Thus gay marriage does indeed threaten civilization.

Color me green, but I know which problems I’m worried about.


John Quiggin 12.20.04 at 10:59 am

Bad Jim, Don is neither American nor a conservative.Although I disagree with him, I think he’s raising a serious concern about the implications of PP for left politics.


wmmbb 12.20.04 at 11:37 am

What has happened to your blog? Will it in due course resurface, or it is now subject to some version of the percautionary principle?


John Quiggin 12.20.04 at 12:17 pm


cesperugo 12.20.04 at 2:25 pm

Time, motion and the uncertainty principle are all factors when determining position. Since there is no universally valid premise to the argument, I think there’s little meaningful to be said about it. It’s a matter of positioning and aligning with moving targets.


Ken Houghton 12.20.04 at 3:45 pm

If I have a heterosexual marriage ceremony in a temple (church), but fail to file the civil papers, am I “married” in the view of the United States?

The answer currently is “no,” which implies that there is no legal recognition for religious marriages per se, no?


Sebastian Holsclaw 12.20.04 at 5:04 pm

“Amelioration is a risk to our economy.”

I just want to mention that so far as I understand the political implications of the precautionary principle, opposition to it is not the same as saying that we ought not take steps to reduce risk.


pedro 12.20.04 at 5:20 pm

I would say that the precautionary principle is perfectly sensible when the unforseen grave harms in question involve somewhat uncontroversial preoccupations (like death tolls). One problem with applying it with regards to gay marriage is that there are no moral preoccupations regarding its institutionalization which all of us share. X person may not worry about the possibility of the proliferation of terrorism as an unintended consequence of the Iraq war, but X will grant you that such an unintended consequence *would* be very troubling. I don’t feel obligated–in any way–to see anything wrong with the doom-scenarios that worry the religious right re: gay marriage.


Ginger Yellow 12.20.04 at 6:04 pm

What exactly are the ‘doom scenarios’ of the religious right? Besides the fatuous slippery slope argument that claims legalising gay marriage is morally and logically equivalent to legalising polygamy or bestiality, I haven’t seen any coherent description of what evils will befall society when gay people are allowed to marry. Even opposition to extending the franchise to the landless or women could have had some sort of precautionary justification, but I simply can’t see what risk gay marriage poses to society.


abb1 12.20.04 at 6:38 pm

I agree that civil unions for all, homo- and hetero-sexuals is the best solution, but not because of any ‘precautionary principle’; just because it makes logical sense.

As far as single mothers are concerned, this idea that ‘welfare benefits to never-married single mothers should be withdrawn until they are proved non-hazardous to social functioning’ – this is, I think, one of silliest things I’ve ever read. To withdraw support from a group of people who need it most until it’s proved non-hazardous? Lol. This has no logical connection with withdraw genetically modified crops, except for the verb withdraw.


Giles 12.20.04 at 7:20 pm

I think the precautionary argument goes something like if gay marriage was a good idea then some/many societies would have implemented it. Since they haven’t there’s probably an unseen problem we havent thought about.

Its similar to the argument against Polygamy – namely the Polygamous societies tend to be poorer and more vicious than monogamous ones. Polyandrous are even worse. Why excatly this is, well plenty of books have been written, but I dont think anyone has the definitive answer.

Its also worth bearing in mind that there is a cost benefit counter argument in that its not clear how large a benefit there is – after all the south africans recognised blacks right to marry, but not much else. In other words its not clear why granting the right to marry will create more or less acceptance.


harry 12.20.04 at 7:52 pm

I think that the ‘civil unions as next step’ policy is no more precautionary than the ‘gay marriage as next step’ policy; in fact I was very surprised when I first heard conservatives coming out with it. Gay marriage as next step takes an institution that has a lot going for it (in my view) and extends slightly the class of people who can take advantage of it. Civil Unions, by contrast, proliferates suddenly the numbers and kinds of relationship that the State recognises and attaches benefits and protections to. Suddenly, heterosexuals have a much wider range of (untested) options.

Which of these is more threatening to marriage? The first, I’d have thought. Which policy creates the greater risk of destabilisation of the established order? Civil unions.

So, whereas there are tactical political reasons for the left to tread carefully re gay marriage (so as not to piss off the right-wingers), I think there are conservative reasons to be bolder (so as to minimize the prospects of cost to the institution of marriage). Quite apart from the principled reason that homosexuality is, in fact, morally on a par with heterosexuality and it is therefore wicked for the state to discriminate in this way (or any other) against homosexuals.


lemuel pitkin 12.20.04 at 7:53 pm

its extension to single mothers dates back to the 1960s

Maybe you’re talking about the British system here, but the American welfare system — the old AFDC — was never extended to single mothers. It began with them, on the assumption that they should not be expected to work outside the home.


james 12.20.04 at 8:09 pm

The actual conservative welfare principle for single mothers is different than the one suggested above. The arguement is all things being equal, it is better for society that the welfare system encourage marriage rather than discourage it. The older system activly discouraged, through finacial insentives, poor mothers from getting married.


Adam Stephanides 12.20.04 at 8:24 pm

“My reading of the 20th century as a whole is that, both in the democracies and elsewhere, it is the right who have made the most effective use of concentrated power.”

How do Stalin and Mao fit into this generalization? Though neither was all-powerful, they pushed through a massive (and at least in Stalin’s case quite unpopular) reorderings of their societies which went far beyond anything that Hitler accomplished, or that any other right-wing regime even attempted, afaik.

(Not that I’m advocating that the Left imitate them.)


Giles 12.20.04 at 8:37 pm

Suddenly, heterosexuals have a much wider range of (untested) options. ”
you mean from 1 to 2. Whow!


harry 12.20.04 at 8:46 pm

No giles; there are numerous possible versions of civil unions, and there is no reason at all to restrict them to one form rather than many. 50 States, 50 civil unions.

At least. Currently, my state already has numerous (different) domestic partnership arrangements (because these are set at municipal level).

If the principle behind civil unions is to allow gays to marry without saying so, then we should have gay marriage. If the principle is that the State will provide its seal of approval and protection to any arrangement that individuals voluntarily enter into then there is no reason at all to maintain marriage.

The dynamic this sets in motion is threatneing to marriage; much more threatening than allowing gay marriage. (Ok, that is much more than not-at-all in my view, but you know what I mean).


seth edenbaum 12.21.04 at 12:16 am

I find it odd when people are treated as the equivalent of simple mechanisms. At what point does generalizing become dehumanizing? I’m aware the term is loaded, and I don’t stretch it too far, but still, conflating mathematical models of genetics with mathematical models of human behavior brings us to awkward territory, at least awkward for me.
But then I think too many people confuse a person’s ability to store information- the size of their internal database- with their intelligence and that economists tend to have lousy taste in literature. I’m also annoyed by any use of the word ‘meme.’
Knowledge is a human faculty, not a mechanical one. I don’t want to sidetrack the discussion, but the quote from Don Arthur sounded simply vulgar.


bad Jim 12.21.04 at 4:53 am

My apologies to Mr. Arthur for mistaking his position and to John Quiggin for missing his point.

It seems clear that the precautionary principle cannot be applied to all human endeavors. It needs to be restricted to those whose effects are in some strong sense irreversible.

I see no problem with adding war to health and the environment as a category requiring the strictest scrutiny. Some broader generalization seems possible.


John Quiggin 12.21.04 at 5:18 am

Adam, the thinking behind my claim is that both Stalin and Mao made a big mess of things, achieving far less in terms of ultimate improvements in welfare than they sacrificed in terms of human lives and happiness along the way.

Of course, Hitler made a mess of things too, but glorious death and destruction was, in some sense, the whole idea.

I’m not sure whether this claim really stands up, though, so it might be better just to look at the argument in relation to democracies.


Bucky 12.21.04 at 6:44 am

“After all, the widespread use of income support for alleviating poverty in families where a woman has had a child out of wedlock is relatively recent”
Which means governmental financial assistance, state money. Which couldn’t have existed before there was money, obviously, yet it must have been the case that women bore children before money came into being. Wedlock itself, as an institution, is not part of our genetic code. Women were conceiving and bearing children, and being protected and sustained, in fact were the primary reason social groups existed, long before the secular/canonical licensing of marriage began. It’s this ahistorical mindset that muddles the argument from the get.
Without money we’re nothing, without churches and civil law we’re nothing.
Which may be true now, but it hasn’t been true for most of our time here.
There were people, taking care of each other, long before Hammurabai and Moses.
The derogation of single motherhood is a derogation of the child as well as the woman, and it’s telling, from people who purport to value children above all else. The real center is the institution and its social power. Welding the institution inextricably to society, so that the one is unimaginable without the other, is what gives rise to such specious absurdity.
We don’t need money to live. We need money to live like this, now, here. It wasn’t always so.
Heresy, but true just the same.


Ginger Yellow 12.21.04 at 10:49 am

Surely it’s a completely different argument to the polygamy one you cite, since that is based on the evidence of already existing societies, whereas a precautionary principle approach to gay marriage is based on not having any evidence either way.

Likewise this doesn’t make sense:”Its also worth bearing in mind that there is a cost benefit counter argument in that its not clear how large a benefit there is – after all the south africans recognised blacks right to marry, but not much else. In other words its not clear why granting the right to marry will create more or less acceptance.”
Tell the people who are currently denied inheritance rights or kin consent rights that the benefits aren’t clear. And the point of legalising gay marriage isn’t to create more acceptance, it’s to stop people’s lives being damaged by state endorsed bigotry.


Ginger Yellow 12.21.04 at 10:51 am

Actually, that last sentence would probably be better if it ended ‘state discrimination’.


Deb Frisch 12.22.04 at 4:39 am

As you know, I debunked your post on the precautionary principle, in particular, your absurd claim that “Rational agents will never engage in war.”

Is it your policy to only reply to white blokes’ critiques?


Tracy 12.22.04 at 8:35 am

Surely a lot of this depends on how you define ‘precautionary principle’? The first definition I heard of was along the lines of ‘When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.’ A stance on risk-taking that people may rationally think is too risk-averse, or too risk-loving, but one that allows for a lot of experimentation and change.

However in many cases it seems to have morphed into ‘If you can’t prove something is safe ahead of time, don’t do it.’

The first one implies having some evidence of harm before you act to stop something, the second if fully applied pretty much stops progress since it’s pretty much impossible to prove that something can do no harm ahead of time. (Mathematics may escape).

Gay marriage could be proceded with under the first definition, but not under the second.


John Quiggin 12.22.04 at 11:37 am

“Is it your policy to only reply to white blokes’ critiques?”

After the past couple of weeks, I think I’m going to reply only to dead white blokes. That should save trouble.

Seriously, as I said earlier, I’ll try to clarify the issues in subsequent posts.


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