Traditions can be good or bad. Progress is typically called good, but when it’s misapplied to what is actually regression, it’s bad.
Progressivism needs some definition, because the word progress in it is misapplied. In short, it’s the version of socialism adopted by Woodrow Wilson, both Roosevelts, Hillary Clinton, and many of today’s socialists who know better than to use the word socialism, which has provably failed everywhere it has been implemented.
There’s a connection to Darwinism in progressivism; it posits that culture always moves in a forward direction, ever closer to perfection. This assumption ignores some rather huge examples to the contrary like the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Or the disappearance of Mayan culture. Or Detroit, Michigan.
Progress requires going in the right direction. And there’s no way to know if a direction is right when everything being tried is supposed to be new, untried, and ignorant of history.
The Imaginative Conservative had a piece by Joseph Pearce that describes the type of bigotry that is progressivism:
If, for example, we were to visit a village in a remote corner of Africa and were to witness children playing with crudely crafted toys and presumed from our observations that these Africans must be inferior to Americans because American children have iPods and smart-phones we would rightly be accused of racism. Yet this is exactly what “progressivists” do when observing cultures separated by time instead of space. The past is deemed to be inferior and can be treated with scorn or, which is perhaps worse, with patronising condescension.
Pearce goes on to imagine what an experience Plato would have visiting our time. He would take a couple of days to master some of the technology and dress. And then it wouldn’t take long to notice some modern failures:
image from here
The Philosopher would soon come to the inescapable conclusion that this strange race of “progressives” were in fact barbarians who adorned themselves with the baubles of technology but had no concept whatever of the meaning of life or the nature of reality. Feeling his exile from civilization intensely he would long for the profundities of the Lyceum.
In contrast, when we honor those who have gone before, and stand upon what they have learned, then we have actual social progress. That’s what we enjoy when we cover most of the math and science we get before college—and much of what we study in college as well. We don’t have to start from scratch. Pythagoras did some of the work. And Euclid. And Newton.
Pearce quotes the wise G. K. Chesterton on the value of tradition:
Tradition may be defined as the extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition.[i]
Traditions can be changed—when we learn something previously unknown and provably true. But throwing out truth because it’s old is foolish and ignorant.
This concept of tradition reminds me of the word conservative, which is another word that can be either good or bad, depending on what you’re conserving. If we’re conserving a dysfunctional status quo out of fear of change, then being conservative may be a bad thing.
But when we conservatives talk about what we conserve, we’re talking about preserving—or often in our day restoring—freedom, prosperity, and civilization. (I wrote about what we conserve in October and February.)
In the political sphere, we need a representative government strictly limited to its proper role of protecting our life, liberty, and property. Government doesn’t grant our rights; those come from God. And good government protects and guarantees our God-given rights. Among these are freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, the right to armed self-defense, freedom to work and engage in commerce, freedom from illegal searches and seizures, and freedom to see to the education and upbringing of our own children.
We have a US Constitution designed to protect our God-given rights. If we conserve/restore our Constitution, we get more political freedom than most of the world’s historic and present-day cultures have ever known.
In the economic sphere, we need a system that allows us to work and earn wealth, and then decide for ourselves how to spend it. Government doesn’t make the economy work. We need government to safeguard property (including intellectual property, such as with patents and copyrights), protect against monopoly, standardize money for ease of exchange, and otherwise get out of the way of the free market.
Government ought to have nothing to do with charity, since government isn’t capable of emotional care and can only coerce, by forcibly taking from some and giving to others—what we call theft, which the people empowering the government have no power to grant.
Of course, since the poor are always with us, we do need a way to care for the truly needy. But it must be voluntary. So people who are prosperous enough must willingly give to those in need.
We have had the best economy in the world. If we conserve/restore our free market, we return to prosperity.
In the social sphere, we conserve some very old ideas, hearkening back at least to the Ten Commandments. In summary, we need a critical mass of righteous people—people who love and honor God, family, life, truth, and property.
We’re not going to “progress” to a better way to raise children than under the care of their own married mother and father.
We’re not going to “progress” to a better way to distribute wealth than the right to our earned property combined with an ethic of charitable giving.
We’re not going to “progress” to a better way to decide when life is worth preserving than gratefully valuing all human life and leaving God to decide when death should come. Abortion—which kills more black babies than are born, as designed by the eugenics movement—is savage. Killing the aged, infirm, or burdensome is callous. Any time we decide some innocent lives are inferior, we’ve fallen out of civilization into savagery.
Progressivism doesn’t lead to progress; the name itself is a lie. Tradition, on the other hand, may be worth conserving. The default, when we don’t know, ought to be keeping the tradition. When we have the principles to measure whether traditions lead to freedom, prosperity, and civilization, such as with our US Constitution, we can wisely choose to conserve.