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Whigs and Tories, Tradition and Progress

February 19th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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

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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