Perhaps the most important marker of conservatism is the importance of traditional practices and modes of thought. Tradition plays two distinct roles in conservatism. First, it refers to ideas and practices that have stood the test of time. Edmund Burke (1729–1797) wrote of the partnership between the living and the dead, and conservative writers in many eras have echoed this sentiment. It may be helpful to think of tradition itself as the accumulation of practices and ideas that have been proven to work for generations. This does not mean that every old idea is good or that all new ideas must be viewed with suspicion. However, the fact that an idea or practice has persisted is said to count as a point in its favour.
In fact, we can take this idea one step further. It may not even be a question of whether one should accept or reject tradition; instead, a conservative would argue that we cannot help but be shaped by the traditions our society has inherited. Proposals for political reform only make sense or are feasible in a given society if they are products of its own traditions. This does not mean that no new ideas are possible. As conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) suggests, traditions are “neither fixed nor finished,” but are more like conversations (Oakeshott, 1991, p. 61). New ideas can always be introduced into a conversation, but it is better if they arise naturally and organically out of what has been said before instead of being an abrupt change of topic. Following Oakeshott’s conversational model of tradition, new ideas for political reform are acceptable if they are based on longstanding practices and norms.
The second way in which tradition is important to conservatives is that political institutions take time to build. Though they are not perfect, and in some cases may serve unjust purposes, conservatives warn that once torn down, political systems can only be rebuilt with great difficulty. Radical change in the hope of a more just alternative is risky, since there is no guarantee that the new system will be more just or stable than the old. As American conservative Russell Kirk (1918–1994) writes, “[conservatives] prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know” (Kirk, 2007, p. 7). This was a central concern in one of the classic works of conservative theory in the modern era: Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France(pdf) (1790). One of its recurring arguments was that, in toppling the existing political system, the French Revolution destroyed the basis of order and stability. Burke wrote:
Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out. … At once to preserve and reform is quite another thing (Burke, 1790/2003, pp. 142–143).
Tradition, in sum, is a set of limitations on what can or should be done in the political sphere. It is important to classical conservatives because justice and social order will be best achieved if we begin from what we currently have, even if it falls short of perfection.