Why conservatism is rational

Conservatives should take pride in the rationality of their reasoning

Artillery Row

As the international right attempts to form a strategic vision for global conservatism, and the Conservative Party scrambles to prevent an electoral wipe-out, ideological cohesion remains elusive. Driven into the same broad church by the rise of illiberal “woke” progressivism, economic libertarians and social conservatives find little by way of common ground over the role of the state in culture and economy, as evidenced by the recent ARC and NatCon conferences. Just as opposition to the irrationality of woke progressivism functions as the main unifying factor, confusion remains about conservatism’s own relation to rationality.

The idea of rational conservatism strikes many as a contradiction in terms. Anti-expertise, anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism: such labels are often used interchangeably for conservative and right-populism causes and voters. As early as the 19th century, “the stupid party” was already being applied to the British Conservative Party by Lord Palmerston and J.S. Mill, undermining its intellectual reputation from its outset as an emerging political ideology.

Scepticism of abstract theories is easily mistaken for an aversion to intellectual thought

As an academic, I witness this trend on an almost daily basis. Whilst recently giving a talk at a specialist workshop, I was met with a barrage of questions which equated conservatism with reactionary irrationalism. “Conservatives will always stamp their feet on the ground,” claimed one colleague, “resisting change at all costs” — as if this were somehow equivalent to banging your knife and fork on the table saying “me want din dins”. This was in a political science department, where one would expect a basic awareness of the main political ideologies.

What accounts for this conflation? A common explanation is that conservatism opposes the left’s ideological and programmatic proposals for radical change. These are by definition notionally intellectual, given their propensity to reason forwards from abstract theories. By contrast, conservatism is “more an instinct than idea”, as Roger Scruton puts it, reflecting an unarticulated preference for the concrete and time-tested. This scepticism of (shakily justified) abstract theories and intellectual systems, as a basis for political change, is easily mistaken for an aversion to intellectual thought per se.

Whilst this explanation has some mileage, it is incomplete. Do sports coaches who achieve results via time-tested training methods, whilst rejecting purportedly cutting-edge theories of holistic child-centred learning and motivation, face similar charges of irrationalism? Clearly there are other contributing factors, three of which are of particular relevance here.

Linguistic Confusion

Trivial as it may seem, the first source of confusion is terminological. Conservatism is typically contrasted with progressivism, where progressivism conjures up thoughts of improvement and moving forward with the times. Who in their right mind would oppose this? Hence the inference that if you’re not progressive, you must be regressive or reactionary.

Such an inference, however, rests on an equivocation whereby two senses of the term progressivism are fudged. The specific progressivism which conservatives have traditionally been sceptical of is the Enlightenment concept that society is perfectible via rational intervention. Such social, cultural and economic progress will cumulatively unfold with the succession of time.

This ideology, in its various guises, ranges from the political thought of Voltaire, Hegel and Marx, the Progressive Era, through to the post-civil rights proliferation of social justice and welfare reforms. Although it clearly differs from the everyday sense of the term, equivocating between both senses all too easily yields the conclusion that conservatism opposes progress without qualification.

The fact, however, is that conservatism concerns the optimal rate of change, as opposed to resisting it altogether. Indeed, conservatives have always maintained that change is necessary to conserving institutions in the first place. As Burke puts it, “a state without the means of some change is without the means for its conservation.”


The second reason concerns the strong association between populism and a distrust of expert consensus. Populist voters, who tend to have socially conservative values (see Gidron 2022, Inglehart 2019), are frequently portrayed in both the media and academic literature as uneducated and unenlightened — refusing to appreciate expert authority whilst simultaneously lapping up nativist demagoguery and conspiracy theories. Hence the commonplace pronouncements that we are living in a “post-truth era” of “disinformation” (Prasad 2022, Marwick 2022), if not indeed witnessing the “death of expertise” itself (Eyal 2019, Nichols 2017).

It is certainly true that a suspicion of technocratic governance and policymaking in areas such as public health and climate strategy is a widespread feature of populist rhetoric, and that expert mistrust is rife amongst populist voters (Rahn 2016, Merkley 2020, Trujillo 2022). However, a crucial nuance that is overlooked here is the distinction between warranted and unwarranted instances of mistrust.

There are of course several interconnected concerns, including incentive misalignment, parasitic collaborations, and tensions between managerial bureaucracy and democratic accountability. However, the most relevant problem concerns expert failure: the relative unreliability of data-driven decision making across managerial consultancy, economics, epidemiology and various other domains of expert knowledge affecting policymaking (see Koppl 2018 for a detailed survey of the political economy of experts).

Most models are virtually guaranteed to yield inaccurate conclusions

This is partly due to the omitted variable bias: a central limitation in the modelling of complex systems whereby some of the most important variables (particularly those which influence or are influenced by human behaviour) are either unknown, tacit or not easily quantified. As a result, one’s regression analysis will generally yield an entirely different model as soon as one includes another previously omitted variable into it, when the predicted variable is dependent on the omitted ones. Since most models omit relevant variables, they are virtually guaranteed to yield inaccurate conclusions.

Add to this the wider problems of limited data, shaky assumptions, poorly designed code, model structure problems, and computational limitations affecting modelling more broadly, and even its usefulness can be questionable.

Little wonder, then, that the modelling which drove the British and American lockdowns (Ferguson 2020) yielded such inaccurate projections; that economic forecasting has such a dismal track record; that most psychology papers and pharmaceutical trials don’t replicate; and indeed that the entire field of social science is ridden with a replication crisis.

Considered in light of such limitations, the “populist” crisis of expert credibility, with the related wariness of governments devolving unprecedented levels of decision-making to consultancy firms, begins to look unremarkably commonsensical.


Finally, there is the issue of rationality itself. Conservatism has traditionally opposed rationalism, though this is neither a repudiation of reason nor a commitment to irrationalism. Rather, it concerns the refusal to “condense intricate moral, social and political realities into a few principles or elements of an intellectual system”, as Andrew Vincent puts it (1994). From here, arguments are advanced which distinguish between two types of reasoning: prejudice and abstraction (Burke 2009).

Prejudices are pre-judgements which amount to tacit, intuitive or dispersed know-how which cannot strictly be formalised in a formula but are nonetheless embedded in institutions, customs and common sense. Abstraction by contrast is the over-simplified use of explicit and codified knowledge in ideology-driven reasoning, utopian programmes, social experimentation and indeed management consultancy.

This distinction is borne out in decision and behavioural science in the form of tacit knowledge (Koppl 2018) and ecological rationality (Smith 2009, Gigerenzer 2000), carried over from conservatism via the intermediary influence of Polanyi (1967), Hayek (1948) and other Austrian school economists. As Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith puts it, ecological rationality is an “un-designed ecological system that emerges out of cultural and biological evolutionary processes: home grown principles of action, norms, traditions, and ‘morality’” (2002).

Consider the fact that doctors wore masks in the Middle Ages, hospitals were ventilated and the sick were quarantined centuries before the discovery of germ theory. People knew what to do despite not having an explicit reason, thanks to their uncodified tacit knowledge and ecological rationality (i.e. Burkean prejudices) which existed in their habits, skills and practices.

The conservative rationale is that such prejudices have probably stood the course of time precisely because of an intrinsic rationality not immediately detectable to the superficial observer. As such, central planning which overlooks them carries hidden risks, some of which are highly consequential. Hence the conservative preference for gradual change, with the corresponding scepticism of excessive technocratic policy making and state regulation of economic activity.

If the international right is to improve its ideological cohesion and provide a convincing counter-narrative to the rise of illiberal wokeism and “critical” social justice ideology, straightening out these conflations cannot go amiss. Indeed, reconfiguring its vision around rationality serves not only as a reputational corrective, but also as a strategically advantageous starting point for unifying an otherwise eclectic coalition of uneasy bedfellows.

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