Don Arthur had an interesting response to my pieces on the precautionary principle and wars of choice. 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until they are proved safe, conservatives could argue that welfare benefits to never-married single mothers should be withdrawn until they are proved non-hazardous to social functioning.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.
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, progress in the direction of 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. 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” (Raymond Williams) 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.