Conservatism, fuddy-duddy it is not, in fact it is the opposite.

36th Edition! I must be a glutton fer punishment and any reader who’s come along with me must be, as well. Warning, this is my longest yet. Perhaps stop fer refreshments or take a nap half-way.

‘Fuddy-duddy.’ Serf definition – ‘stick-in-the-mud resistance to change,
–anti-dynamic, unable to adapt, non-innovative.’

I’m making a case that trial and error conservatism, compared to other political processes, has proved to be adaptable to challenge and supportive to innovation. Take a walk through western history, compare the evolutionary development of Britain with those clean-slate, blue-print attempts, in the 18th and 20th centuries, to create Utopian societies or fascist dynamos based on myth. See where they get ya’

So what makes for fuddy-duddy-ness? If we’re going exploring, might as well begin with land and sea, discover how geography impacts on a country’s development. There’s a book by Thomas Sowell, ’Wealth, Poverty and Politics,’ (NY. 2015) that examines the see-saw of dynamic societies and what Sowell calls ‘lagging groups’ in history, development disparities of place and time, sometimes anomalies even within national borders.

Mountains, rivers and over the sea.

In the first chapter of ‘Wealth, Poverty and Politics’, Sowell looks at the kinds of geographical factors that limit or stimulate innovation. Happens a common handicap of lagging groups around the world is geographic isolation, whether separation from access to the rest of the world by desert, or by living on an island or a mountain. Living on a mountain in hill-billy isolation has severe negative impact. There’s a Catalan saying –‘always go down, never go up.’ Seems apt, even in the 21st century most of the mountain peoples of the world still practise subsistence farming. Switzerland, with its wide valleys, mountain passes and deep lakes is a notable exception.

Waterways, important for agriculture that makes city development possible, are also vital as arteries of trade. Lack of navigable rivers and of animals suitable for transporting people and goods from place to place impede the human interactions that stimulate innovation. Western Europe’s deep navigable rivers that flow to the sea and its twisting coastline that provides safe harbours for ports were an impetus to development and trade. Africa’s few navigable rivers or safe harbours were a handicap to development and trade. No level playing field where Nature’s concerned.

Once oceans, like deserts, were a barrier to communication, but with the development of ship building and navigation by the stars and by compass, the sea became an open gateway for maritime societies.


Historically significant in the evolution of western development is the heritage derived from maritime Greece, two and a half thousand years ago. When the Greeks took to the sea and began to trade and build colonies around the Aegean Sea, coming into contact with other cultures, the old tribal certainties began to break down. The philosopher Heraclitus developed the idea of change, that all things are involved in some form of movement. Another philosopher, Democritus, formulated the doctrine that human institutions, language, customs and laws are man-made, a sea-change from the belief by tribal societies that social customs are god-given immutable regularities.

In the revolutionary 5th century B.C. Athenian experiment in democracy, the philosopher Socrates taught that we are responsible for our individual actions and argued in the spirit of scientific criticism, that we should have faith in human reason but avoid dogmatism. While this noble open-society experiment did not survive long, attacked by Sparta and enemies within Athens and by an outbreak of the Plague, from these beginnings in Greece evolved philosophic and scientific traditions unique to Western civilization.

One of the enemies of democracy in Athens was the philosopher Plato, who rejected the faith in an open society expressed by earlier philosophers. Born into a period of political turmoil, the Peloponnesian Wars and their aftermath of civil war and epidemics, Plato sought to arrest all change. Through his theory of immutable essences, Plato was able to extract something permanent from the Heraclitean process of flux and historical corruption. In his ‘Republic’ Plato argued for a return to a golden age of the past that might stem the tide of change through leadership by a philosopher king and an entrenched hierarchical social system based on Plato’s necessary ‘noble lie’ of the metals in men.

Utopianists since Plato have similarly argued for clean-slate political change, revolutionary overture to create blue-print, static societies stuck in a centrally directed golden age, well, stuck in the mud, really, so a fuddy-duddy experiment, you might say. I’d call it philosopher-king hubris. Those societies based on Marxist ideology have not encouraged their citizens’ freedom to innovate.

Nature – Nurture – Culture.

While natural landforms and waterways play a significant role in economic development of peoples, geography as an influence is not predestination. Even physical advantages are of little use without the cultural prerequisites to exploit and maintain them. We’ve just seen the clash of cultures, open society versus closed society in fifth century B.C. Athenian Society, despite the shared geographical environment. Some cultures encourage innovation, and some inhibit, or prohibit innovation.

As Thomas Sowell argues, ‘nature’ doesn’t rule, culture is a significant player. A country’s development cannot simplistically be attributed to geographic or genetic factors. Northern Europe now leads the south in dynamic development but once it was the opposite. Remember Athens – same people, changed culture. Then there’s Spain, today one of Europe’s poorer countries, once one of its richest. The vast wealth that poured into Spain in its ‘golden age‘ could have been invested in its economy or its people, but it wasn’t. Spain’s economy is now surpassed by natural resource poor countries like Norway and Japan.

Decision Making from Above.

Japan was a lagging economy in the 17th and 18th centuries under governments that enforced isolation policies, but quickly adopted new practices after Commodore Perry’s warships broke down the barriers of isolation. Within a century Japan had achieved economic parity with leading Western nations.

Cultures that enable free interchange of ideas and experiment are key to a nation’s development. There was a time when China, a lagging economy on the 20th century, might have engaged with the rest of the world. In the period when the Tang Empire came to an end, and the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms fought incessantly China experienced its most spectacular burst of development. By the late 11th century, Chinese were masters off silk, tea, porcelain production, paper and printing and made coke from coal to smelt high grade iron. Industrious peasants were working for cash as well as subsistence and using their cash to buy goods.

Then came the calamity of the Mongol Invasion. The Ming Emperors nationalized industry and created state monopolies for salt, iron, tea, foreign trade and education. The first of these emperors, Hong Wu, forbade all trade and travel without official permission, forced merchants to register an inventory of their goods and permitted peasants to grow food only for their own consumption.

Before the Ming period China had been extending its sea power for three hundred years. Chinese merchants had developed a trade network in spices and raw materials with Indian and Muslim traders. By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, China ad reached a peak of naval technology that was unsurpassed in the world. The second Ming Emperor, Yong Le wishing to impress Ming power on the world, had a massive treasure fleet built, greater than the Spanish Amada, which made seven voyages, sailing as far as East Africa.

The Chinese people were ready to trade with the world but Yong-Le’s successor brought an end to China’s maritime history by banning ship building and trading abroad. This was steered by the Emperor’s officials who instinctively distrusted innovation as a threat to their own positions. Henceforth, China’s sophisticated bureaucratic civilization, while periodically challenged by peasant rebellions that substituted one dynasty for another, remained an inert hierarchical social order that was never able to free itself from the historical fabric of a society opposed to change.

Isolation is a negative, closes the door to the potentialities of change. Freedom‘s a positive – opens the door to trial and error problem solving.

Trial and Error, Nature’s Way.

If you’ve read Nassim Taleb’s book, ‘Antifragile, Things that Gain from Disorder,’ you’ll recall his advice to us to follow nature regarding adaptive response to stresses and information in the environment. Nature, the epitome of trial and error, non-fuddy-duddy evolution, making do with what’s to hand, like fins to legs, ( or wings ) four legs to two legs and arms, claw into hand evolution, so empiric, so dynamic.

Following Nature’s mode, you see trial and error development at work in cities, in Jane Jacobs’ insightful analysis of innovation and the rise of cities, in two books, ‘The Economy of Cities,’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations.’ ( Vintage Books, 1970 and 1985. ) Jacobs describes, after the fall of Rome, the significant development of Venice in the marshes, from a humble beginning, trading with Constantinople what was at hand, salt and timber, then later manufacturing sophisticated import replacements, Venetian glassware, lenses, telescopes. (Ch 10. J.J. 1985. ) Unexpected developments evolved from this small beginning, chain growth of new Italian import replacing cities, creation of the Renaissance, artistic achievements of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Galileo and the beginning of the scientific revolution.


Jacobs’ analysis of the development, in the twentieth century, of the car industry in the United States, had similar modest trial and error beginnings. When Henry Ford began his successful firm in 1903, he had already failed as a car manufacturer. This time he changed his strategy assembling parts that other people were manufacturing elsewhere, then starting to manufacture repair parts himself, part after part, until he was ready to put the first Model T Ford into production.

The repairing of things is often the older work to which the newer work of making the same thing as added. The Japanese used this method when they began imitating western goods imported into Japan in the nineteenth century. Bicycles were enormously popular in Japan. Repair shops sprung up to repair them in the big cities. In Tokyo the repair work was done in one-man, or two-man shops. Imported spare parts were costly and many repair shops thus found it worthwhile to make particular replacement parts themselves. In this way, groups of repair shops were doing the work of manufacturing entire bicycles. Far from being costly to develop, bicycle manufacturing in Japan paid its way through its own development stages.

The Japanese got more than a bicycle industry. Its method of manufacture via repair shop was soon adapted to the production of many other goods. Sony, the enormous Japanese manufacturer of communications equipment began in a similar way as a small parts shop. (Ch 2 .J.J 1970. )

Take away message – seems that a culture that enables people the freedom to adapt in trial and error ways to their environment, by definition is not fuddy-duddy. Let’s take a look at Great Britain, regarded as a conservative nation, see how Britannia meets the criteria of fuddy-duddy-ness.

Constitutional Monarchy, Liberty and Conservativism.

After the last Roman soldiers departed England in 407 AD, the polytheist tribes gradually began to consolidate into larger groups and adopt Christianity as a religion. Monks sent from Rome converted the king of Kent, and later, the kings of Mercia and Sussex to the Catholic religion. Invasions by pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes did not prevent the spread of Christianity through the land.

Battle with invaders from the north, and among competing kingdoms were a way of life, but in 927AD a gathering of British monarchs recognized Aethelstan as king of the English. By 954 AD unification of England had been achieved. A way of life was established, a monarchical Christian society that was to continue to modern times.

Under a monarchical system of government the king usually must consult and seek a measure of acceptance for his polices if he is to maintain broad acceptance by his subjects. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the laws of the Crown could not have been upheld without the support of the nobility and clergy. To gain this consent, kings called up their Great Council consisting of barons and earls, archbishops, bishops and abbots. This Great Council was to evolve over time into the Parliament of England.

Chameleon Conservatism.

’Conserve,’ as in conserve your energy – not to be confused with Plato’s idealized Utopia ‘to arrest all change.’

There is no single conservatism but rather a spectrum in British history. The spectrum includes classical liberal, free market, libertarian, Christian evangelical and other varieties, fifty shades of grey, you might say.. What is common to all is respect for liberty and the individual protected by non- arbitrary rule of law for all and respect for the trial and error evolution of the British institutions that underpin these values – a political order under law allowing the exercise of freedom from arbitrary coercion.

Reflecting on the French Revolution – etcetera.

Edmund Burke, writing in 1791, his cautionary letter ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France,’ saw threats to the basic principles whose observance sustained western constitutional government and free society. Burke recognized the problem of cavalier exercise of authority demonstrated by events in Paris that were based on Rousseau’s doctrine of natural rights, a doctrine that Burke perceived as gaining ground in England. Burke wanted to shake the complacency of those who believed that the French were simply imitating the modest English Revolution of 1688, which he argues was restorative of constitutional and established rights and very different from the clean-slate reconstructing of society from scratch, which was taking place in France.

Wary of the untutored and unsocial impulses that lie beneath men’s acquired civility, Burke considered that the social institutions that have evolved in a complex, historical process and have stood the test of time are what allow men to live together in any degree of peace and freedom. The political creed to which Burke subscribed, an off-shoot of the ‘Glorious Revolution of 1688,’ was united by hatred of arbitrary power and by a wish to be guided by and governed by the certain rule of law. The Revolution of 1688 did not seek to overthrow constitutional law but to preserve ‘ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.’ (‘Reflections,’ Oxford Press, P31.)

Burke argues that without the means of some change the State is without the means of its conservation. Without such means of correction it might even risk the loss of what it most wishes to conserve and these ‘two principles of conservation and correction acted strongly at the two critical periods of the Revolution and the Restoration.’ (R. P22.)

In the famous law of Charles 1, called the Petition of Right, the parliament says to the king, ‘Your subjects have inherited this freedom, ‘claiming their franchises, not on abstract principles ‘as the rights of men,’ but as a patrimony derived from their forefathers, whereas,’ says Burke, ‘ the revolutionaries in France, operating from first principles rather than empiric study are so taken up by their principles that they totally forget man’s nature. To legislate on the principle of human rationality is to present a one dimensional picture forgetting that men may also be irrational, self serving and violent.’ R. P32.)

With regard to the excesses and social misery brought about by the revolutionary government’s ad hoc decisions, Burke argues that ‘if the parliament had been not been dissolved, it may have acted as a balance and corrective of the excesses of the National Assembly and its judiciary owing its place to the National Assembly, not knowing by what law it judges nor under what authority it acts. ( R.PP 208/9.) .

From Burke to modern conservatives, these concerns of conservation and correction by trial and error are found in the writings of British and other conservative thinkers.

Modern day British conservative Roger Scruton, (Quadrant, ‘The Philosophy of Roger Scruton,’ ) describes the May Day event in Paris when anarchic leftist students took to the streets. Scruton watched transfixed as a violent battle between students and police unfolded beneath his attic window until abruptly “the plate-glass windows of the shops appeared to step back, shudder for a second, and then give up the ghost, as the reflections suddenly left them and they slid in jagged fragments to the ground”.

In this moment, at the centre of an archetypal 1960s event, it appears that Scruton experienced a sudden intuitive insight into the advent of the nihilistic postmodern era, characterised by the collapse of representation, and the fragmentation, violence and iconoclasm that Scruton later claimed in A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006), provided the context for the conservative philosophical response of which he has since propounded.

Earlier that day, reading de Gaulle’s Memoires, Scruton had been struck by the Gaullist insight that a nation is defined “by language, religion, and high culture [and that] in times of turmoil and conquest it is those spiritual things that must be protected and reaffirmed”, and now he saw this sacred dimension under threat by the profane Dionysian forces that had been unleashed below him, “throwing away … all customs, institutions and achievements, for the sake of a momentary exultation which could have no lasting sense save anarchy”.( Q P 2.)

Later, Scruton was visited by a friend, who had spent the day on the barricades. The May events appealed to her as the high point of an anarchic assault on the absurdity of bourgeois life. She and her comrades were convinced, “the Old Fascist de Gaulle and his regime would be begging for mercy” as the student insurrection escalated into a new French Revolution. In fact, she was wrong although for a few critical months it appeared that the bourgeois world they so despised was about to be overthrown But what, Scruton asked his visitor, do you propose to put in its place? “What vision of France and its culture compels you?’ To which she replied with a book, Foucault’s ‘Les mots and les choses’ the avant-garde of social theory for radicals, despite the fact that Foucault’s structural determinism reduced people to ’the status of elements in a gigantic system ’ and justified any transgression as rebellion against bourgeois power. Now treated by former friends as a pariah, Scruton went on to explore the law, and discovered the answer to Foucault in the common law of England, which he saw as proof that there is a real distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power, that power can exist without oppression, and that authority is a living force in human conduct. (Q.P4.)

Scruton abhorred the modernist reduction of life to abstract categories and insisted on the centrality of contextual and localised “social knowledge” once embodied in the common law, political and social conventions, manners, customs, morality and civility of traditional English culture, and which arose as by an “invisible hand” from the innumerable social transactions, age-old negotiations and compromises perpetuated by custom to restrain and channel conflicting interests and passions. In this he found support in Burke, who celebrated the thriving variety and uniqueness of traditional life but also explored its political implications, persuading Scruton that “the utopian promises of socialism go with a wholly abstract vision of the human mind … that has only the vaguest relation to the thought and feelings by which real human lives are conducted”, a theme he explored in The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope (2010).

Burke persuaded him that “societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history”, while all attempts to pretend otherwise must decline into “militant irrationality” as the proponents of such visions struggle to impose their abstract template onto an intractable world.

These views, common to conservatives, belief in trial and error reform to achieve non-arbitrary protection of rights under the law and respect for individual liberty are demonstrated in the evolution of Magna Carta to modern parliamentary democracy.


Case Study of Magna Carta.

From conservative empirical Britain came the Magna Carta, the founding institution of democracy world-wide, beginning the process of securing the rights of the people under the rule of law against the power of kings and/or executive.

The first of several versions of the Magna Carta was signed by King John in June 1215. Faced with rebellion that he couldn’t suppress, brought on by his exploitation of revenue raising powers, the king agreed to a negotiated peace with his nobles and affixed his seal to the Magna Carta. The rights set out in Magna Carta were not expressed in a codified way but came and went in new versions of the Great Charter and also the important Forest Charter, both revoked, but surviving in amended form.

Though a king’s promises were not usually kept, the Magna Carta was a significant document in establishing the fundamental precepts of Britain’s constitutional monarchy. It lays the claim that the king is not above the law. He is obliged to keep his executive actions in line with the law, and to respect the rights of the people. If the king is subject to law, so is everybody else in society, society is therefore ruled by law and not men. Magna Carta is the constitutional moment when the rule of law enters the modern world.

The other source of contention, the Forest Charter, was a significant example of a sphere where the king exercised his royal prerogative to the detriment of society. The Royal forests were established for hunting by William the Conqueror irrespective of prior rights on the land. By the time of Henry 11, up to a third of England, encompassing arable land and villages, public commons, lands held by barons and free men, were subject to the Forest Charter. Such land could not be used for productive purposes without the king’s permission. Negotiated promises by various kings to return some of these lands to their owners were not kept, but in 1301, King Edward 1, needing funds for war campaigns, was obliged to reconvene parliament. Parliament refused further grants until prior promises to return land were kept. Edward was obliged to surrender what he called his hereditary rights’ under great stress of necessity.’ ‘When the Charter was enforced, says James Spigalman in Quadrant, ( July/August 2015.) thousands of acres were returned to their communities, probably the most significant single restraint on the exercise of the royal prerogative in the medieval era.’

Other reforms were to come. Magna Carta is the focus of reform. Much of the document restores specific liberties like fishing rights, for example, that the king had usurped in earlier periods but from the Magna Carta evolved a society based on liberties, the trial and error creation of British democracy, Reform Acts of 1832, 18647and 1884, extending manhood suffrage, 1864 Bill enacted by Benjamin Disraeli and the Conservative Party, the others by Liberal Governments of Earl Grey and William Gladstone. The vote for women had to wait until later, universal women’s suffrage was first enacted in British Commonwealth countries, New Zealand, in 1893, and South Australia the following year, and in Britain at the end of the First World War.

Science and Technology.

How to explain the vigorous enquiry and investigation of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Great Britain? Maybe the inheritance law of primogeniture had something to do with it, the swelling of the gentry, middle-class by the educated younger sons and relatives of the landed aristocracy. In philosophy there are the empiricists of the Scottish Enlightenment, John Locke’s and David Hume’s enquiries into human rationality, Adam Smith’s enquiry into the wealth of nations, gentleman farmer James Hutton studying the geology of his region to question the biblical age of the Earth, Charles Darwin on ‘The Beagle’ studying species in the context of Malthus and coming up with his evolutionary theory. Common to all investigators is the empirical approach. A giant among scientists, Isaac Newton,’ in 1687, who published his ‘Principia Mathematica,’ formulating the laws of motion and universal gravitation, developed the mathematics of Calculus to assist his measurement. For his discoveries in optics he built the first reflecting telescope, solving problems of materials and shaping and grinding his own mirrors.

Second Test Case Study. The Industrial Revolution.


The Industrial Revolution that revolutionized human productivity and within decades put an ended seasonal famine in the West, owed less to scientists than to solutions to problems by workers on the factory floor. John Kay’s flying shuttle, James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Richard Arkwright’s water frame were responses to speeding production in spinning and weaving cotton and linen. The three inventors were all of humble origin, Arkwright, an entrepreneur who revolutionized the factory production system became Sir Richard Arkwright. Invention leads to invention. The developer of the work engine of the Industrial revolution, James Watt was an instrument maker in Glasgow who adapted the model of Thomas Newcomben’s steam engine to solve the problem of inefficiency from wasted steam. Watt laboured over the engine problem for more than a year. Then out walking one afternoon, in 1765, he passed by the old washing house.

‘I was thinking upon the engine at the time,’ he wrote later, ‘when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it and thereby be condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the golf-house when the whole thing was strong in my mind.’ ( ‘ The Scottish Enlightenment. The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World.’ Arthur Herman. Ch 12.)

Invention leads to invention. Trevithick’s locomotive on rails, Stephenson’s steam engine …

I’m stopping now, I’ve run out of steam … but trial and error conservatism does not. Like Nature, it keeps on keeping on, no fuddy-duddy in evolutionary terms.



  1. Great post, beth, I’ll encourage my Facebook friends to read it. “Isolation is a negative, closes the door to the potentialities of change. Freedom‘s a positive – opens the door to trial and error problem solving.” How true, how often resisted. The underlying nature of existence is constant change, those who fail to embrace it will be crushed as it rolls over them. The evidence for the superiority of the spontaneous, unplanned and evolutionary over planning, direction and intellectually-devised regimes is overwhelming, yet so many continue to act in denial of it. Progress always emerges, it is never imposed, it never follows a plan, it is hardly ever, if at all, an outcome of central government intervention.

  2. Faustino, appreciate your thoughtful response and recognize
    the experience behind it. I am learning heaps investigating
    stuff for my blogs. Will I get to forty posts, who knows? As you
    mention, spontaneous beats planning. I think of it as ‘fizz’ like
    meetings with ‘the other’ at sea ports, ( or by the internet. )

  3. Some solid stuff here. Love the example of the Jap repair shop. Sochiro Honda big hero with me.

    Someone better tell Malcolm Turnbull about Jap repair shops. He’s getting very top-down with all his plans for cleverness, agility, unleashiness etc. Those who wish to unleash should stop leashing…then they won’t have to unleash, duh.

    Love the pics of old Pommie hardware!

  4. Well, that was quite a dizzying journey through time. Must read it again! Dragged a lot of stuff out from the dusty recesses of the little grey cells, especially re the giants of the industrial revolution, mostly learnt at school. I’m sure our children are not taught about this anymore and certainly not the link between wicked capitalistic industry and the demise of poverty.
    Thank you Beth – always worth the visit here :o)

  5. Good to hear from you again, Colin, thx for the comment.
    Re the demonizing of the Industrial revolution, I agree with
    Matt Ridley’s argument in ‘The Rational Optimist how ol’ King
    Coal released the serfs from slavery. Serfs like that. )

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