Harold doesn’t really need a house and doesn’t know if he can afford one, but he just wants a house, so he looks at several online, finds one he thinks he can afford, calls a real-estate agent, and makes an offer. After moving in, he quickly discovers the roof is leaky, the neighborhood is a hotbed of crime, and his commute to work is much longer than he expected. He also learns that upkeep for his house requires hundreds of dollars each month, which he does not have. After two years, he files for bankruptcy (admittedly to his relief) and lets the home go into foreclosure.
In contrast, Patricia has been saving for a home for years and has identified a neighborhood that is safe and comfortable. She spends months researching the background and condition of many houses in the neighborhood and how a 15- or 30-year loan might affect her long-term finances. She ends up buying a house that suits her needs well and costs less than she could afford. She moves in, experiences few surprises and lives there happily for 20 years.
When making important personal decisions, certainly nearly all of us try to make decisions in the manner Patricia did, not Harold. We do adequate research so we can take into account the past, present and future. We act not in haste but with prudence.
And yet, somehow, when this decision-making process translates to the public sphere it often looks much more like Harold’s than Patricia’s. Indeed, our collective thought patterns often begin to resemble those of a capricious young couple that meets one day and elopes to Las Vegas the next rather than those of a sensible couple that dates for months or years and holds a respectable ceremony with loved ones in attendance.
[pullquote]Important decisions – public or private – should be based on much more than impulse or immediate circumstances.[/pullquote]Important decisions – public or private – should be based on much more than impulse or immediate circumstances. As John Henry Newman once said, “A truly great intellect is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre.” Taking a long, connected view on any issue gives us knowledge that helps us ground our choices in reality. As Neal A. Maxwell wrote, “With illumination comes a true sense of proportion that enables us to study the present while being tutored by the past.”
To provide an example of what often happens in the public sphere, let’s return to the marriage theme. “Gay-rights” supporters want to change the meaning and institution of marriage to suit their preferences. But have they stopped to think about why the institution and related laws and policies exist in the first place and how they came to be? Have they considered the long-term consequences for individuals and society of drastically altering an institution that has been in place for thousands of years? Maybe, maybe not, but the fact that this movement has arisen in such a short period of time and demands sweeping changes to society should be cause for concern.
Just because a law or custom exists doesn’t necessarily mean it is good. We have plenty of bad laws, and any law should be subject to scrutiny and change. We should not resist all change as, for example, many in the public education crowd often seem to do. But before changing any long-established law or policy, we should be certain to study its history and how a change might affect people now and in the long run. In all these things, we should always proceed with prudence.
This idea is a central tenet of authentic conservative thought. Here is a classic quote on this subject from Russell Kirk:
Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries.
Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.
Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.
Prudence in government and politics, as in personal life, is vital for long-term success.