Gay marriage and the limits of tradition

In his 1953 book “The Conservative Mind,” Russell Kirk expounded a view peculiar to the right. “Even the most intelligent of men cannot hope to understand all the secrets of traditional morals and social arrangements,” he wrote, “but we may be sure that Providence, acting through the medium of human trial and error, has developed every hoary habit for some important purpose.” It’s not an argument often heard in our debates.

Americans do pay homage to our past by invoking the Declaration of Independence, the framers, the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln, and so on. But the idea that we should be afraid to make changes in our laws for fear of rending the organic fabric of society doesn’t command much allegiance on either the left or the right.

Liberals have never made a fetish of obeisance to the past. They agree with the revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine that giving primacy to tradition unjustly places “the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living.”

American conservatives largely share that premise. The New Deal has been in place for some 80 years, but conservatives don’t believe in conserving that. Their feeling is it was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.