There are two interesting discussions going on at once over at Crooked Timber, in response to this post by John Holbo. One concerns the history of Tocqueville's reputation/prominence in American (and to some extent more broadly Anglophone) intellectual life and political debate (declaration of interest: I've contributed to this part of the discussion on the Croked Timber thread); the other concerns the validity and applicability of the conservative critique of (alleged) liberal or left-wing attempts to effect radical, ideology-driven social transformation.
This latter point is, I think, an important one; and given its importance and complexity, I want to think a bit more about it before getting into a discussion of it here (but I do hope to do so eventually -- perhaps after I've finished a paper I'm currently working on, on Hume, which is somewhat related). Broadly speaking, though, the dilemma is this. On the one hand, certain conservative or what one might call dystopian liberal critics of radical social transformation (I'm thinking here of Montaigne, Hume, Burke, Oakeshott, Popper, Strauss, Isaiah Berlin, to some extent post-French Revolutionary liberals from Constant to Tocqueville, etc.) seem to me to have a powerful point, and one which we'd do well to heed. On the other hand, warnings against radical change have often been deployed in defense of deeply corrupt and oppressive regimes or norms; sometimes the status quo is so bad that maintaining it is worse than the risks associated with social transformation; and sometimes radical transformations work rather well. Indeed, it is frightening to contemplate what the current state of the world would be without them (I believe it was Anatole France who once said that if men never dreamed -- and, I'd add, never sought to transform their dreams into realities -- we'd still live in caves.) Furthermore, there is the problem of uncertainty. That we cannot know what the long-term (or even short-term) results of our actions will be is both obviously and importantly true; but this cuts both ways -- it may make us cautious about acting, but it also undercuts predictions of disaster; and if we only acted when we could be sure that no undesirable or disastrous results would follow, we would wind up doing nothing at all. Yet inaction is not neutral; it has its own results, for which we who do not act must bear some responsibility.
So how can we tell when we should follow the sceptical, cautious liberals or conservatives -- and so avoid Jacobinism, the Great Leap Forward and all the Five Year Plans -- and when we should follow the dreamers, the visionaries who have generally been the ones responsible for freeing the slaves and bringing hope to the afflicted? I don't have an answer, and doubt that I will, though this is the point I hope to return to. For the moment, I think that it's important to remember that there is more that is important, in considering this, than the ambition of the goals. What means are employed in their pursuit is a decisive question: one answer -- too simple, but at least a start -- is that the difference between change, however sweeping, based on consent, and change, however desirable, achieved by coercion and violence,is crucial. Another important factor is the attitude, the mentality, of the reformers: whether they are dogmatic, convinced of their own virtue or infallibility and thus deaf to criticism and blind to their own mistakes and limitations, or whether they are, while committed, also open, flexible, respectful of others, and regard themselves with scepticism and humility.
As for the other issue -- of Tocqueville's reputation -- I've already said what I have to say about that over at Crooked Timber (and have learned much from some of the other posters, for which I'm grateful to them). Thinking about it, and the quote from Nisbet with which John opens the post, raises another question I'd like to pose to any readers here. Thinking about it, it seems to me that there's a long dry period in conservative political thought -- by which I mean political thought of seriousness and quality (though not necessarily fame) -- in the English-speaking world between, say, James Fitzjames Stephen's Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873), and the post-war period when you have conservative philosophers like Oakeshott and more conservative liberals such as Berlin and Hayek* writing; and even Stephen seems like a somewhat isolated figure (though perhaps one might also count Bagehot, and perhaps Maine -- though I don't know his thought well enough to classify him). So we seem to be talking about a silence of serious conservative political theorising for 80 years or so -- and a general sparsity for over a century, between say Burke and Oakeshott. Could this be correct?
*This should not be taken to deny the vast differences between these thinkers; nor when I describe thinkers as 'conservative' here do I refer to support for what passes for conservative politics in the US today; I mean, rather, the sort of scepticism and wariness of radical change and ideological visions referred to above.