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Political Conservation, or How to Prevent Institutional Decay

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Author BecksteinMartin,
Project Towards the Normative Reconstruction of the Welfare State
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Constellations
Title of proceedings Constellations


Sometimes established institutions aren’t perfect but cannot be replaced with better solutions. In situations of this kind, forestalling decay, not forcing progress, is the order of the day. But what needs to be done to prevent change for the worse? Must anything be done at all? To help answering these questions, the article explores conservation as a mode of political action. It argues that securing the choice to retain a comparatively favored institution becomes a practical challenge for legislators when technological, economic, ecological and other external developments threaten to turn its effective function away from which we value it. To cope with the task, legislators must resolve Edmund Burke’s ‘conservation paradox’ in which existing arrangements can only stay the same if they are changed. The article provides a formal solution by construing political conservation as renovative reformism that adapts institutional structures, cultures or mechanisms to changing circumstances in order to prevent the accidental transformation of institutional mandates, and points out why political disputes may arise even among persons who are equally interested in leaving things as they are.