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“Nothing Should Be
Done for the First Time”

“A conservative is a man who believes that nothing should be done for the first time.”

This quotation, often attributed to Alfred E. Wiggam, actually comes from a blend of two writings by two authors — Francis Cornford in 1908 and Albert Wiggam in 1924. Below are abridged excerpts, with the referenced quote in red text and full source information at the end of each. Note that the original quote contains the word “ever” in both authors; the popularly misquoted variant does not. Also, as a disclaimer, I cannot be fully certain that Wiggam is quoting Cornford, especially because the quoted word “believes” is not in Cornford. If anyone has evidence that Wiggam is actually quoting someone else or something prior to 1908, please let me know. Thanks!

F. M. Cornford, 1908
Microcosmographia Academica

First, perhaps, I had better describe the parties in academic politics; it is not easy to distinguish them precisely. There are five; and they are called Conservative Liberals, Liberal Conservatives, Non-Placets, Adullamites, and Young Men in a Hurry.

A Conservative Liberal is a broad-minded man, who thinks that something ought to be done, only not anything that anyone now desires, but something which was not done in 1881–82.

A Liberal Conservative is a broad-minded man, who thinks that something ought to be done, only not anything that anyone now desires and that most things which were done in 1881–82 ought to be undone.

The men of both parties dwell in the Valley of Indecision.

The Non-Placet is not open to conviction; he is a man of principle. A principle is a rule of inaction. He believes that it is always well to be on the Safe Side, which can be easily located as the northern side of the interior of the Senate House. He will be a person whom you have never seen before, and will never see again anywhere but in his favourite station on the left of the place of judgment.

The Adullamites are dangerous, because they know what they want; and that is, all the money there is going. They say to one another, “If you will scratch my back, I will scratch yours; and if you won’t, I will scratch your face.”

The Young Man in a Hurry is a narrow-minded and ridiculously youthful prig, who is inexperienced enough to imagine that something might be done before very long, and even to suggest definite things. He is afflicted with a conscience, which is apt to break out, like the measles, in patches.

The parties hold a Caucus from time to time — baited with muffins and cigars — except in the case of the Non-placet Caucus, which satisfies only its spiritual needs. The Caucus is like a mouse-trap; when you are outside you want to get in; and when you are inside the mere sight of the other mice makes you want to get out.

There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing.

Since the stone-axe fell into disuse at the close of the Neolithic age, two other arguments of universal application have been added to the rhetorical armoury by the ingenuity of mankind. They are closely akin; and, like the stone-axe, they are addressed to the Political Motive.

The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future — expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.

The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that
nothing should ever be done for the first time.

It will be seen that both the Political Arguments are addressed to the Bugbear of Giving yourself away. Other special arguments can be framed in view of other Bugbears; for example, the Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived. Time, by the way, is like the medlar; it has a trick of going rotten before it is ripe.

The conduct of business naturally divides into two branches: Conservative Liberal Obstruction and Liberal Conservative Obstruction. The former is by much the more effective; and it should always be preferred to mere unreasonable opposition, because it will bring you the reputation of being more advanced than any so-called reformer.

The main types of argument suitable for the Conservative Liberal are “The present measure would block the way for a far more sweeping reform,” and “The machinery for effecting the proposed objects already exists.” The latter should be urged in cases where the existing machinery has never worked, and is now so rusty that there is no chance of its being set in motion.

Another accepted means of obstruction is the Alternative Proposal. This is a form of Red Herring. As soon as three or more alternatives are in the field, there is pretty sure to be a majority against any one of them, and nothing will be done.

The principle of the Prevarication method is that a few bad reasons for doing something neutralise all the good reasons for doing it. Since this is devoutly believed, it is often the best policy to argue weakly against the side you favour.

Liberal Conservative Obstruction is less argumentative and leans to invective. The Last Ditch is the Safe Side, considered as a place which you may safely threaten to die in. The Wild Cat is an epithet applicable to persons who bring forward a scheme unanimously agreed upon by experts after two years’ exhaustive consideration of thirty-five or more alternative proposals. There is an oracle of Merlin which says, “When the wild cat is belled, the mice will vote Placet.”

When other methods of obstruction fail, you should have recourse to Wasting Time; for, although it is recognised in academic circles that time in general is of no value, considerable importance is attached to tea-time, and by deferring this, you may exasperate any body of men to the point of voting against anything. Motions for adjournment, made less than fifteen minutes before tea-time or at any subsequent moment, are always carried.

—F. M. Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician, 1908  [Abridged. Quoted from 1923 edition. –ღ t.g.]

Albert E. Wiggam, 1924
“The Four Most Useless Men in the World”

Three world possibilities lie just ahead. First, that men will destroy civilization. Second, that they will go on muddling through economic and political opportunism with hell always likely to break loose at the next turn. Third, that they will apply human intelligence to human affairs. The last is the only one that has never been tried.

Should we undertake the third program — to put intelligence in the saddle — there are four men who will not be of use and only one man who will. To find that man and place him in power is the sole hope of the world.

The first man who will be of no use is the optimist. He refuses to face facts at all and such phantasmagorical optimism never solved any political problems.

The second man who will be of no use is the pessimist. Having to choose between two evils, he chooses both. He is afflicted with omnipresent cerebral corns, ubiquitous mental bunions, and intellectual ague, run by perpetual motion. He is as blind to facts as is the optimist.

Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can help rebuild our world because they do not live in it — they live in self-made universes built of wishful fancies.

The third man who cannot help us is the conservative.
The conservative is a man who “believes that nothing should ever be done for the first time.” Congress always has debated until the country was worn out and then voted on the emasculated outcome. Had the conservative had his way, the human race would still be swinging by its tail in the jungle. He will never illuminate the world with a new freedom.

The fourth most useless man is the radical. The radical is a man who believes that nothing should ever be done except for the first time. He brings revolution, and revolutions never increase the number of wise men nor place any larger number in power. The radical, therefore, cannot help revive a sinking world.

Is there any man who can help us? Yes, the new liberal. The liberal has had a long and heroic history. In the main he has succeeded.

But in his noble humanitarianism the old liberal made three gigantic mistakes.

First, he believed that the masses were naturally just, wise, and good, and, if given political freedom and a vote, would rule themselves with sanity and intelligence. However, men are not by nature wise and good. They are good, bad, and indifferent; intelligent, mediocre, and stupid.

Second, he believed there was in society an inherent principle of progress and if men were freed politically, this principle would carry us forward and all we had to do was to get on and ride into the millennium. But there is no natural principle of social progress. Progress comes solely from the few great, separate minds that teach people how to behave better toward each other.

Third, he believed that the machines which science had invented would lighten human toil and give men freedom for joy, adventure, and beauty. He was wrong. Science has saddled men with a world machine which, instead of lightening toil, threatens a deeper slavery than ever.

What, then, is needed? Plainly a new liberal with a new social vision, a new political technique, a new understanding of human nature, a new philosophy of progress, a new objective for civilization. If such men are not found and given leadership, the day of democracy, hope, and liberty for common men is all over.

Who is this new liberal and what is his technique? He is a quiet, tolerant man, with no grand, all-embracing principles except one — he applies to social problems the same kind of intelligence with which he repairs his automobile. Optimism, pessimism, radicalism, conservativism, bigotry, fundamentalism, and prejudice never repaired an automobile. They never repaired an old one or invented a new one.

The world-difficulty is that the scientist invented a world machine and then capital and labor and the politicians ran away with it and thought they could manage it without his spirit. But science never yet emancipated a man who did not catch the scientific spirit. Nor can it emancipate a society which uses its discoveries but does not possess its soul. It will only chain men to a bigger machine which they cannot control and cannot understand.

The new liberal is brother to the scientist. He cares nothing for the “grand and glorious history of the party.” He merely wants to find truth and to share it with all men. This is the new liberal’s conception of liberty. And only out of such liberty can progress come.

This task of liberalizing himself, of getting away from crowd passions and thinking tolerantly, lies within the heart of every man. All must be schooled in a new technique of life. And unless this new liberalism anoints all parties to the social conflict, unless this new method of humanizing industry, economics, and politics possesses the nations, the men who lie in Flanders field died in vain.

The poppies above their graves will wither in the stifling air of bigotry, fundamentalism, and prejudice instead of blooming amid the sunshine of tolerance and liberty which the men who lie beneath died to bring.

—Albert Edward Wiggam, “The Four Most Useless Men in the World. And One More — a Very Different Fellow — Who Is Useful Indeed,” in Collier’s, The National Weekly, 1924 August 16th  [abridged –ღ t.g.]

Two Bonus Quotes

The conservative is a man who “believes that nothing should ever be done for the first time.” If an earthquake breaks loose and does it once, very well; it then becomes “precedent.” Earthquakes become part of the status quo. He puts his money into earthquakes and they then become “vested rights.” —Ibid.

Anything Done for the First Time Unleashes a Demon  —Dave Sim, Cerebus, 1984

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