Constitutional Conservatism

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This Liberty Law Talk is with Hoover Institution fellow Peter Berkowitz on his new book Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation. The book deepens Frank Meyer’s conservative fusionist project by adding an Aristotelian and Burkean challenge to both libertarians and conservatives in America. Both groups must lead with political moderation, Berkowitz counsels. One example of such moderation was Ronald Reagan, Berkowitz observes, and this explains much of his success. But this sounds odd, surely Reagan stood for something.

Berkowitz’s understanding of moderation, however, is not that of the mealy-mouthed variety, but is found in the application of principles to the politics that public opinion will bear. Moderation may involve, relatively speaking, appearing extreme as one insists on refusing to compromise certain principles. But the substantive point is the bringing to bear of principle within the time and circumstances given to the statesman. Politics, it follows, cannot be reduced to various theoretical commitments like the natural law, free market theories, or autonomistic individualism. And this, I think, most obviously has not been done by many on the Right consistently enough. To do so is to take political representation seriously. Finally, Berkowitz leaves us with the formative role of tradition in a liberal society that liberty and progress must remain in dialogue with or risk dissolution at the hands of the Left, for whom the clock is always behind schedule.

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, where he cochairs the Jill and Boyd Smith Task Force on Virtues of a Free Society and chairs the Koret-Taube Task Force on National Security and Law. He is the author of Israel and the Struggle over the International Laws of War (Hoover Institution Press, 2012), Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism (Princeton University Press, 1999), and Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist (Harvard University Press, 1995).

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  1. says

    “Berkowitz’s understanding of moderation, however, is not that of the mealy-mouthed variety, but is found in the application of principles to the politics that public opinion will bear.”

    Part of the problem is that one’s own claims of moderation are never mealy-mouthed while the attempts at moderation by one’s opponents is always mealy-mouthed. Everyone acts according to principles, even we don’t know what they are or else don’t agree with them. If we perceive someone’s moderation as mealy-mouthed, that is probably evidence of our lack of understanding of someone’s principles or other motivations.

    “Moderation may involve, relatively speaking, appearing extreme as one insists on refusing to compromise certain principles.”

    Once again, it is about perception and who is perceiving. Anything can appear extreme relative to something that is perceived as being moderate or status quo. It is always a question of what one is moderating between. One could moderate between libertarianism and fundamentalism, between communism and fascism, between apple pie and cherry pie. Between any two points a line can be drawn along which one seeks moderation. But if the points shift or are entirely changed, what once appeared as moderation will suddenly appear as extremism. Moderation by definition is relative and context-bound.

    “But the substantive point is the bringing to bear of principle within the time and circumstances given to the statesman.”

    What seems like situational ethics from one position will seem like moral relativism from another. Context isn’t something that most conservatives have given much room for in their ideology or predisposition. To argue for a conservatism of moderation and moderating is to argue for what seems very alien to modern American conservatism. What is interesting about many past statesman who we might call moderate conservatives is how much they often supported progressive reform and liberal positions, relative to the context of their time. They sought to defend the status quo by promoting reform and adapting to change. They weren’t reactionaries which is the bad name conservatives have gotten today.

    “Politics, it follows, cannot be reduced to various theoretical commitments like the natural law, free market theories, or autonomistic individualism.”

    This is a great point that many conservatives forget. Natural law has often been used to overthrow social order, to attack the status quo, to change tradition, to challenge hierarchical social order, etc. Principled positions and radicalism inherently go hand in hand. If you follow a principled position full enough and far enough, it always leads to radicalism. That is what moderation teaches conservatism.

    “And this, I think, most obviously has not been done by many on the Right consistently enough. To do so is to take political representation seriously.”

    Interestingly, Burke wrote:

    “If any ask me what a free government is? I answer, that, for any practical purpose, it is what the people think so; and that they, not I, are the natural, lawful, and competent judges of this matter.”

    Burke didn’t think a political representative should simply do what his constituents wanted and he argued against that, but he also didn’t think the political elite should be dismissive of the populace they are supposed to represent. Burke and moderates like him are neither populists nor anti-populists, although at times Burke could voice sentiments that resonated with both positions.

    “Finally, Berkowitz leaves us with the formative role of tradition in a liberal society that liberty and progress must remain in dialogue with or risk dissolution at the hands of the Left, for whom the clock is always behind schedule.”

    This is why it wasn’t contradictory, despite appearances of inconsistency, for Burke to both promote progressive reform (sometimes to the point of allying with radicals) and to promote tradition. This kind of moderation is about balance and some would argue represents conservatism at its best. However, you’d have a hard time convincing many Republicans and Tea Party activists about this.

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