February 9, 2013


A conversation about conservatism (Jennifer Rubin on February 8, 2013, Washington Post)

Just at a time when Republicans are debating what sort of party they should have and what sort of conservatism they can practice and still win elections comes along an important and highly readable book by Hoover scholar Peter Berkowitz, "Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation." [...]

I came to the conclusion that it was necessary to restate the connection between liberty, self-government and political moderation. "Constitutional Conservatism" represents my attempt to do so.  The book contains chapters on Edmund Burke, "The Federalist" and the high points of post-World War II American conservatism.  You could sum up the results in three propositions:

First, social conservatives and libertarians should rally around, and rededicate themselves to conserving, the principles of liberty inscribed in the United States Constitution.  
Second, dedication to conserving these principles of liberty would yield an alliance among conservatives that is both philosophically coherent and politically potent.  
Third, both the philosophical coherence and the political potency derive in significant measure from the lesson of moderation inscribed in the Constitution and in modern conservatism more generally.

The defense of political moderation is always needed because the tendency to take one single principle, right, or policy to an extreme is endemic to politics, yet we are called upon, particularly in a liberal democracy, to balance and blend competing principles, rights and policies as times change and as new opportunities and threats emerge and others recede. [...]

"Moderation," as you point out, has gotten a bad rap for mushiness or mechanical horse trading. You argue it is something different. Perhaps heterogeneity or "fusion" (Frank S. Meyer's term) would be better. What's the essence of conservative moderation and have you seen examples of such (e.g. Ryan's Roadmap for America, Bush on immigration reform) that embodies that ethos? Should we replace "moderation" with prudence or restraint or balance?

Yes, moderation has a bad name, and in some quarters it always has.  In "Reflections on the Revolution in France," Burke observed that one who seeks to defend a "scheme of liberty soberly limited" is likely to be accused of lacking "fidelity to his cause."  Purists, he says, will denounce moderation as the "virtue of cowards" and will condemn compromise as the "prudence of traitors."

Nevertheless, I prefer to stick with the term moderation -- or better still, political moderation -- because "heterogeneity" is very abstract and "fusion" (which Meyer did not care for) suggests that conservative principles can only be held together by some ineffable cosmic force.

The political moderation I defend has nothing to do with splitting the difference or compromise for the sake of compromise.  The essence of political moderation in a free society is balancing and blending competing and worthy principles for the sake of liberty.  And the essence of conservative political moderation is recognizing the mutual dependence and mutual tension between liberty and tradition.

Political moderation is bound up with an appreciation of the imperfections of human nature, respect for the limits of human knowledge, and recognition of the significance of circumstances in coloring conduct and shaping options.  Together, these yield a generally empirical, skeptical and anti-utopian sensibility.

Posted by at February 9, 2013 7:35 AM

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