Monday, March 9, 2009

Constitutional Conservatism

Peter Berkowitz offers his advice for the divided partisans of today's political right, in his essay, "Constitutional Conservatism":

A constitutional conservatism puts liberty first and teaches the indispensableness of moderation in securing, preserving, and extending its blessings. The American Constitution that it seeks to conserve presupposes natural freedom and equality; draws legitimacy from democratic consent while protecting individual rights from invasion by popular majorities; defines government’s proper responsibilities while providing it with the incentives and tools to perform them effectively; welcomes a diverse array of voluntary associations in part to prevent any one from dominating; assumes the primacy of self-interest but also the capacity to rise above it through the exercise of virtue; reflects and at the same time refines popular will through a complex scheme of representation; and disperses and blends power among three distinct branches of government as well as among federal and state governments to provide checks and balances. The Constitution and the nation that has prospered under it for 220 years demonstrate that conserving and enlarging freedom and democracy in America depend on weaving together rival interests and competing goods ....

The principles are familiar: individual freedom and individual responsibility, limited but energetic government, economic opportunity, and strong national defense. They derive support from Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, as well as from Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, and, in his most representative moments, John Stuart Mill — outstanding contributors to the conservative side of the larger liberal tradition. They are embedded in the Constitution and flow out of the political ideas from which it was fashioned. In the 1950s, they animated William F. Buckley Jr.’s critique of higher education in America in God & Man at Yale, an opening salvo in the making of the modern conservative movement. In the 1960s, they were central to Frank Meyer’s celebrated fusion of traditionalist and libertarian conservatism, and they formed the backbone of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for the presidency. In the 1980s, they inspired Ronald Reagan’s consolidation of conservatism. In the 1990s, they fueled Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution.” And even though George W. Bush’s tumultuous eight years in the White House have left conservatives in disarray, these principles informed both his conception of compassionate conservatism and his aspiration to make the spread of liberty and democracy a crucial element of American foreign policy.
The article's worth a careful read, here.

I was impressed by how much Barry Goldwater's conservative vision animates Berkowitz's "constitutional conservatism." That vision melds political liberty and traditional morality as a guiding ethical program for society. Beyond this, Berkowitz's piece offers a good review of the conservative canon. He offers two bold statements for movement activists today: One, big government is here to stay, and that the right should stress "limited" goverment rather than "smaller" government as a winning tactic; second, and more controversially, Berkowitz suggests the right should reconcile to the sexual revolution, that, for example, premarital sex and institutionalized divorce are facts of contemporary American life, and conservatives court danger with an obssession toward rolling back the clock in this social arena.

Berkowitz provides a point-by-point manifesto at
the conclusion. One point that's interesting is how the article essentially offers an endorsement of neoconservatism without actually mentioning neoconservtism. That is to say, the right can assume as a doctrinal notion that a strong and outward national security policy is the basis for the preservation of liberty and moral order at home. The discussion of Goldwater and Ronald Reagan illusrates that both libertarian politics and moral society depend on robust national security policies and leadership in the international realm.

The debate for conservatives is found then, essentially, outside of a forward, free-trading national security orientation; it is instead the search, on the one hand, for a proposed domestic governance model that can reconcile the rejuvenated demands for small-government activism amid the accession to power of a Democratic Party regime intent on the largest peacetime expansion of the state in American history. Backed by
some polling data, the country's progressive left will be tempted to transform Democratic power into a patriarchal state-universalism, with government action, in virtually every sector of American life, sold as a public good necessitated by monumental market failure; there is also the call by Berkowitz, on the other hand, for a conservatism that accedes ground in the culture wars to accomodate a changing society while at the same time not abdicating personal liberty as a priority of a constitutionally decent and ethically vigorous political system.

As a nuanced intellectual argument, I can anticipate some strong reactions to Berkowitz, especially from small-g conservatives. Robert Stacy McCain, for example,
has been hammering the commentators on the right who enabled a "national greatness" mindset that accelerated the growth of big government under GOP administrations. On this question I have lined up in agreeement with Berkowitz, although the evidence that government today can be trusted to preserve good government - limited government - in a time of crisis has been notably absent in the trillion dollar bailuot-mania currently the rage today. In this sense, a "rollback agenda" on the right actually might be good politics against a Democratic majority dismissive of any notions of limitations on state power.

And that brings me to the second avenue of Berkowitz's constitutional conservatism, the social sphere of sexual politics and the family. As he notes, "conservatives can and should continue to make the case for the traditional understanding of marriage with children at the center," but he then goes on to say that conservatives "should refrain from using government to enforce the traditional understanding."

This seems self-defeating, for the notion of a absolute social libertarianism in the family sphere provides an opening for the left to advance its secular-progressive agenda, which posits traditional family structures as archiac modes of hierarchy and domination (and in turn offers an alternative "multi-culti" family model that harms both individuals and society).

Despite all of this, Berkowitz makes good use of the various strands of conservative doctrine, and today's right-wing partisans would be wise to start shifting the debate on the Republican future to the realm of ideas and action instead of debating movement rock stars and the politics of "personalist" rivalry.


Jason Pappas said...

One of your most thoughtful posts has, as of yet, no comments! Perhaps it is too nuanced! The discussion is important. It involves core issues that motivate and at times divide conservatives.

One of the interesting issues that you’ve addressed is what I call the relationship between virtue and liberty. Social conservatives want a culture that reinforces individual virtue and the family structure. The more libertarian wing wants no state constraints regarding virtue.

I’ve started to examine this issue in the context of our country’s founding. In that generation both virtue and liberty were not only passionately desired but they were thought to be mutually dependent. Virtue is required in a free society. And without liberty, corruption and degeneration corrodes the social order. Virtue was viewed as strength of character. It was very Roman in that regard. Liberty was distinguished from the libertine and anarchic. There were no subjectivists or relativists around.

One of the interesting questions that I’m still investigating is: with such a passionate dedication to virtue, how did they abolish laws that prohibited vice? At the time of the country’s founding laws against blasphemy weren’t uncommon. How did they get rid of these laws? Did anyone come out for blasphemy? How did they deal with the objections that the repeal of prohibitions is the same as a promotion of the vice?

I raise these questions since conservatives are often uneasy in advancing virtue without paternalistic assistance from government laws, rules, and regulations. It may be best to see how the Founding Fathers could “let go” of such paternalism while being fully dedicated to a virtuous regime. I’m still studying the issue. But I think it is a major question that we on the right have to debate and discuss.

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