Peter Berkowitz: Conservative Survival in a Progressive Age
Mr. Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is the author of "Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government and Political Moderation," forthcoming from the Hoover Institution Press in February. This op-ed is adapted from the book's conclusion.
Political moderation is a maligned virtue. Yet it has been central to American constitutionalism and modern conservatism. Such moderation is essential today to the renewal of a conservatism devoted to the principles of liberty inscribed in the Constitution—and around which both social conservatives and libertarians can rally.
"It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good," observed James Madison in Federalist No. 37. The challenge, Madison went on to explain, is more sobering still because the spirit of moderation "is more apt to be diminished than promoted by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it."
In a similar spirit, and in the years that Americans were declaring independence and launching a remarkable experiment in self-government, Edmund Burke sought to conserve in Great Britain the conditions under which liberty flourished. To this end, Burke exposed the error of depending on abstract theory for guidance in practical affairs. He taught the supremacy in political life of prudence, or the judgment born of experience, bound up with circumstances and bred in action. He maintained that good policy and laws must be fitted to the people's morals, sentiments and opinions. He demonstrated that in politics the imperfections of human nature must be taken into account even as virtue and the institutions of civil society that sustain it must be cultivated. And he showed that political moderation frequently counsels rejecting the path of least resistance and is sometimes exercised in defending principle against majority opinion....
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