Berkowitz on Burke

Peter Berkowitz’s article “Burke Between Liberty and Tradition” (Policy Review, December 2012) covers much of the same ground as Russell Kirk’s commentary on Edmund Burke in The Conservative Mind. But one passage does highlight a theme which has become dear to me in my post-utopian middle age — the manner in which the paradoxical nature of society continually frustrates attempts at perfection through political ideology (whether on the left or the right). As Berkowitz puts it

One manifestation… is the famous tension between conservatism and capitalism: Capitalism’s constant quest for newer and better products and techniques of production to achieve ever greater profits, and the affluence and luxury that free markets bring, demote tradition, disrupt order, and weaken the virtues of mind and character — such as self-restraint, industriousness, and thrift — that support free markets and free political institutions…. By simultaneously encouraging an aversion to authority and a desire for mastery, freedom also tends to provoke a backlash against freedom. The result in free societies is the generation of extreme and conflicting types: radicals who seek to extend government’s rule over others in the name of equality while freeing themselves from rules, and reactionaries who strive to reinstate traditional forms of authority, not only on themselves but on the rest of society.

Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek observed that “the principles which had made [modern] progress possible came to be regarded as obstacles to speedier progress, impatiently to be brushed away. It might be said that the very success of [classical] liberalism became the cause of its decline.” Joseph Schumpeter made a similar point.

Without a transcendent metaphysics that reconciles the “extremes” of a higher order, the tendency is to see liberty and authority as mutually exclusive. This leads to painful ironies. In the realm of sexual ethics you have radical feminists decrying pornography even as they advocate individual license. Libertarian-minded opponents warn against Big Brother and any form of censorship which might lead to totalitarian restraint. Certainly Burke would not have considered this the impossible quandary that it appears to many of his latter-day followers. Berkowitz is right to point out that

Liberty unrestrained and undisciplined fosters immoderation. Consequently, a government devoted to conserving and correcting freedom will require particular prudence in the art of balancing, or political moderation.

He means moderation in the Aristotelian sense of virtuous prudence and not amoral compromise. For more details, read the full article.

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