Modern conservativism and all that…

21 July 2009, 1945 EDT

Andrew Sullivan Conor Friedersdorf thinks that Mark Levin “offers a serious response” to Peter Berkowitz’s criticisms of his recent book. I disagree.
Here’s Berkowitz:

Indeed, one could scarcely devise a better example of the imprudence that Burke dedicated his Reflections on the Revolution in France to exposing and combating than Levin’s direct appeal to abstract notions of natural right to justify a radical reversal of today’s commonly held convictions about the federal government’s basic responsibilities.

Levin’s response?

Edmund Burke, who Berkowitz misunderstands and, therefore, wrongly cites for his proposition, supported the American Revolution (while rejecting the French Revolution). The American Revolution can hardly be described as a moderate reaction to England’s usurpations.

I should hardly need to elaborate the problem here. But I’m taking a break from academic writing, so I will.

Burke supported the aspirations of colonial Americans because he understood them to be claiming the rights they were owed as English subjects. The question of moderation concerns not whether the colonists resorted to arms, but their aims. The French Revolution, on the other hand, comprised a “whole cloth” revolution that sought radical changes in the character of government and society. The result, he predicted, would be quite bloody.

I understand that the struggle over how to understand Burke matters to conservatives. Burke is a crucial thinker for modern American conservativism, a “conservativism” quite different from its common European variants, insofar as it seeks to conserve a particular historical moment in the evolution of liberal thought and liberal order.

Thus, Berkowtiz and Levin–whether for genuine or rhetorical reasons–accept Burke’s rectitude ad arguendo. In matter of fact, I think Burke greatly underestimated the radical character of the American Revolution, and I am not convinced that, absent the French Revolution, the ideals of the American Revolution would have achieved their current global success.

Regardless, Berkowtiz clearly gets the better of Levin. Indeed, I don’t see Levin’s response as a serious rebuttal to Berkowitz’s concern: that the political program embraced by Levin-style conservatives is antithetical to Burkean conservative principles. That program calls for a massive transformation in the character of contemporary American political and economic life. This is precisely the kind of transformation that would raise the alarm for a contemporary Burkean conservative.

I emphasize the word “contemporary” for a reason. One can, of course, go back and read Burke’s description of all that is grand about contemporary English values (yes, I’m aware that Burke was Irish), measure the twenty-first century United States against it, and, as a result of the rather glaring differences, call for a return to “Burkean principles.” Perhaps Burke might do the same if transported to the year 2009 and set down in Washington, DC.

But in doing so, he would abandon a Burkean political philosophy. The ‘timeless’ and ‘universal’ principles advocated by Burke include a respect for the wisdom sedimented in existing traditions, a skepticism of the capacity of human reason to design superior alternatives, a fear of the consequences for civil and moral life of radical political programs, and a resulting embrace of reformist measures that often amount to slow, deliberate, and gradual tinkering with existing institutions.

Levin also completely drops the ball with respect to Berkowitz’s warnings about the tensions between the self-regulating market and civil society, let alone conservative social order. Levin simply natters on about what conservatives believe:

But the Conservative believes that the individual is more than a producer and consumer of material goods. He exists within the larger context of the civil society — which provides for an ordered liberty….

The Conservative believes that while the symmetry between the free market and the civil society is imperfect — that is, not all developments resulting from individual interactions contribute to the overall well-being of the civil society — one simply cannot exist without the other

Yet no amount of nattering can disguise the overwhelming empirical evidence of the last 150 years: that unbridled capitalism profoundly corrodes conservative social mores, and that the “creative destruction of the market” often devastates civil society.

The problem isn’t so much that conservatives need to figure out what their principles mean in a “postmodern” order, but that the present-day conservative movements lacks a viable program for applying their principles to the post-1945 order.

We had the Reagan Revolution, which, as Sullivan Friedersdorf points out, left the welfare state intact and fiscal conservatism on life support.

We had the 1994-2006 period, which ultimately amounted to a giant exercise in crony capitalism, gave us the single largest expansion to date of the welfare state since Johnson’s Great Society, and enacted a decidedly anti-Burkean foreign policy.

Now we have the alternative embraced by Levin and his ilk, which offers a picture of the world as a struggle between two great abstract principles and advocates, in consequence of this Manichean vision, a revolutionary program guided by, as far as I can tell, a utopian vision of life in the early Nineteenth Century.

With the Democratic tide at its likely high-water mark, I think all of us–liberals, conservatives, progressives, moderates–have an enormous stake in the emergence of a conservatism worthy of the adjective “contemporary.” Let’s hope that behind the noise of conservative radio, the intellectual unseriousness of The Corner, and the neo-conservativism[*] of the Weekly Standard, such a program incubates in the fertile minds of thoughtful conservatives.

*Neo-conservatism once held the promise of being such a movement, but it traded in Theodore Roosevelt for George W. Bush and Richard Cheney.