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Principles Without Practice

books and culture

Principles Without Practice

Yes, conservatives of various persuasions should make common cause—but how? May 3, 2013

Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation, by Peter Berkowitz (Hoover Institution Press, 140 pp., $19.95)

Peter Berkowitz’s Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation is a slim book with an ambitious goal: to reconcile libertarians and social conservatives. That’s an objective that has eluded even the most enterprising political consultants. But Berkowitz might be forgiven for his ambition: as one of contemporary conservatism’s ablest defenders, he is well-suited for the task.

Berkowitz thinks that conservatives’ electoral prospects will improve if they champion traditionalist and libertarian priorities simultaneously. To that end, he urges conservatives to synthesize both groups’ respective goals—protecting “traditional morality and religious faith” while promoting free markets—into a platform he calls “constitutional conservatism.” Drawing on our governing document’s core assumptions about human nature, constitutional conservatism advocates enforcing the separation of powers, upholding individual rights, and defending the “voluntary associations” that support a robust civil society. Berkowitz argues that constitutional conservatives should emulate Edmund Burke’s “moderation,” balancing liberty with tradition.

Berkowitz demonstrates the complementarity of libertarian and traditionalist objectives. For instance, he argues that just as liberal, capitalist societies require tradition for moral sustenance, traditional groups need decentralized, limited government for their continued survival. But both sides must also compromise somewhat on first principles, he believes. Libertarians should accept the welfare state as a permanent reality, and social conservatives should refrain from imposing a traditionalist agenda through public policy.

Unfortunately, Constitutional Conservatism lacks a concrete political or policy dimension. Though Berkowitz makes a compelling theoretical case for an alliance between social conservatives and libertarians, he does not show how we might convince the two sides to join forces. He only says, in closing, that both sides must “bite their fair share of bullets as they translate principles, priorities, and policies into concrete legislative programs, national security measures, and diplomatic initiatives.” Absent a more compelling reason for abandoning their convictions, though, both groups would be justified in questioning the value of a “constitutional conservative” candidate.

The book’s abstraction is particularly evident when Berkowitz illustrates what constitutional conservatism might resemble in practice. He acknowledges his platform’s limitations at the outset, noting that it does not “mandate particular policies or command specific laws.” Constitutional conservatives, he suggests, would favor “fiscally sound, market-based growth-oriented solutions to put people back to work, pay down the debt, and reform health care, social security, the tax code, and energy and environmental regulation”—but what the solutions might be, he refrains from saying.

Constitutional conservatism’s emphasis on ideas rather than public policy might explain why its most prominent expositors have been communicators first, policy savants second. According to Berkowitz, William F. Buckley was a model constitutional conservative, as was the “fusionist” theorist Frank S. Meyer, who argued that libertarians and traditionalists were “natural moral and political allies.” In fact, the only major constitutional conservative politician was Ronald Reagan, who joined “liberty with tradition, order, and virtue” through tax cuts, support for traditionalist communities, and a confrontational yet sober approach to the Soviet Union. Reagan’s successors, Berkowitz asserts, failed to embody constitutional conservatism. Without clear strategic guidance or policy ideas, though, the reader may wonder who could.

The 2012 election demonstrated that conservatives cannot win unless they attach principles to concrete proposals and revise old policy ideas for contemporary circumstances. Berkowitz is a political philosopher, not a campaign manager, and as such is rightly concerned with conservatism’s ideological underpinnings. Constitutional Conservatism is valuable for its eloquent summary of much of what conservatives believe to be true, but its lack of specificity limits its utility for their current predicament.

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