Misappropriating Burke

Thursday, May 2, AD 2013

One of the most tiresome and repeated tricks I see in political discourse is right-leaning moderates using Edmund Burke’s name in justifying big government conservatism. The latest to use Burke’s name to justify political moderation is Peter Berkowitz in his book Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation. Here’s a blurb from the book.

The first entrenched reality is that the era of big government is here to stay. This is particularly important for libertarians to absorb. Over the last two hundred years, society and the economy in advanced industrial nations have undergone dramatic transformations. And for three-quarters of a century, the New Deal settlement has been reshaping America’s expectations about the nation-state’s reach and role. Consequently, the U.S. federal government will continue to provide a social safety net, regulate the economy, and shoulder a substantial share of responsibility for safeguarding the social and economic bases of political equality…..the attempt to dismantle or even substantially roll back the welfare and regulatory state reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities.”

And here’s a blurb from Harvey Mansfield.

Peter Berkowitz makes a match between Edmund Burke and the American Founders to give ‘political moderation’ a good name on our partisan battlefield. A short, effectual book with shining prose, a telling argument, and a lasting message. –Harvey C. Mansfield, Harvard University

Jeffrey Lord takes on Berkowtiz as well as Jennifer Rubin, Joe Scarborough and others who are preaching the value of capitulation moderation. As usual, Lord does a fantastic job of eviscerating the case for moderation. First, addressing the blurb quoted above, Lord writes:

So the New Deal is now the Founding principle of America? And attempts to “dismantle or even substantially” roll back the New Deal “reflects a distinctly unconservative refusal to ground political goals in political realities”?


Even Bill Clinton waxed Reaganesque when he said in that famous 1995 State of the Union message that “the era of Big Government is over.”

Berkowitz’s thinking — which Rubin shares — is a pluperfect example of what led a couple generations of American leaders to believe the Soviet Union was here to stay. Those were the folks rolling their eyes in their supposed sophistication when President Reagan insisted the Soviets were headed to the “ash heap of history.” Only to watch astonished as the Berlin Wall came down followed shortly thereafter by the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. Precisely as Reagan predicted.

Lord further examines how this bedrock principle and the programs created by the New Deal are crashing around us. As he writes:

The fact of the matter is that the New Deal is imploding all around us. With all manner of experts repeatedly warning the U.S. is being relentlessly driven towards a financial cliff, with entitlement spending on track to eventually consume first the defense budget before polishing off the entire federal budget. The fact that Democrats are tying themselves to the equivalent of an unexploded political IED is their decision.

But what, pray tell, is moderate, Republican or conservative about accepting the idea that America is headed irrevocably to bankruptcy and chaos?

There’s much more at the link as Lord explains how the social consensus keeps moving the left. “Moderation,” therefore, will only lead to more government control and, eventually, less freedom.

Jeff Goldstein also discusses Lord’s article and has more insights as well.

Lord and Goldstein both do great jobs of explaining the problems with Berkowitz’s position, but I want to focus on the admittedly more academic point, and that’s Berkowitz’s misappropriation of Burke.

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5 Responses to Misappropriating Burke

  • whenever Burke or Kirk are cited today (and they seem to be cited interchangeably by select people,) 99% of the time what follows is “I’m for the liberal position, and here’s a conservative-sounding reason why” only maybe taking it a bit slower. In that case, what’s the point — why should liberals agree that society should move slower toward the goal if you’re accepting their conclusion anyway, and why should conservatives accept the conclusion.

    Political ideologies should have come to a defined set of things that they either do/don’t accept, period, although obviously some issues are a little more complex depending on the situation. Maybe this makes politics too much like religion but far as I can see it’s the only way conservatism can avoid playing perennial catch-up to liberalism, and looking stupid protesting a change but later conceding to it.

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  • Those seeking to use Burke as a defense of Big Government need to ponder this section of Burke’s speech on Conciliation With America:

    “For, in order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties, we are every day endeavouring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own. To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself; and we never seem to gain a paltry advantage over them in debate, without attacking some of those principles, or deriding some of those feelings, for which our ancestors have shed their blood.”

  • Midge Decter used to chide Richard John Neuhaus thus: “you don’t think low enough”. Consider the possibility that Scarborough is doing what he was hired to do. (One might suggest the same of Rubin, but the Washington Post Writers Group was at one time (still?) the home of George Will as it was for the two most capable liberal opinion journalists of the last three decades, Henry Mitchell and Richard Cohen).

    Betwixt and between, Dr. Berkowitz alludes to something true. In 1929, public expenditure amounted to 9.5% of gross domestic product. Reproducing the sort of political economy congenial to a metric like that would be the sustained work of a generation or more. What that metric would incorporate would be allocations to the military of Canadian dimensions, paying down most of the public debt, reducing public expenditure on law enforcement and the courts to shares found in 1980 or thereabouts (when the homicide rate was twice what it is today), limiting welfare spending to foster care and nursing homes, quite possibly ending public education, &c.

    Dr. Berkowitz sketched out some of his ideas years ago in an article and the whole project sounded inane, something I would be far to lazy to attempt to digest if distended to the length a 250 monograph. Could one of you with patience and a head for political theory give us a summary of just how Edmund Burke’s writing justifies the budget of the USDA or HUD, or covering Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac deficits for a half generation, or putting sometime lawyer Barack Obama and lapsed academic Steven Chu in the venture capital business?

A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

Monday, December 6, AD 2010

In yet another effort to remain relevant to our political discourse, David Frum is partnering with William Galston to launch a new project that is sure to to revolutionize politics in much the same way the New Majority Frum Forum has.  It’s called “No Labels,” and I’ll let Frum describe it:

On Dec. 13, more than 1,000 citizens from the 50 states will convene in New York to change the odds. They are founding a movement – No Labels. Among them will be Democrats, Republicans and independents who are proud of their political affiliations and have no intention of abandoning them. A single concern brings them together: the hyper-polarization of our politics that thwarts an adult conversation about our common future. A single goal unites them: to expand the space within which citizens and elected officials can conduct that conversation without fear of social or political retribution.

Their movement rests on the belief that the real American majority wishes to reassert control over a political system mired in brain-dead partisanship. Those traveling to New York are going at their own expense. No Labels is gaining a thousand fans on Facebook each day. Citizens across the country are asking how they can get involved.

Frum is discouraged by our current political discourse and wants to turn things around:

Our political system does not work if politicians treat the process as a war in which the overriding goal is to thwart the adversary. At a time of national economic emergency, when Americans are clamoring for positive action, our government is routinely paralyzed by petty politics. Through the summer, as the economy teetered between recovery and stagnation, the Federal Reserve lacked a quorum because a single Republican senator took it upon himself to block Obama’s appointments. Republicans were only doing unto the Democrats as the Democrats had done unto them: In January 2008, as the country geared up for an epoch-making election, the Federal Election Commission lacked a quorum because one Democrat had put holds on President George W. Bush’s nominees.

Nor does the political system work if politicians treat members of the other party as enemies to be destroyed. Labeling legitimate policy differences as “socialist” or “racist” undermines democratic discourse.

Frum is understandably concerned. 

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25 Responses to A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

  • Thanks. Just joined the FB group. There’s no denying that we’re become more partisan over the last few decades. Can you imagine a 49-state presidential victory today? But I think it’s the issues, rather than the climate, that is driving most of the partisanship. Having said that, the climate isn’t helping. I think the right should cheer Frum’s counterbalance to Jon Stewart’s left-leaning Rally to Restore Sanity. There’s a dangerous but popular idea these days that sane = liberal and crazy = conservative.

  • To quote an old Illinois saying, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” Anytime people are arguing about something important, emotions tend to get high and language becomes intemperate. Most political language fortunately does not descend usually to the billingsgate under which serious theological debate has sometimes been conducted.

  • Can you imagine a 49-state presidential victory today?

    Well, that victory was won by a man who ran on one of the most unabashedly, unambiguously conservative platforms in American history. As I wrote in the linked to post on Almost Chosen People, the main cause of the Whig Party’s death was its inability articulate a clear agenda. So I would argue that an electoral landslide of that magnitude is more likely when there is a clear ideological rift (perhaps the Eisenhower victories providing the counter-example).

    At any rate, I think we get bogged down by this notion that we’re living in the most partisan times ever. It might seem that way, and the mass communications revolution has probably made our politics seem more bitter and confrontational. Also, there is a bit of myth-making about our past, for example the romaticization of something like the “era of good feelings.”

    There’s a dangerous but popular idea these days that sane = liberal and crazy = conservative.

    The counter to that is not to join Frum’s never ending quest to mold the Republican party in his image.

  • I took a look at the FB page you linked to. I’m not sure the self-congratulatory “at least we’re not like that rabble on the extreme” message is really the surest way to win converts. Also, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to decry labels while at the same time labeling anyone who is even slightly a bit your left or right an extremist? Labels for thee and not for me? And instead of worrying about the tone of politics, isn’t it more useful to actually promote ideas people can get behind? I’m sorry, but I’ve just had enough of this kind of moral preening.

  • “There’s a dangerous but popular idea these days that sane = liberal and crazy = conservative.”

    Considering the recent election results in reaction to what Obama and the Democrat Congress did, RR, and further considering the fact that 40% of the American people now call themselves conservative, and that Republicans now outnumber Democrats, I’d say you’ve got that formulation backwards.

  • What is truly dangerous is the idea that sanity = perfect calm. If your house is burning down and you’re trying to reason with the flames, that makes you more insane than the man frantically looking for a water hose.

    Sometimes genuine rationality necessarily gives the appearance of what would otherwise appear to be irrational. Different situations call for different attitudes, dispositions, words and actions. To recognize that simple truth is sane. To struggle against it is either vanity or insanity.

  • The specific problems he describes derive rather less from political labels and such and rather more from the Senate’s asinine parliamentary rules. That is something the Senate can fix. And they won’t.

  • Yes! This is an awesome article.

  • The man who slandered Robert Novak and other conservatives who opposed the Iraq War as “unpatriotic” is lamenting the tone of political discourse?

    Frum is a hypocritical fraud.

  • Ideas such as “compassionate conservative” and “bipartisanship” has resulted in alot of bad laws (how about that Senior Citizen Drug benefit) I rather like drawn out battles I think it paints a picture for the citizens of this land I want contrast and real choice not compromise which leads to something that does not work and no one really likes.

  • Good catch, Jay.

  • The man who slandered Robert Novak and other conservatives who opposed the Iraq War as “unpatriotic” is lamenting the tone of political discourse?

    I cannot recall what he said about Mr. Novak specifically, but the main object of his critique was a circle of commentators associated with the Rockford Institute. I would not say ‘unpatriotic’ was the most apt term, but it would be fair to offer that the views of these characters have had certain ‘structural’ similarities to the views of someone like Victor Navasky, who definitely is unpatriotic. Among those who endorsed the critique was the historian Stephen Tonsor, who had in the past been considered one of their number (he disagreed, saying they were ‘flaky cranks’) and the widow of Leopold Tyrmand, who had founded the Rockford Institute’s monthly magazine in 1976; she said her husband would have been appalled at what his successors had done with his publication.

  • Here is a link to the text of the article Jay referred to:


    Frum I think was on target with some of his observations, although attacking the patriotism of one’s adversaries, rather than their policy positions, is almost always a mistake on many levels. As for Frum, this was back in the day when he was still attempting to pretend that he was a conservative, although he was still usually the same insufferable jerk that he is today.

  • For the record, here is a link to said column.

    In retrospect, perhaps Frum should not be condemned for the article’s title so much as the meandering, score-settling undertones. If he contented himself with noting some of the loopier elements on the right (Raimondo and Rockwell, for instance) it may have been a touch more fitting. In the specific case of Novak, he lumps him in with the rest of the “unpatriotic” conservatives without acknowledging the relative merits of his arguments. Say what you will about Novak and even Buchanan, even if they were wrong on the war they didn’t deserve to be so casually lumped in with the rest. In fact, as much as I dislike Buchanan, this is a pretty disgusting smear:

    Pat Buchanan, one can say, permitted a dual loyalty to influence him. Although he had denied any vital American interest in either Kuwait’s oilfields or Iraq’s oilfields or its aggression, in l991 he urged that the Sixth Fleet be sent to Dubrovnik to shield the Catholics of Croatia from Serbian attack. “Croatia is not some faraway desert emirate,” he explained. “It is a ‘piece of the continent, a part of the main,’ a Western republic that belonged to the Habsburg empire and was for centuries the first line of defense of Christian Europe. For their ceaseless resistance to the Ottoman Turks, Croatia was proclaimed by Pope Leo X to be the ‘Antemurale Christianitatis,’ the bulwark of Christianity.”

    How is this any different than accusing Jewish Americans of having dual loyalties to America and Israel?

  • Donald beat me to it. And his point stands – in the end, Frum didn’t do himself any favors by attacking the patriotism and not the substance of the arguments made by some the paleos.

  • This has got to be a parody article.

    “They are founding a movement – No Labels. Among them will be Democrats, Republicans and independents…”

  • Scratch below the surface, and Frum’s entire piece at National Review was an anti-Catholic screed.

    I’m certainly no paleocon (although I am becoming more sympathetic as the years go by), but I was and remain apalled that National Review printed Frum’s calumnious piece. The fact that that infamous editorial appeared in William F. Buckley’s publication will forever, in my mind, be a mark against National Review.

    Frum owes those he attacked in that despicable hit piece an abject and public apology. Alas, it is too late to make amends with Mr. Novak.

    Who knows? Perhaps Frum sees his leftward swing and talk of “civility” as a sort of penance for his disgusting slander of better men than he in his pursuit of the war agenda. An admission that he was wrong would, of course, have been preferable to trying to flaking out and becoming a parody of the typical liberal elitist Republican.

  • Jonah Goldberg has a great take on this “No Labels” idea here. The key grafs:

    What no-labelers really mean is that they don’t like inconvenient disagreements that hinder their agenda. And that’s what is so troubling, indeed so undemocratic, about this claptrap. When they claim we need to put aside labels to do what’s right, what they are really saying is you need to put aside what you believe in and do what they say. When activists say we need to move past the partisan divide, what they mean is: Shut up and get with my program. Have you ever heard anyone say, “We need to get past all of this partisan squabbling and name-calling. That’s why I’m going to abandon all my objections and agree with you?” I haven’t.

    No Labels says it’s “about taking the politics out of problem-solving.” It is amazing how cavalierly people say this sort of thing, as if this wasn’t the rationale behind pretty much every dictatorship since the dawn of man. Nearly once a week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gives voice to his full-blown man-crush on China’s one-party dictatorship because — according to Friedman — the Chinese, unlike us, can implement “optimal” policies without getting bogged down in such distractions as elections, the rule of law, human rights, etc.

    Look: You can’t take the politics out of problem-solving. Politics, even in China, is the art of problem-solving. People aiming to yank the politics out of government invariably end up removing the democracy instead.

  • for his disgusting slander of better men than he in his pursuit of the war agenda.

    I think as a practical matter one can generally refrain without much trouble from evaluating men as men and just look at their words. That having been said, given that his targets included Thomas Frank, Justin Raimondo and Samuel Francis, I would have to say your opinion of Mr. Frum as a human being must be quite severe.

  • I was speaking of Mr. Novak. And I have no problem making that assessment in comparing Mr. Novak to Mr. Frum.

  • As for the other gentlemen about whom Frum was writing, I know very little about them, apart from Pat Buchanan (of whom I’m not very fond, but still hold in higher esteem than I do Frum).

  • My regrets: “Thomas Fleming” not “Thomas Frank”. Thomas Frank is the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas. Thomas Fleming is the editor of Chronicles.

    It is true in that particular article he includes a list of people he has in mind which includes Robert Novak and Patrick J. Buchanan, which was ill-judged as they are qualitatively different from most of the other characters on his list. His specific comments about Novak’s writings seem within the bounds of civil (if not necessarily correct) criticism.

    Frum is perplexing, and perhaps an example of how middle-age has an unhappy effect on one’s faculties. Best ignored.

  • Frum in this article was doing what a paleos did before and since: excommunicating from conservatism all those who disagreed with his stance on the war. But instead of saying anyone who supports the war is a neocon imperialist, Frum decries war opponents, or a good chunk of them, as unpatriotic. I agree with Art that he’s got a point when it comes to some of the names on this list, but he goes overboard when he starts flailing away at Novak and Buchanan.

    Frum is perplexing, and perhaps an example of how middle-age has an unhappy effect on one’s faculties. Best ignored.

    Agreed, and I think most have already taken your advice. This was just too amusing to pass up.

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