Saturday, December 03, 2011

Yuval Levin on Constitutional/Conservative vs. Progressive Liberalism

Yuval Levin at National Review:
"As the framers saw it, both populist and technocratic politics were expressions of a modern hubris about the capacity of human beings--be it of the experts or of the people as a whole--to make just the right governing decisions. The Constitution is built upon a profound skepticism about the ability of any political arrangement to overcome the limitations of human reason and human nature, and so establishes a system of checks to prevent sudden large mistakes while enabling gradual changes supported by a broad and longstanding consensus."
. . .
"In the view of the framers, there is no omniscience; there is only imperfect humanity. We therefore need checks on all of our various excesses, and a system that forces us to think through important decisions as best we can. This may well be the essential insight of our constitutional system: Since there is no perfection in human affairs, any system of government has to account for the permanent imperfections of the people who are both governing and governed, and this is best achieved through constitutional forms that compel self-restraint and enable self-correction.

"This emphasis on moderating forms--that is, the focus on arrangements that impose structure and restraint on political life--is crucial, and it has always been controversial. Indeed, it is what troubled the progressives most of all about our system, and what troubled many other technocrats and populists before them. But as Alexis de Tocqueville noted a century before the New Deal, “this objection which the men of democracies make to forms is the very thing which renders forms so useful to freedom; for their chief merit is to serve as a barrier between the strong and the weak.” And he added, with his usual prescience, “Forms become more necessary in proportion as the government becomes more active and more powerful.” In other words, we need them now more than ever."
[emphasis added]
. . .
"The difference between these two kinds of liberalism--constitutionalism grounded in humility about human nature and progressivism grounded in utopian expectations--is a crucial fault line of our politics, and has divided the friends of liberty since at least the French Revolution. It speaks to two kinds of views about just what liberal politics is.

"One view, which has always been the less common one, holds that liberal institutions were the product of countless generations of political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of the Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms because they allow us both to grasp the proper principles of politics and to govern ourselves well.

"The other, and more common, view argues that liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment--principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions, and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society. Thus one view understands liberalism as an accomplishment to be preserved and enhanced, while another sees it as a discovery that points beyond the existing arrangements of society. One holds that the prudent forms of liberal institutions are what matter most, while the other holds that the utopian goals of liberal politics are paramount. One is conservative while the other is progressive."
H/T Andrew C. McCarthy

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