The Magazine

Moderation Is No Vice

And extremism is no virtue in politics.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A lawyer, president of the Landmark Legal Foundation, and a leading national radio talk show host, Levin has written a book that combines vehemence and vituperation with a penetrating analysis of the extremes toward which progressives are drawn. In a critical respect, it follows Goldwater's 1960 bestseller, Conscience of a Conservative. Like Goldwater's, Levin's conservatism puts liberty first while respecting the claims of faith and traditional morality. Like Goldwater's, Levin argues that liberty and tradition are mutually supportive: Faith and traditional morality educate citizens for liberty, and liberty provides the best protection for faith and traditional morality against the major threat to them, encroaching government power. And like Goldwater, Levin greatly understates the conflict between liberty and tradition: Freedom encourages impatience with (and skepticism of) inherited authority and custom; tradition generates impatience with (and skepticism of) innovation, novelty, and diversity.

His failure to address that conflict prevents Levin from giving moderation its due. Yet by insisting on the centrality of both liberty and tradition to modern conservatism, Liberty and Tyranny dramatizes the need for reasonable accommodations between them, or the indispensability of moderation to conservative hopes.

You cannot, however, call the organizing contrast, or contest, of Levin's book moderate. On one side stands the Conservative, the champion of liberty and tradition. On the other side stands the Modern Liberal who, by seeking a comprehensive government-enforced equality in all spheres, will, if not stopped, erect a tyranny that wipes out liberty and tradition. The fight, as Levin promotes it, is not a fair one because he brings an idealized version of conservatism to do battle with a liberalism, or a progressive side of the liberal tradition, that he reduces to its ugliest and most perfidious tendencies.

"Conservatism," Levin generously explains, is "a way of understanding life, society, and governance." That understanding is deeply indebted to the larger liberal tradition, particularly John Locke, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, and Edmund Burke. It appreciates the "interconnection of liberty, free markets, religion, tradition, and authority." It grounds human dignity in "God-given natural rights." It discerns in society a "harmony of interests" and "rules of cooperation that have developed through generations of human experience and collective reasoning that promote the betterment of the individual and society." It recognizes each individual as "a unique, spiritual being with a soul and conscience." It teaches respect for others' rights and respect for custom and tradition. It emphasizes the individual's "right to acquire and possess property, which represents the fruits of his own intellectual and/or physical labor," without which the individual becomes dependent on others and the state. And it honors the rule of law as a cornerstone of legitimate government.

The Modern Liberal, in Levin's harsh depiction, is not the Conservative's rival within a common governing framework but an adversary of the governing framework to which the Conservative is devoted:

The Modern Liberal believes in the supremacy of the state, thereby rejecting the principles of the Declaration and the order of the civil society, in whole or part. For the Modern Liberal, the individual's imperfection and personal pursuits impede the objective of a utopian state. In this, Modern Liberalism promotes what French historian Alexis de Tocqueville describes as a soft tyranny, which becomes increasingly more oppressive, potentially leading to a hard tyranny (some form of totalitarianism). As the word "liberal" is, in its classical meaning, the opposite of authoritarian, it is more accurate, therefore, to characterize the Modern Liberal as a Statist.

Whereas America's Founders created a limited government of enumerated and dispersed powers because they "understood that the greatest threat to liberty is an all-powerful central government, where the few dictate to the many," the Statist relentlessly seeks to expand government's power to secure ever more comprehensive forms of uniformity.