Obama, Burkeanism, and Chicago

Redstate has a post by Pejman Yousefzadeh, Barack Obama: That Burkean Chicagoan [ed.: link updated to an archived link because the original was broken], that I found very interesting and right on the money. I think Obama’s association with the University of Chicago has somehow been widely interpreted as a signal that he is actually somewhat conservative, or at least moderate, in a somewhat Burkean sense. This is ridiculous, for the reasons Pejman’s post illuminates, but for a few more, as well.

Part of the problem is the kind of thinking expressed by Cass Sunstein, soon to be of Harvard Law School. I have had one class taught by Sunstein, including Chicago’s famous “Elements of the Law” required 1L course, and have heard him speak many times. He is, of course, extremely intelligent and a very good teacher. Taking a class with him is like drinking from a firehose, but it is always informative, stimulating, and entertaining. His greatest flaw, however, and one I and many others have pointed out, is his tendency to rely on his own constructions of points of view and the corresponding arguments on an issue as though they are actually fair and correct. That is, Sunstein is very prone to say something like, “Imagine the following… Now, a conservative would say…” The problem is, he is very often wrong—and sometimes very badly so—on this type of construction. For example, when we discussed economic freedom (as in the freedom of contract principle from the Lochner era), Sunstein completely misconstrued both what conservatives at the time and today would say about it. At times, Professor Sunstein seems unaware that his ability to adopt another’s point of view and reason from it is imperfect, relying more on his constructions of a perspective than on direct statements from those who hold it.

As applied to the excerpt in Pejman’s post, I find this approach both telling and disturbing. If Barack Obama wanted the best possible arguments for and against the warrantless wiretapping of international phone calls, he could find a better debate at the University of Chicago Law School than Sunstein v. Sunstein. Nobody can fully understand the mindsets of both his kindred spirits and those he disagrees with; those who get even close tend to become legendary for their exploits. As much as I respect Professor Sunstein’s ability to summarize and analyze controversies, then, I have to say it disturbs me that Obama’s consideration of the counterarguments to his own position on such a hot issue is heavily informed by what a like-minded person says those counterarguments are.

Leadership is principally about making hard calls and inspiring others to enact them, occasionally getting one’s own hands dirty in the process. Making those calls requires managing scarce resources of time, manpower, and knowledge wisely. To the extent time allows, this means a potential leader – especially a man who would be President of the United States – must hear alternative viewpoints presented fairly and by those who have thought them through most carefully. In other words, a liberal President absolutely must have some conservative advisors, and a conservative President must have some liberal advisors. Relying solely on one’s political affiliates for insight into one’s philosophical opponents is terribly unwise – it’s unrealistic, leads to false confidence, and is likely to make the opposition feel entirely disregarded and disrespected in the caricatures that result.

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