Quote of the Day

All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.

~ Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

Nation of Burkeans?

The National Review features a fantastic piece by Alexander Benard and Anthony Dick on America’s True Genius. The thesis: change does not make a nation great, and it certainly is not what has made America great. Rather, it is the constitutionally-mandated stability of our system of laws – the difficulty of implementing radical change – that makes this nation so good at weathering storms and enduring for so long. My favorite bits:

In fact, the Founding Fathers designed our Constitution so as to make it very difficult to bring about significant changes. New legislation requires majorities in both houses of Congress followed by a presidential signature. Constitutional amendments are even more difficult — the easiest method is for an amendment to pass both houses of Congress by two-thirds majorities and then be ratified by three-fourths of all state legislatures. This suggests the Founding Fathers were suspicious of quick and easy change.

The actual genius of America, and what makes our country unique, is precisely the opposite of change. It is that our country was founded on certain timeless principles, laid out in the Declaration of Independence and put into practice by the Constitution. These principles include the conviction that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that governments are instituted among men to secure these rights, and to provide freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and equal protection under the law.

and especially:

Our constitutional structure recognizes the value of stability, and that change can be (indeed, often is) more damaging than uplifting. It acknowledges that existing social structures and traditions are not merely vestiges of an ignorant past, but rather reflect the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors and the evolutionary fruits of centuries of social experimentation. It respects the organic nature of political communities, with their interdependent parts woven together in a web of complexity that confounds even the most well-laid plans of radical social engineers.

Quote of the Election

“To avoid therefore the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him in the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.”

– Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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.

Burkeanism Blogfest

There has been a huge amount of blogging on Burkean conservatism, especially as it relates to John McCain, over the last couple of weeks. I have relatively little to add to the mix, except to say that it’s important to distinguish between Burkean conservatism and other forms of politics called conservative. Burkeans favor change, but only at a measured, considered, and deliberate pace; Burkeans may either favor or oppose war, under different circumstances; and Burkeans are generally opposed to both large government and growing government, because of the lack of restraint that inevitably follows bureaucratic expansions.

In any case, here’s a roundup of some of the more interesting stuff.
Jonathan Rauch for The Atlantic: Mr. Conservative [asking and answering the question whether McCain is a Burkean conservative, in the affirmative]
Orin Kerr: Is John McCain a Burkean Conservative?
Ilya Somin: Is John McCain a Burkean Conservative?
Dale Carpenter: McCain and Burkeanism:
Ilya Somin: Pitfalls of Burkean Conservatism
Orin Kerr: A Defense of Burkean Conservatism
Ilya Somin: Debating Burkean Conservatism
Dale Carpenter: Defending Burkeanism
Ilya Somin: Dale Carpenter’s Version of Burkean Conservatism
Dale Carpenter: Is Everyone Burkean Now?
Ilya Somin: A Few Final Thoughts on Burkean Conservatism
Mark: Burkeanism and McCain [ed.: link updated to an archived link because the original was broken]

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