Constitutional Government: Liberty, Self-Government and Political Moderation , Peter Berkowitz.

Hoover Institution Press, 2013

There is a certain oddity about this book. It preaches a doctrine of political moderation and festina lente founded on a consideration of the works of Edmund Burke and The Federalist. To my mind, such a doctrine makes a lot of sense when “things ain’t broke” and one can advance into the future with a fairly sure sense that a major crisis does not wait around the next corner. Such a presumption does not appear to be true of any Western country at the present point of time. Not only do they face the immediate hazard of massive debt and a seeming inability to reduce it, they also look forward to even more challenging circumstances as ever more demands will be made on the state, not least in such areas as an ageing population and health.

If the present era demands anything, then surely it is the enunciation of firm principles that will enable the Western democracies to navigate the problems, not only of the moment, but those with which they will have to deal, and solve, over the next thirty years. Berkowitz’s book would appear to be a response to the current political situation in America, in which it appears to be very difficult to get a Congress holding one set of political principles, and a president holding another, to work together for the common good.

There is, using the terminology of late 17th century England, the “rage of party”, in which what look like two irreconcilable sides seem to be at each other’s throats. As Mark Knights has demonstrated, one of the major consequences of that rage was the demand for a more civil and polite politics, such as was exemplified in The Spectator, but the reality was that the rage only subsided with the accession to the throne of George I and the complete triumph of the Whigs. As we shall see, this is extremely important for understanding Burke.

Berkowitz might also have benefitted by reading another great republican writer Niccolò Machiavelli:

The normal legal procedures of republics are very slow, since no council or official can do anything independently, but each one must for many things have the approval of another; in reconciling their various opinions time is lost. Because of this delay, their provisions are very dangerous when they must provide against something that does not permit loss of time.

Unlike the Roman republic, there is no provision for a Cincinnatus to be summoned to save the day in a modern republic. Modern republics have to live with their normal legal procedures. It is worth noting that as time passed the Romans had less and less recourse to the use of a dictator because they were able to harness the competitive instincts of their aristocrats for the public good.

Berkowitz invokes Burke as the model of moderation who supported reform in the cases of India, America, and Ireland, but who baulked at the revolutionary tactics adopted in France. There is a great deal of truth in this picture of Burke but it must also be remembered that Burke was a Whig and an heir to the revolutionary settlement of 1688.

He lived at a time when Toryism in its old sense had largely ceased to exist; no one wanted a Stuart revival or a return to the world that existed before 1688. In his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs Burke continued in this tradition of playing down the revolutionary consequences of 1688. He emphasised continuity when there was real change; he turns the radical Whigs of 1710 into conservatives. The Glorious Revolution was part of a radical transformation of the British state, creating a system that combined parliamentary government, bureaucracy, and new financial instruments such as the national debt and the Bank of England. But to listen to Burke, one would think that it was a simple and smooth transition that simply restored the Ancient Constitution. The idea that the Glorious Revolution was not a revolution was a crucial element in building consensus in 18th century Britain.

There is a smell of hypocrisy about his characterisation of the French Revolution. The French state was broke, largely as a result of its wars with Britain. Yes, it went too far in its attempts to wipe out the past and start anew, but to say that France could build on its existing institutions when it was essentially a failed state is hardly useful practical advice. The political and constitutional changes proposed by the revolutionary politicians were in line with what would have been considered the best practice of the day. What really fouled the water was the attempt to solve France’s financial woes by effectively appropriating the property of the Church, which led to deep and irreconcilable divisions between republicans and Catholics.

Of course, the American case was very different. Burke’s arguments made sense in a place which was British and where individuals could appeal to their rights as the heirs of the British Constitution. The wars with France did stretch the British state but it was far from broken. It was a lack of political prudence and an inability moderate that led the British into disaster in America in the years between 1763 and 1776.

There are certain similarities in the cases of The Federalist and Burke. There was a certain consensus in post revolutionary America because many of those who disagreed, the Loyalists, departed for other places. The rage of party had largely been solved. The Federalist argued for a moderate form of republicanism which triumphed in the American Constitution. That triumph most certainly did not see the end of political conflict in America, but at least Christianity was in accord with the Constitution and became a bulwark of democracy.

Burke and the authors of The Federalist operated within a largely consensual framework and this enabled them to be moderate. Moreover they lived in societies in which the capacity of government was far less developed than it is today.

The biggest issue of the contemporary world is the ever-expanding size of the state and the brick wall towards which we are all heading as populations age and the capacity of the state to pay for all that is expected of it declines. The reality is that America and the West are facing circumstances never before seen in human history. It is ironic, but not unexpected, that, at a time when consensus is virtually a necessity, the rage of party has returned with a vengeance.

It is difficult to see how helpful moderation might be at such a time. If anything, moderation is a form of surrender. It is a surrender of principle for the sake of a more peaceful life in the Indian summer that remains to us before the deluge breaks.

There seems to be two essential realities that need to be faced. The first is that politics is about the allocation of scarce resources. The cake is finite and can only be allocated once. Second, democracy tends to encourage an almost infinite desire for the state to do things and to spend money. Every interest has reasons, often good ones, as to why the public purse should be opened to support them.

At some stage, there has to be a massive collision between these two realities. The resources of the state are finite while the appetites of the demos would appear to be infinite. If we adopt a position of moderation, and comfort ourselves with the idea that all will be well so long as we simply let things slowly evolve, then the final destination will be disaster. If we cannot develop a clear vision of how we are going to deal with the massive problems that await us, they will just happen, leading to chaos and confusion.

Berkowitz does not seem to be interested in the challenges ahead. Rather his concerns appear to be narrowly political: how to manufacture some sort of political consensus. But the current rage of party is largely the consequence of the very real problems now facing America and the West. Crisis begets conflict. Both crisis and conflict must be faced with eyes wide open.

Going back to the principles of eighteenth century politics does not seem to be a very useful path. The crisis of our age requires vision and a degree of consensus. The politics of the age is founded on the rage of party, a set of institutions which are not designed for rapid decisive action, and a lack of real vision regarding the future and what needs to be done. But there is little point in denying this reality and adopting moderation in the hope that it will answer these problems. It may well be the case that real consensus will only come when necessity, that great Machiavellian principle, has forced everyone to appreciate that it is the only way. Realism, not moderation, is the order of the day.