At a ceremony this past Thursday in Washington, D.C., my friend Peter Berkowitz was awarded a 2017 Bradley Prize. Berkowitz’s body of work is important, in part, because it constitutes a powerful reply to so many of our reigning intellectual orthodoxies. In book-length treatments of political philosophy, law-review articles, and hundreds of in-depth book reviews (available here), Berkowitz has offered searching criticisms of contemporary progressivism, post-modernism, multi-culturalism, and feminism. Although Berkowitz has had his fair share to say on policy issues, he is perhaps unique among contemporary American conservatives in grappling so broadly with the very best intellectual work of the academic Left.
Because Berkowitz’s work is dispersed among reviews and occasional pieces, his broader perspective may not be immediately apparent. You can find it especially in his contribution to the volume, Why I Turned Right, and in the preface, opening chapter, and conclusion of his brief book, Constitutional Conservatism.
It’s often said that conserving liberalism is a central imperative of today’s conservatism, “liberalism” here meaning the political tradition devoted to individual freedom founded by Locke, Montesquieu, Madison, Kant, Burke, Tocqueville, and Mill. Berkowitz’s work is centrally about conserving liberalism in this sense. Yet while many see restoring and preserving classical liberalism as only a part of conservatism’s task, Berkowitz has a decidedly capacious view of the classical-liberal tradition. From where Berkowitz sits, much or most of what we mean by conservatism could be included in a broader defense of the classic-liberal project.
This means that Berkowitz sees the need to foster virtue, religion, tradition, order, and community — both for their own sake and for their contributions to the tradition of freedom — as a longstanding and too often unacknowledged concern of liberalism itself. Or to put it differently, Berkowitz stresses the extent to which a healthy liberalism recognizes its own dependence on moral and political resources outside of itself. His thought therefore aims to strengthen and defend liberalism by incorporating the insights of both the classical political thought and religious faith it sought to supplant.
This also alerts Berkowitz to the sense in which even liberalism’s most adamant foes sometimes draw upon liberal and traditional convictions that they themselves refuse, or are unable, to acknowledge. Debunking postmodernists assume and act upon the central liberal premise of the natural freedom and equality of human beings, even if they cannot justify this. Committed atheists dogmatically proclaim the death of God, while borrowing moral categories from the faith they supposedly reject.
Berkowitz’s vision of a broad and multi-faceted liberal tradition that acknowledges its characteristic weaknesses and incorporates resources from outside of itself gives rise to an affinity for balance and moderation. Berkowitz highlights and probes the vices and virtues of almost everything he discusses, for example, the strengths and weaknesses of different ways of life — intellectual, political, and commercial. His goal, in the spirit of Aristotle’s Politics, is always to cultivate virtues and temper characteristic vices, while balancing inevitably conflicting imperatives in policy disputes.
Berkowitz’s view of contemporary conservatism follows from this. To begin with, his work expands upon Mill’s conviction that liberal democracies need both to conserve their achievements and to make progress in living up to their loftiest promises. Mill believed that the best way to accomplish these tasks was to divide the labor between a party of order and a party of progress. Far more often than not, Berkowitz has taken the side of the party or order, both on solid Aristotelian grounds that preserving what has been achieved is generally the paramount political task and because, in our day, the party of progress has disregarded its own incompleteness by illiberally striving to delegitimize its opponents.
Berkowitz’s vision of a balanced and capacious liberalism that includes much of what we typically call “liberalism” and “conservatism” carries over into his understanding of contemporary conservatism in the more narrow sense. Berkowitz sees libertarians and social conservatives defending legitimate, even complementary, if sometimes clashing needs, and advocates a balancing of these rival and worthy principles as the secret of both just policy and political success.
In the end, Berkowitz identifies the impulse to balance and moderate necessarily conflicting policy imperatives and political factions as the secret of the American Constitution. For him, “constitutional conservatism” rightly understood seeks to preserve our founding commitment to liberty, limited government, and the moral preconditions of a free society.
Drawing on this framework, Berkowitz has offered consistently penetrating critiques of the leading intellectual lights of today’s Left. It’s a tough job, and if Peter Berkowitz hadn’t been doing it I shudder to think where we’d be. We will not succeed at winning back our culture for classical liberalism without the help of first-rate thinkers willing and able to take on the very best the post-liberal — and too often illiberal — Left has to offer. Peter Berkowitz is that indispensable man.