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Burke Between Liberty and Tradition

By Peter Berkowitz, Policy Review - December 11, 2012

Feuding among American conservatives for the title True Conservative is nothing new. Ever since conservatism in America crystallized as a recognizable school in the 1950s, more than a few limited-government conservatives, or libertarians as they have come to be called, and more than a few social conservatives — and their forebears, traditionalist conservatives — have wanted to flee from or banish the other. To be sure, the passion for purity in politics is perennial. But the tension between liberty and tradition inscribed in modern conservatism has exacerbated the stress and strain in the contending conservative camps. Fortunately, a lesson of political moderation is also inscribed in the modern conservative tradition, and nowhere more durably or compellingly than at its beginning.

Moderating the tension between liberty, or doing as you please, and tradition, or doing as has been done in the past, is a hallmark of the speeches and writings of 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke. While the conservative spirit is enduring and while some have always been more amply endowed with the inclination to preserve inherited ways and others more moved by the impulse to improve or supersede them, the distinctively modern form of conservatism emerged with Burke’s 1790 polemic, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Writing as a friend of liberty and enlightenment, Burke eloquently exposed the brutality of the revolutionaries’ determination, inspired by a perverse understanding of liberty and enlightenment, to transform political life by upending and sweeping away tradition, custom, and the inherited moral order. Burke’s conservatism operates within the broad contours of the larger liberal tradition and embraces much of the spirit of the 18th-century Enlightenment. It is distinguished by its determination to moderate the tendencies toward excess that mark both liberty and reason.

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