Yuval Levin offers a characteristically learned and thoughtful account of the great political divide of our day:

The difference between these two kinds of liberalism—constitutionalism grounded in humility about human nature and progressivism grounded in utopian expectations—is a crucial fault line of our politics, and has divided the friends of liberty since at least the French Revolution. It speaks to two kinds of views about just what liberal politics is.

One view, which has always been the less common one, holds that liberal institutions were the product of countless generations of political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of the Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms because they allow us both to grasp the proper principles of politics and to govern ourselves well.

The other, and more common, view argues that liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment—principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions, and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society. Thus one view understands liberalism as an accomplishment to be preserved and enhanced, while another sees it as a discovery that points beyond the existing arrangements of society. One holds that the prudent forms of liberal institutions are what matter most, while the other holds that the utopian goals of liberal politics are paramount. One is conservative while the other is progressive.


One might characterize this as a division between humble liberalism and proud liberalism, one cognizant of the limits of human reason and character and the other assuming that we can always find a cure for whatever ails us.

Levin quite properly points to the humble strains in our founding political theory.


In the view of the framers, there is no omniscience; there is only imperfect humanity. We therefore need checks on all of our various excesses, and a system that forces us to think through important decisions as best we can. This may well be the essential insight of our constitutional system: Since there is no perfection in human affairs, any system of government has to account for the permanent imperfections of the people who are both governing and governed, and this is best achieved through constitutional forms that compel self-restraint and enable self-correction.

Indeed, he finds them in the free enterprise marketplace as well.
The framer’s formalism, with its humility about our knowledge and its limits on our power, is at work not only in our political institutions but in our economic system too. American free enterprise , like our constitutional system, establishes rules of the game that restrain the powerful and create competition that helps balance freedom and progress.

But I wonder whether he goes a bit too far in identifying the scientific method with the aforementioned instances of “institutionalized humility.”  To be sure, the method itself makes human reason bow before empirical evidence and offers manifold opportunities for some to correct the errors of others.  Knowledge—always tentative—could be said to be the result of the accumulation of disciplined experience.  Nevertheless, it is hard to separate the scientific method from the project—the mastery of nature for the relief of man’s estate—with which it was associated at its birth.  The method itself may seem humble, but the animus behind it is proud.  (Consider, in this connection what counts—and cannot count—for evidence.  It may be possible to have a genuinely humble science—Leon Kass and C.S. Lewis have pointed the way—but the method by itself doesn’t guarantee it.)

Perhaps this is just a theoretical quibble and doesn’t matter.  But I’m not so sure.  Levin puts the two Thomases (Jefferson and Paine) on the “idealistic” or progressive side of the debate, while putting Madison and Hamilton on the other, more sober side.  Hamilton is certainly not the most modest or sober of participants in the founding debates and is also the author of the following sentence (in Federalist #9): “The science of politics, . . . like most other sciences, has received great improvement.”  The authority of his political science is of a piece with the authority of the other sciences and, (presumably) like the others, is susceptible of continuous improvement.  It’s hard to imagine an American republic in which science does not claim some substantial authority, but it’s also hard to imagine that it would be a science that is “natural” in the sense meant by Leon Kass.

In other words, I’m not sure that “constitutional conservatism” rests as solidly as levin would like on the foundations he has adduced.  The progressive impulse is pretty powerful, even in the political theory of the founding.  And while there are countervailing tendencies, Levin (to my mind) doesn’t adequately stress them.  In this connection, I’ll only cite Alexis de Tocqueville’s contention that religion facilitates our use of liberty by reminding us of our limitations.

I could go on, but this post is already too long.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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