Monday, December 13, 2010

On Parties and Politics

I meant to get this out here last week, but better late than never. Yuval Levin, in writing on a new sorta-centrist movement, expanded a little more broadly into political philosophy in The Corner last week, and his discussion is worth pointing out:

Our best guide here is Edmund Burke, who was not only the father of a great deal of what we now think of as conservatism, but also quite possibly the foremost theorist of partisanship in the Anglo-American tradition. In a series of pamphlets in the late 1760s and early 70s (and especially Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents, in 1770), Burke makes a positive case for partisanship as essential to the politics of any free society. Parties, Burke argues, are often mistaken for factions pursuing private interests (or we might say “special interests”) at the expense of the broader national interest. But in fact, he says, parties represent different views of the national interest—they stand not for what is best for different parts of the nation, but for different beliefs about what is best for the whole.

Politics is not a scientific exercise in which there is a single correct answer out there and the proper application of the proper method will get us to that answer in a demonstrable way. Rather, politics is our means of governing ourselves in an effort to best serve the interests, needs, and desires of the nation amidst great and permanent uncertainty. That uncertainty cannot be overcome entirely by human reason, and so our exercise of reason in politics has to be accompanied by an exercise of prudence, wisdom, and a sense of proportion. Such things are inherently controversial. Every individual’s knowledge is partial (and even the sum of all of our knowledge is partial), and every individual’s reason is limited. That is why individuals have to work together in politics, and parties exist to facilitate that working together.