A Few Words from Walter Berns

Walter Berns

Walter Berns

I’ve spent most of this week immersed in the great works of Walter Berns, especially his very first book from 1957, Freedom, Virtue and the First Amendment. What a splendid and wonderful book! And although much of the proximate subject matter (the Supreme Court’s free speech jurisprudence up to the mid-1950s) is dated, the central arguments of the book are not, which is contained in the central term of the title: virtue. What an unusual idea to combine with jurisprudence.

His special target in the book is the ACLU, whose absolutist free speech jurisprudence, he argued, “foreclosed from permitting the exercise of the political virtue, practical wisdom or prudence, by the Supreme Court justice. . . [W]hether by design or oversight, liberalism ignores the problem of virtue.”

Along the way, Berns offers these reflections:

The political problem, more visible at some times than at others, is how to get consent to wise decisions or wise leadership. In a democracy this means how to educate, how to form the characters of citizens so that they will give their consent to wise leadership and withhold it from fools, bigots, and demagogues.

It has been the fortunate experience of American politics that while demagogues have appeared on the political stage, they have not generally prospered. . .

Make of this what you will.