In Praise of Alexander M. Bickel

Nelson W. Polsby, Commentary (January 1, 1976).


In The Morality of Consent, the late Alexander M. Bickel begins the task of constructing a liberal political philosophy that avoids the optimistic authoritarianism afflicting so much of contemporary liberal thought. In Bickel’s view, there is a strain of thinking traceable to Edmund Burke and the English Whigs of the 18th century that leads to a perspective on present-day problems far more serviceable, more prudent, and more compassionate than the “moral, principled, legalistic” contractarian tradition that Bickel finds written, in particular by judicial progressives, into modern American political doctrine. “The Whig model,” says Bickel, “begins not with theoretical rights but with a real society. . . . Limits are set by culture, by time-and-place-bound conditions, and within these limits the task of government informed by the present state of values is to make a peaceable, good, and improving society.”