Liberty and Tyranny

June 11th, 2009 at 11:04 am David Frum | 2 Comments |

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Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny has sat atop the bestseller lists for many weeks. Clearly, stuff conservatives across the country are finding meaning and value in this book. But what? Unlike Ann Coulter’s books, pharm Liberty and Tyranny is not an exciting read. To his credit, Levin on the page eschews the vituperative style of his radio program. In his serious mode, he expresses himself in the sonorous style of the conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s. The tone of L&T owes a lot to the elder Brent Bozell. But Bozell coined lapidary phrases as elegantly and abundantly as the Mint strikes commemorative quarters. Levin lacks this gift, to put it mildly.

Unlike Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man or Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Liberty and Tyranny does not assert an arresting or unusual idea. In fact, I doubt that even the most virginal newcomer to conservatism will find in this book an unfamiliar concept or idea.

Unlike Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom or Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Liberty and Tyranny is a not a book with the intellectual power to change minds or jolt non-conservatives out of their complacency. Levin never argues; he asserts. He tells us that “the Conservative believes” this or that – and then omits to demonstrate that this putative Conservative belief is in fact accurate. EG:

The Conservative is alarmed by the ascent of a soft tyranny and its cheery acceptance by the neo-Statist. He knows that liberty once lost is rarely recovered. He knows of the decline and eventual failure of past republics. And he knows that the best prescription for addressing society’s real and perceived ailments is not to further empower an already enormous federal government beyond its constitutional limits, but to return to the founding principles.

The conservative knows that “liberty once lost is rarely recovered”? If so, the conservative is plain wrong. The Czechs recovered their freedom. So did the Germans. Ditto the Poles, Irish, Hungarians, Chileans, and Latvians. In the United States, once-regulated airlines have recovered their freedom. So did metals investors, who were prohibited for 40 years from owning monetary gold. Etc. and etc. and etc.

So if not these things, what is the appeal of Liberty and Tyranny? For obviously it has appealed to many thousands of book-buying people.

It is I think this:

Mark Levin has shrewdly identified moods currently dominant among American conservatives.

The first mood is a mood of ideological reassertion. It’s been a tough decade for conservatives. From the appearance of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” in 1999 through the nomination of John McCain in 2008, conservatives have been biting their tongues and swallowing their uneasiness with their elected leadership. They did not like George Bush’s spending, they did not like Bush’s education plans, and they did not like the Bush-McCain approach on immigration. Like liberals under Clinton, conservatives followed George Bush as he attempted to discover a new political center. Like liberals under Clinton, conservatives became convinced that they had surrendered more than they gained.

Liberty and Tyranny speaks to this mood. It says: Here’s what conservatives should believe. Minimal government intervention in the economy. Strong national defense. A more restrictionist immigration policy. No to global warming doomsayers. No to government healthcare. (Interestingly, Levin has little or nothing to say about contentious social issues like abortion, gay rights, and stem-cell research.) On the radio, Levin delivers his grim negatives with yells and snarls. In the book, he pronounces them with greater modulation. In both, however, the message is consistent: We’re done with compromise! We don’t care about appealing to the center, the mushy middle. We say what we think!

That’s the one mood. Here’s the other. There has been among conservatives a great disengagement from politics over the past four years. The days when conservatives got excited about school vouchers, or the Kemp-Roth tax cut, or private operation of municipal services, or welfare reform are long vanished. What excites us now is not public policy but cultural symbolism: that’s what (in my opinion) generated the excitement for Sarah Palin. She did not articulate political ideas. But she did (or seemed to) represent a certain kind of American personality.

Levin’s book speaks to this withdrawal from politics. Yes, politics is the book’s ostensible subject. But Levin has little interest in practical politics. He takes no notice of the moment’s most urgent political problems and he offers proposals that have zero prospect of becoming law and that would have zero practical impact if they ever miraculously did become law.

Another example. Levin ends his book with a policy “to do” list. Here’s a suggestion from the section on the administrative state:

Sunset all ‘independent’ federal agencies each year, subject to Congress affirmatively re-establishing them.

The list of independent agencies includes such bodies as the Administrative Office of the US Courts, the Federal Deposit and the Congressional Budget Office, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Some of these bodies are utterly uncontroversial, others frequently do things that irk conservatives, and some (FDIC) raise very profound and difficult questions about the state’s role in the economy.

Levin addresses none of these concerns or issues. He grandly sums up the whole tangle – one of the most difficult in all government – and briskly dismisses it: retire them all and let Congress sort them out later.

If you cared about the real-world performance of the administrative agencies, if you believed that some or many of them were doing very bad things that needed to be curbed, you’d recognize that Levin’s solution is the very worst and least workable response to these agencies’ abuses. Anybody who knows how Congress works knows what would happen if Levin’s fantastical proposal could somehow be achieved:  Congress would cram the entire list of existing agencies into an omnibus measure and re-enact them all without debate in five minutes.

For better or worse, that’s the way American politics operates – and people who want to reform American politics have to take such real world operations into account. If you want to reform an agency, you have to identify the specific problems of that agency and propose specific remedies. Levin shrewdly senses however that his audience has no appetite for specifics. They feel a generalized discontent and that is what he expresses, without any hope or much interest in effecting any practical change.

Or this. In the first entry in the to-do list, Levin commands: “Limit federal spending each year to less than 20 percent of the gross domestic product.” Good idea! How? We’re north of 20% now. What should we eliminate? Medicaid? Medicare? Or should these programs somehow be curtailed? How?

The budget drudgery that consumed conservative policymakers in the 1980s and 1990s has been cast aside. The mood now is: don’t bother us with details. Stick to the lofty generalizations.

One more point. If anything in American life could lend any validity to the fears addressed by Levin’s overwrought title, it is the entanglement of finance and government in the global credit crisis.

Governments around the world have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to rescue banks from bad loans and toxic assets – with more spending likely to follow. We have seen the Obama administration muscle Chrysler bondholders into surrendering their legal rights and Congress bully AIG executives to disgorge their contractual bonuses. Just this week the administration appointed a “compensation czar” to oversee salaries at government-assisted institutions. If not tyranny, this is surely an expansion of government beyond all safe limits.

What should conservatives think or do about this crisis? Levin offers a couple of pages of argument that the whole thing was brought about by overweening government. That’s partially true, but only partially. (Indeed among the actions for which Levin blames the government is the failure to raise interest rates in 2005 and 2006 to prick the housing bubble as it inflated. Then Fed chairman Alan Greenspan refrained from doing so because his libertarian instincts recoiled from the suggestion that he as a government official should decide that asset prices had risen “too high.”)

It’s also true however that manias and bubbles do occur in marketplaces even absent government. They occurred much more often in the less-governed 19th century than in the heavily governed mid-20th. New Deal financial reforms – disclosure requirements, margin limits, and regulation of securities exchanges – have contributed to the greater stability of modern finance, a lesson we have all painfully relearned from the disasters unleashed by the unregulated derivatives market.

Enough looking backward. The great question for market conservatives going forward is: What do we do now? How do we apply the lessons learned from 2008 to sustain the creative potential of financial markets in future? How do we disentangle government from finance as rapidly as possible? How rapidly is possible?

Some conservatives say, “No more bailouts.” That’s a fine principle, up to a point. Only – if it had been applied in the fall of 2008, the world economy would very probably have tumbled into a true depression. And it has to be recognized too (as Milton Friedman no less acknowledged in his lifetime) that it is to some degree the existence of those maligned government programs that protects modern America from economic depressions like those of 1929-1941 (or 1919-21, or 1893-96, or 1857, or 1837). The stock market may crash, factories may close – but Social Security checks continue to flow to seniors, doctors collect their fees from Medicare, faculty at state universities earn wages, and depositors at failed banks can still withdraw their funds from cash machines. Conservatives “know” this, but we tend not to emphasize it. Yet it too is part of the story of our times, and as we regroup for the political struggles of the next era, we ought to keep this knowledge somewhere in mind.

None of this interests conservatives very much right now, and it interests Mark Levin not at all. Levin thinks there is nothing to learn from the present crisis, and indeed seems to regard the whole enterprise of learning as ideologically suspect. It’s very striking that nowhere in this book does he ever engage the ideas of intelligent people on the other side. He quotes stupid statements from a fringe group like Earth First! But he flinches from any encounter with any more substantial opponent. He lives in a sealed mental universe, into which nothing new or unsettling can ever penetrate.

I want to give Mark Levin some credit for Liberty and Tyranny. It is in its way an ambitious book, an attempt to offer a major political statement. Levin is not a stupid man, and Liberty and Tyranny is not a stupid book. What it is, unfortunately, is an airless and isolated book, an exercise in pure ideology radically quarantined from the life around it. It is a book for people on the defensive against contemporary society, people who have despaired of having much influence on the world around them. Liberty and Tyranny reveals the intellectual and psychological origins of the ferocious rage Levin broadcasts on his program. You can see why it appeals to conservatives now. You’ll know that conservatism is recovering when conservatives put it behind them.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • LFC

    Levin is not a stupid man…

    David, I read Levin’s reply to Manzi that Franco posted, and I have to respectfully disagree with this statement. I think Levin is quite stupid, and rather delusional.

    Of course you may be right. Levin attempted to discredit the top scientific bodies in the most advanced nations in the world because the scientific bodies of countries like Sudan happened to agree with them. That was beyond stupid. It was psychotic.

  • mickster99

    Blanket criticism accompanied by plain destructive intent is the approach of the intellectually lazy person. It is so easy to complain, whine about government and that it should be largely dismantled is the kind of mental gymnastics any cretin can perform. Now actually building something that provides a service and value to a large swath of American citizenry, now that would take some imagination, creativity, courage, initiative not to mention and large and generous heart. Levin falls terrbily short on all these positives.