The United States in 2009 is living through the fiercest challenge to market institutions and limited government since the mid-1970s.
Defenders of free institutions will need the utmost energy, tadalafil courage and perseverance for the work ahead. And yet at just this moment, medicine the prevailing tone among those defenders is one of the most extreme despair.
The big conservative book of the moment, Mark Levin’s Liberty & Tyranny is suffused with this message of doom. “Liberty, once lost, is lost forever,” intones Levin in one of the book’s many dire assertions. The same tone is expressed in more urbane form in an elegant essay by Mark Steyn in the June issue of the New Criterion.
Driving north out of New York the other day, I heard a caller to Mark Levin’s show discuss his excellent book Liberty and Tyranny. The word she kept using was “inevitable”: The republic felt exhausted, and there was an “inevitability” to what was happening. A quarter-millennium of liberty seemed to be about the best you could expect, and its waning was—again—“inevitable.” As she spoke, the rich farmland of Columbia County rolled past my window. To many of its residents, the caller would have sounded slightly kooky. Were any of the county’s first families suddenly to rematerialize from their centuries of slumber, they would recognize the general landscape, the settlements, the principal roads, and indeed many of the weathered farmhouses. And they would be struck by the comfort and prosperity of their successors in this land. So what’s all this talk about decay and decline?
Ah, but I wonder if those early settlers would recognize the people, and their assumptions about the role of government…
When President Bush used to promote the notion of democracy in the Muslim world, there was a line he liked to fall back on: “Freedom is the desire of every human heart.” Are you quite sure? It’s doubtful whether that’s actually the case in Gaza and Waziristan, but we know for absolute certain that it’s not in Paris and Stockholm, London and Toronto, Buffalo and New Orleans. The story of the Western world since 1945 is that, invited to choose between freedom and government “security,” large numbers of people vote to dump freedom every time—the freedom to make their own decisions about health care, education, property rights, and eventually (as we already see in Europe, Canada, American campuses, and the disgusting U.N. Human Rights Council) what you’re permitted to say and think.
Steyn perceives the predominant conservative mood with characteristic sensitivity. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard similar remarks over the past 9 months – probably hundreds of times. It’s not just talk radio chatter either: I was in the audience recently for an almost morbidly gloomy assessment by a person who had served at some of the very highest levels in the US government.
Ubiquity however is not the same thing as acuity. Repetition may improve a false idea’s plausibility, but it does nothing to enhance its truth.
The apocalyptic despair heard from today’s conservatives is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong as a description of reality, wrong politically, wrong psychologically, wrong morally.
It’s wrong first because it denies and traduces the successes and achievements of the conservative movement. The story of the world since 1975 has been a story of the marvelous return and spread of liberty, in the United States and around the world.
In 1975, the federal government set the price of every airline ticket, every ton of rail freight, every cubic foot of natural gas and every barrel of oil. It controlled the interest rates paid on checking accounts and the commission charged by stockbrokers. If you wanted to ship a crate of lettuce from one state to another, you first had to file a routemap with a federal agency. It was a crime for a private citizen to own a gold coin. The draft had ended only two years before, but not until 1975 itself did Congress formally end the state of emergency (and the special grant of presidential powers) declared at US entry into the First World War.
In 1975, the British government still owned automobile factories, steelmills, and shipyards. Many European governments still regulated the amount of foreign currency their citizens could hold. The world’s two most populous countries, China and India, stagnated under state control – coupled in the Chinese case with soul-crushing political totalitarianism. Half the continent of Europe was governed by communist police states. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey were governed by dictators or juntas, as was almost all of Latin America, as were almost all of America’s most important East Asian allies.
1975 saw the launch of the terrible auto-genocide in Cambodia and the reach of communistic terrorist attacks against democracies from Uruguay to West Germany.
Over the next 30 years, a new wave of conservative governments would accept these challenges and overcome them. In almost every way that can be assessed or measured, the world is a better, freer place in 2009 than it was in 1975.
Soft despotism? It was only yesterday that the world was oppressed by hard despotism, and plenty of it! When conservatives lament the rise of despotism, we deny our own greatest achievements, our own claim to the applause of history. We reveal in this lament a childish lack of perspective and a dismal ingratitude for the work of the generation before our own.
Not to mention – and more about this in the next post – we sound like a hysterical clutch of sore losers.
This is part one in a series. Read the other articles here.