All Commentary
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 led to a gusher of books in 2009 by writers opposed to the new President’s philosophy and agenda. If you judge by sales figures, one of the most successful of those books was Liberty and Tyranny by Mark Levin, president of Landmark Legal Foundation and a nationally syndicated talk-show host. His book sat high on bestseller lists for many weeks last year.

There is not much new in Liberty and Tyranny, but Levin’s attack on the statist–yes, that’s the word he uses throughout–mindset is for the most part sound and effective. Unfortunately, the book is marred by a glaring flaw. Levin tries to couch the predictable conservative-versus-libertarian disagreements as a battle between conservative “common sense” and statist folly; that is, he doesn’t even acknowledge that there are pro-liberty arguments against his notions about immigration and “national security,” but attempts to cast all who disagree with him as “statists.”

I will start with what’s good about the book, then deal with the chapters that are like fingernails on the blackboard.

Levin begins with this description of America’s dominant political philosophy: “For the Modern Liberal, the individual’s imperfection and personal pursuits impede the objective of a utopian state. In this, Modern Liberalism promotes what French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described as a soft tyranny, which becomes increasingly more oppressive, potentially leading to a hard tyranny. . . .”

Because modern liberalism is infatuated with authoritarian mandates and prohibitions to bring about its utopian vision, it has nothing whatever to do with its root word, “liberal.” That’s why Levin insists on using the more accurate term “statist.”

Good. Calling those who want to, for example, force people into a politically contrived health care system “liberal” is a capital offense against the English language. I tip my hat to Levin for demanding terminological accuracy.

And statist thinking is responsible for most of our socioeconomic troubles, Levin shows. Statism has given us a panoply of “rights” that are not rights at all, but which actually undermine people’s true rights to life, liberty, and property. Levin takes issue with FDR’s horrendous “Second Bill of Rights,” wherein he proclaimed that Americans have “rights” to sufficient income for a “decent living,” to “adequate medical care,” and to a “good education.” Levin gives that babble the back of his hand, writing, “These are not rights. They are the Statist’s false promises of utopianism [used] to justify all trespasses on the individual’s private property.”

Exactly. Levin then approvingly quotes Frédéric Bastiat on the proper function of the law, writes an excellent chapter on the need to protect the free market against interventionism (the harm from which is then blamed on what is left of the free market), identifies the welfare state as responsible for our current and looming future economic debacles, and pummels the authoritarian agenda of “enviro-statism.”

Too bad he didn’t stop there. Instead, he moves on to immigration and national security.

On the issue of immigration Levin forgets what he has previously written about the benefits of liberty and repeats all the stock conservative tropes about the supposed danger of immigrants who don’t “assimilate” as quickly as he thinks they should and who pose some nebulous danger to “our culture.” The same things were said by nativists about immigrants 150 years ago. Levin tries to draw a distinction by claiming that the immigrants of yesteryear had skills that were needed for building the country. Of course they had a lot of skills, but so do current immigrants. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be hearing that they’re “taking jobs from Americans.” Worse, Levin tries to suggest that those of us who would just leave immigrants alone are on the side of statism and that cracking down on “illegals” is consistent with liberty. Is he not aware of the brutal, military-style raids the government launches against employers and workers suspected of immigration violations? Or does he think they’re part of “liberty”?

Equally weak is Levin’s chapter “On Self-Preservation,” an apology for neoconservative policies of military adventurism abroad and the constriction of civil liberty at home. He sets up a false dilemma between a statist foreign policy of the kind Obama favors (which, by giving power to international bodies to control the United States, is undeniably hostile to American freedom) and conservative foreign interventions (which impose enormous costs in lost lives and expended dollars, only to create still more enemies) without bothering to observe that there is a third possibility–a truly noninterventionist policy that ignores the United Nations, stays out of places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and leaves it to individuals to decide if they want to donate any foreign aid.

The bad chapters come at the end of the book. I can only hope that readers finished the first eight chapters and then got tired of it.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.