In his new book, Levin adopts a more philosophical, even spiritual tone. He seeks to identify the underlying philosophy that explains the gravitation of an individual toward either of these epic movements. What fundamental beliefs or inclinations, he asks, impel one to the statist point of view, or alternatively to the viewpoint in which liberty is to be cherished above all else in the political realm? For the former, Levin asserts that the fundamental philosophy that underlies the progressive/statist mindset is utopianism. The statist believes that mankind’s nature is not immutable, but rather perfectible and that society can continuously progress to higher states of equality, fairness and social justice – culminating in a utopian vision of human and societal perfection. This trek must be led by wise experts, embodied in a benevolent, enlightened and extremely powerful government that guides – even if at times, forcefully – the society and its people toward a state of perfection.
Levin identifies four primary sources from which statists derive their utopian inspiration: Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. In an amazing tour de force of historical and philosophical analysis, Levin relates the ideas expressed in these four utopian visions to the current thinking of statists such as those that populate the Obama administration.
Those who prize liberty over social progress are not grounded in the ideas of equality, fairness and social justice. Rather they see humans as flawed creatures who over millennia of experimentation have learned through vast experience the best methods to help them achieve a life of freedom, opportunity and prosperity. In particular, they emphasize faith, family, community, impartial rule of law, free enterprise and above all a strictly limited government that rules purely at the consent of the governed and whose primary (and, in some sense, sole) responsibility is to protect the people’s natural rights – which are inalienable and granted by Nature and Nature’s God, not by government.
Levin cites many philosophers who are the source of these ideas – e.g., Edmund Burke, Frédéric Bastiat, William Blackstone, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; but he reserves a special place for Montesquieu, Locke and Tocqueville. Once again, through a brilliant historical analysis, Levin traces how these seminal thinkers and espousers of liberty influenced America’s founding and its history, and how they continue to inspire modern conservatives.
Levin writes with great force, clarity and conviction. Here is just a small sample of some of his most profound comments:
…the individual’s right to live freely and safely and pursue happiness includes the right to benefit from the fruits of his own labor. As the individual’s time on earth is finite, so too is his labor. The illegitimate denial or diminution of his labor – that is, the involuntary deprivation of the private property he accumulates from his intellectual and/or physical efforts – is a form of servitude and, hence, immoral.
…America today is not strictly a constitutional republic, because the Constitution has been and continues to be easily altered by a judicial oligarchy that mostly enforces, if not expands, federal power. It is not strictly a representative republic, because so many edicts are produced by a maze of administrative departments that are unknown to the public and detached from its sentiment. It is not strictly a federal republic, because the states that gave the central government life now live at its behest. America is becoming, and in significant ways has become, a post-constitutional, democratic utopia of sorts. It exists behind a Potemkin-like image of constitutional republicanism. Its essential elements and unique features are being ingurgitated by an insatiable federal government that seeks to usurp and displace the civil society.
The Founders would be appalled at the nature of the federal government’s transmutation and the squandering of the American legacy. The federal government has become the nation’s largest creditor, debtor, lender, employer, consumer, grantor, property owner, tenant, insurer, health-care provider, and pension guarantor. Its size and reach are vast. Its interventions are illimitable.
[This] is to endorse the magnificence of the American founding. The American founding was an exceptional exercise in collective human virtue and wisdom – a culmination of thousands of years of experience, knowledge, reason and faith. The Declaration of Independence is a remarkable societal proclamation of human rights, brilliant in its insight, clarity and conciseness. The Constitution of the United States is an extraordinary matrix of governmental limits, checks, balances, and divisions, intended to secure for posterity the individual’s sovereignty as proclaimed in the Declaration.
This is the grand heritage to which every American is born. It has been characterized as “the America Dream,” “the American experiment,” and “American exceptionalism.” The country has been called “the Land of Opportunity,” “the Land of Milk and Honey,” and “a Shining City on a Hill.” It seems unimaginable that a people so endowed by Providence, and the beneficiaries of such unparalleled human excellence, would choose or tolerate a course that ensures their own decline and enslavement, for a government unleashed on the civil society is a government that destroys the nature of man.
Levin writes beautifully, but also somewhat pessimistically. He ended the first book with what he called a Conservative Manifesto. This was an ambitious program through which conservatives could recapture the national conversation from the progressive/statist domination under which the USA has suffered for 50-100 years. In fact, Levin outlines scores of concrete steps that he felt needed to be taken not just to control the conversation, but indeed to restore the nation to its founding principles of liberty and thereby prevent the seemingly inexorable slide into a statist tyranny toward which he saw it plunging. He ended with a quote from Reagan and a plea:
President Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States when men were free.” We conservatives need to get busy.
The unmistakable tone though was that he expected the people to actually take up the task; furthermore, he was fairly optimistic that conservatives would triumph.
I fear that in the three years between the two books, Levin’s optimism as to whether his manifesto can or will be implemented has waned. Hs writing skills and keen insight remain intact. But his assessment of America’s future is bleaker. He again concludes with a quote from Reagan, this time followed by a question:
…in his first inaugural address President Reagan told the American people: If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we have achieved so much, prospered as no other people on earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on earth. The price for this freedom has been at times high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price. It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.” So my fellow countrymen, which do we choose, Ameritopia or America?
Alas, previous words betray his concern at the answer.
The essential question is whether, in America, the people’s psychology has been so successfully warped, the individual’s spirit so thoroughly trounced, and the civil society’s institutions so effectively overwhelmed that revival is possible. Have too many among us already surrendered or been conquered? Can the people overcome the constant and relentless influences of ideological indoctrination, economic manipulation, and administrative coerciveness, or have they become hopelessly entangled in and dependent on a ubiquitous federal government? Have the Pavlovian appeals to radical egalitarianism, and the fomenting of jealousy and faction through class warfare and collectivism, conditioned the people to accept or even demand compulsory uniformity as just and righteous? Is it accepted and routine that the government has sufficient license to act whenever it claims to do so for the good of the people and against the selfishness of the individual?
No society is guaranteed perpetual existence. But I have to believe that the American people are not ready for servitude, for if this is our destiny, and the destiny of our children, I cannot conceive that any people, now or in the future, will successfully resist it for long. I have to believe that this generation of Americans will not condemn future generations to centuries of misery and darkness.