Liberty and Tyranny by Mark R. Levin. New York: Threshold Editions, 2009. 245 p., $25.00.
Lately, I have been reading one liberal book followed by one conservative book in an effort to glean insights into the ideologies driving the country today. I have been largely unimpressed with those I have selected: see my recent reviews of the books by Krugman and Goldberg for example. But Mark Levin's book is a satisfying and coherent perspective of the conservative mindset. Drawing upon his legal background and not relying excessively on overblown political rhetoric, he frames the current environment as a choice between statists and strict constitutionalists. Statists-note the relatively neutral and largely accurate appellation-generally conceive of public policy as a series of collective action problems that can only be overcome through state-initiated regulation, legislation, and enforcement. Conservatives on the other hand hold private property in highest esteem; any excessive taking of an individual's private property to further a collective objective is suspect and only to be undertaken with the greatest of caution and reluctance. Conservatism means moving slowly in the public policy realm; statism-and ultimately tyranny-means mobilizing the significant resources of the federal government to try to promote the collective good.
While other authors have mentioned this dichotomy, Levin digs deeper into American legal history and showing the importance of the Supreme Court in effecting the significant changes of the past two hundred years. The Conservative's arch-nemesis, FDR, also comes through in Levin's readings as the epitome of statist intentions and faults. The author then uses this basis to examine pressing issues, such as health care, immigration, and foreign policy. Audaciously, Levin concludes with a conservative manifesto outlining his vision of what it truly means to be a conservative. The proposals listed are bold, and should give people from any political party reason to pause and reevaluate their political priorities.
As compelling and coherent as this book is, it highlights the true difficulties of modern conservatism. A party founded on Burke, as Levin clearly desires, simply is not feasible in the modern world. The world is a much more connected place today than it was in the days of the founding fathers. Levin may despise the Supreme Court for its constitutional interpretations dating back to the 1700s, but the federal court system is here to stay. Judicial review matters and must be respected for the rule of law. Its effectiveness in reigning in FDR's more audacious plans should come as some comfort to conservatives for example.
Levin implicitly and explicitly is calling for a return to the days before FDR, at least politically. Is that really realistic? The US is changing demographically and the world matters more than it did for the isolated young republic. I was surprised in fact by how ethnocentric Levin's suggestions were; "Americans before everyone else" was the rallying cry. But surely any conservative could quickly see the need for global cooperation in the realms of capital flows or intellectual property right standards? And I noted for example that in a rare moment of reticence, Levin did not explicitly call for the end of Medicare or Social Security, perhaps recognizing that America's entitlement programs are incredibly popular. So the end result is that in the name of ideological purity, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.
Still, I highly recommend this book. It is concise, fun, interesting, and compelling. If conservatives need a spokesperson, they should consider calling Mark Levin.