Saturday, June 6, 2009

Books -- Mark Levin's Liberty and Tyranny

Conservative talk radio host Mark R. Levin has fired a shot across the bow of the ascendant liberal statists in the form of “a clarion call to conservative America”. Liberty and Tyranny is billed as “a new manifesto for the conservative movement for the 21st century”.

On a concrete level, there is much that an Objectivist can agree with. In the chapter “On Federalism”, Mr. Levin documents the many ways that the constitution has been circumvented to enable the rise of statism.

…through a succession of laws and rulings, all three branches…now routinely exercise power well beyond their specific, enumerated authority under the constitution.

In the chapter “On the Free Market”, he recognizes the importance of private property as well as the way in which government controls feed on one another.

…when the statist’s central planners create economic perversions,…he blames the free market and insists on seizing additional authority to correct the market failures created at its own direction.

In the chapter “On the Welfare State”, he attacks the sacred cows of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, correctly identifying the incremental nature by which socialism is coming to America.

Perhaps his best chapter is “On Enviro-statism”. In this chapter, Mr. Levin nails the evil essence at the heart of environmentalism…the intrinsic value doctrine;

If nature has “intrinsic value” then nature exists for its own sake. Consequently, man is not to be preferred over any aspect of his natural surroundings. He is no better than any other organism and much worse than most because of his destructive existence.

Is not man, therefor, expendable? And if he is, is not the suppression of his liberty, the confiscation of his property, and the blunting of his progress at all times warranted where the purpose is to save the planet…from man himself? After all, it would seem that there can be no end to man’s offenses against nature if he is not checked at every turn.


There are also areas of disagreement which I have with Mr. Levin, but all and all -- on concrete issues -- he is mostly on the correct side.

Having said all of that, this “conservative manifesto” is fatally flawed as a blueprint for a pro-capitalism revolt against statism. It is a resurrection of the William F. Buckley brand of conservatism that has not only failed miserably to stem the statist tide over the past half century, but also helped pave the way for its advance. The reasons are twofold—the failure to make the case for individual rights, and the failure to defend the morality of capitalism. The two issues are, in essence, the same. Mr. Levin writes;

The statist wants Americans to see themselves as backward, foolishly holding to their quaint notions of individual liberty, private property, family, and faith…(page 18)

Is it possible that there is no Natural Law and man can know moral order and unalienable rights from his own reasoning, unaided by the supernatural or God? There are, of course, those who argue this case—including the Atheist and others who attempt to distinguish Natural Law from Divine Providence. It is not the view abopted by the Founders. This position would, it seems, lead man to arbitrary morality and rights—right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad, would be relative concepts susceptible to circumstantial applications. Moreover, by what justification would “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” be “unalienable Rights” if there is no Natural Law, since reason alone cannot make them inviolable? (Page 26)

In the civil society, the individual is recognized and accepted as more than an abstract statistic or faceless member of some group; rather, he is a unique being with a soul and a conscience. He is free to discover his own potential and pursue his own legitimate interests, tempered, however, by a moral order that has its foundation in faith and guides his life and all human life through the prudent exercise of judgement. (Page 3)

In the civil society, the individual has a duty to respect the unalienable rights of others and the values, customs, and traditions, tried and tested over time and passed from one generation to the next… He is responsible for attending to his own well-being and that of his family. And he has a duty as a citizen to contribute voluntarily to the welfare of his community through good works. (Page 3, all emphasis added.)

Thus, Mr. Levin declares that capitalism cannot be defended rationally—i.e., by means of reason. He reaches this conclusion by means of the back door…he invalidates reason.

Reason cannot, by itself, explain why there is reason. Science cannot, by itself, explain why there is science. Man’s discovery and application of science are products of reason. Nor can religion explain why there is God or a supernatural realm. But no matter. Mr. Levin argues, in essence, that reason is limited, and thus the unalienable rights of man must be taken on faith.

On morality, Mr. Levin simply declares that capitalism has no moral basis whatsoever. The essential nature of capitalism is that it leaves men free to pursue their own self-interest and happiness. Mr. Levin does not condemn this fact as necessarily immoral, but declares that it must be “tempered…by a moral order”…the moral order of altruism. “He has a duty to contribute voluntarily to the welfare of his community through good works.” Note the collectivist strain creeping into his reasoning. What is “the community” as apart from the individual and those that he values? The “good works” are, obviously, not meant to refer to the actions he takes in pursuit of his “legitimate interests”, but to service to the collective.

The twin pillars upon which capitalism stands are individual rights and ethical egoism. Yet reason, he asserts, cannot explain either. Having rejected reason, Mr. Levin can thus evade the vital necessity of building a philosophical foundation for the rest of his book. Rights are a gift of God, and morality is the province of faith, which holds altruism and self-sacrifice to others (“the community”) as unchallengable axioms.

Having established faith as the basis of his Conservative Manifesto, Mr. Levin then slams the mind’s intellectual door shut to any challenge whatsoever.

“In the civil society, the individual has a duty to respect the unalienable rights of others [true] and the values, customs, and traditions, tried and tested over time and passed from one generation to the next, that establish society’s cultural identity.” (Page 3, bold emphasis added.)

The monumentally great achievement of the Founding Fathers in overturning thousands of years of tyrannical subjugation of the individual cannot be overstated. The founding of America is perhaps history’s greatest example of an overturning of “tried and tested” tradition. Yet that greatest of all political achievements had its flaws and contradictions that must be corrected. But the upholding of tradition as an absolute prevents the examination of the flaws and omissions in our Founding documents and in the thinking of the Founders that acted as poison pills that ultimately undermined America. Primary among those flawed “traditions” is the altruist morality, which the Founders inherited by default, even as they signed the document containing the famous words that have as their implicit premise the moral code of rational egoism … the individual’s unalienable right to his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

These are the fatal flaws of conservatism. When the statist whom Mr. Levin decries claims that rights are an arbitrary construct bestowed on the individual by society as determined by its elected officials, Mr. Levin counters that rights are an arbitrary construct bestowed on the individual by God as determined by whomever claims to speak for Him. When the statist declares that morality is the subjective creation of society, Mr. Levin counters that morality is the subjective creation of a supernatural God. When the statist declares that an ever-expanding welfare state is required to protect society from capitalism’s “excesses”, Mark Levin essentially agrees, countering that capitalistic freedom must be “tempered… by a moral order that has its foundation in faith” and that requires him to contribute voluntarily to the welfare of his community through good works”.

I have no doubt about Mark Levin’s sincere belief in capitalism, individual liberty, and America’s founding principles. But no matter how powerful his rhetoric, an effective and successful campaign for liberty over tyranny must fail as long as he upholds the enemy camp’s altruist premises. The failure to defend individual rights and the moral superiority of capitalism on rational, scientific grounds are and have long been conservatism’s fatal flaws. Those failures have allowed the mantel of reason to fall by default onto the shoulders of the statist.

But those failures needn’t be, because a rational, scientific defense of the morality and validity of individual rights and capitalism has been made. Of this fact, I am certain that Mr. Levin is aware. Omnipresent by omission is the very person that capitalism desperately needs. But nowhere in the book does that person warrant so much as a passing reference. The closest Mr. Levin comes is in a passage on page 26;

Is it possible that there is no Natural [meaning God’s] Law and man can know moral order and unalienable rights from his own reasoning, unaided by the supernatural or God? There are, of course, those who argue the case—including the Atheist and others who attempt to distinguish Natural Law from Devine Providence. (Emphasis added.)

Mr. Levin doesn’t bother to tell us, let alone analyze, “those who argue the case” or of the nature of the case that they argue. He outright refuses to entertain the idea that his passionate call for liberty can be validated by reason. This is rather surprising, since his Christian “tradition” has embedded within it one of history’s strongest advocates of reason, the Aristotelian disciple St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet, blinded by his Christian Faith, and intellectually hamstrung by a ridged refusal to challenge accepted wisdom (tradition); he simply reneges on the two most crucial building blocks without which capitalism and thus liberty must fall; individual rights and morality.

To be continued…

2 comments:

Harold said...

"Is it possible that there is no Natural Law and man can know moral order and unalienable rights from his own reasoning, unaided by the supernatural or God?"

Typical. The problem here is that this is inherently subjectivist. That is, we are told that morality comes from some extra-dimensional consciousness and not the fact of man's nature as a being of volitional consciousness possessing the conceptual factulty of reason. Levin would be well served by Anton Thorn's Objectivist Atheology.

"Thus, Mr. Levin declares that capitalism cannot be defended rationally—i.e., by means of reason. He reaches this conclusion by means of the back door…he invalidates reason."

Exactly, and this gives ammunition to statists who then declare that reasonable people recognize the necessity of a dictatorship. He then says:

"And he has a duty as a citizen to contribute voluntarily to the welfare of his community through good works."

But if politics stem from some ethical base (and they do), then the liberals are just being consistent and not leaving the issue up to personal choice.

" Primary among those flawed “traditions” is the altruist morality, which the Founders inherited by default, even as they signed the document containing the famous words that have as their implicit premise the moral code of rational egoism … the individual’s unalienable right to his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness."

Yes, great as they were, they were also men with mixed premises. Are you familiar with Onkar Ghate's presentation on the founders and the "Sermon on the Mount"?

Haven't read the book, but I guess if you stand on one leg, hop up and down, and squint in bad lighting, you might be able to kinda-sorta defend freedom this way. Unbelievable.


Great commentary.

Mike Zemack said...

Harold;

Thanks for the links and the comments. I'm familiar with Ghate's excellent presentation, but not Thorn's. I'll definitely be reading his essay.