For now I just wanted to say a few things about Mark Levin's, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto. I picked up a copy at the bookstore sometime after April 1st. I read it pretty quickly, but one thing led to another (especially the Tea Parties), and I put off reviewing until right now.
The book's currenty #2 on Amazon's best-seller list, so demand for conservative ideas is clearly robust. Recall we saw huge crowds of excited conservatives waiting hours in line to get a signed copy of the book last month. I too was excited about getting my hands on one of them. As so many others, I'm hoping and yearning for some direction and optimism that can lead conservatives - and perhaps the GOP - back to power sooner rather than later. While Barack Obama's election is generally not considered a relaligning one, we're certainly in a period of "public purpose" rather than "private interest" (to borrow from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr's., typology), with long-term implications for American government and political culture.
At base, Levin's thesis is a call to constitutional principles. He advocates not just a return to conservative principles in the mold of Barry Goldwater's, Conscience of a Conservative, but also stresses a privileged emphasis on restoring the animating vision of liberty and individualism of the nation's founding. I was especially pleased with the book's strong reminder of God as the natural rights foundation of our political regime. Jefferson and the later delegates at Philadelphia in 1776 were diverse in religious denominations, but all had a distinct grounding in a universal power of goodness in the cosmos from which mankind was endowed with inalienable rights. Levin's discussion of this Natural Law tradition is powerful reading.
Surprisingly, I found errors in some of Levin's coverage of the key issues at the founding, or at least his interpretation seemed unorthodox from the perspective of a professor of political science. For example, speaking of the compromises of federalism and slavery in the Constitution, Levin writes:
The oppression of African-Americans was never compatible with the civil society, although some northern state delegates recognized this fact and sought to abolish slavery at the Constitutional Convention. The southern states would not unite behind such as constitution. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that certain compromises were reached with the Southern state delegates respecting slavery. The constitution they adopted empowered Congress to prohibit the importation of slaves to the United States in twenty years' time, which it did. It reduced the influence the southern states would have in the House of Representatives by counting slaves as three-fifths persons for the purpose of apportioning seats. Unfortunately, the southern states did succeed in inserting language requiring the return of slaves who escaped to other states. However, the Constitution did not, as some contend, compel the practice of slavery.This passage is a bit strained. The compromises of 1787 legitimized slavey, if not compelled it. And rather than "reduce the influence" of the southern states, the "Three-Fifths Compromise" likely empowered the southern states to a greater degree than would have been true had slaves not counted for purposes of representation in Congress (the southern states held 45 percent of the seats in the House of Represenatives with slavery, and 35 percent without). And because each state's Electoral College vote is equal to that state's legislative apportionment, southern states would have more influence in the selection of the president than had slaves not been counted at all.
But issues like this are hardly damaging to the power of Levin's vision for a restoration of first principles of American constitutionalism. A look at the book's table of contents reveals a straightforward amalgamation of theory and practice. Levin examines federalism and economic liberty, the welfare-state and "enviro-Statism" (where Levin discussion the leftist agenda with the fervor of free-market economist), and immigration and national defense. The book's conclusion lays out a "conservative manifesto" which provides a simple road map and agenda for the restoration of an individual-maximizing polity of constitutional liberty.
As one who stresses strong national defense, I came to Levin's discussion of America's role in the world with a little trepidation. Because so much of the book's discussion would warm the hearts of libertarian-oriented conservatives, I had almost expected a "come home America" approach to American foreign policy under the Levin manifesto. But I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised with the discussion (I felt almost a transcendental affinity for the author). On Iraq, for example, which has been the focus of endless debates in American politics, between parties and within them, Levin comes down squarely in the "necessary war" camp. America should fight only when vital national security interests are at stake. Yet, as Levin clearly demonstrates, the national interest was deeply implicated in the Iraqi regime's violations of interational law and in the expansionist intentions of the leadership of the state.
Reviewing the debate on the right on the justification for the war (and especially the establishment critiques of William Buckly and George Will), Levin writes:
If the war in Iraq is understood as an effort to defeat a hostile regime that threatened both America's allies and interests in the region, the war and the subsequent attempts at democratic governance in that country can be justified as consistent with founding and conservative principles. Indeed, since the Will-Buckley exchange, when victory in Iraq appeared elusive to some, changes in military and political strategies dramatically improved the situation. Of course, Iraq is not necessarily a model for future engagements but nor can it easily be dismissed as unreasonable and imprudent. Saddam's Iraq had a history of aggressive behavior against America's ally Kuwait (and threatened Saudi Arabia) and had actively pursued nuclear weapons (such as Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, destroyed by Israel in 1981). The United States and its allies no longer face the prospect of a nuclear Iraq under the control of a megalomaniac. For now, at least, it is one less destabilizing threat to American interests.This brief passage is so simple and clear. Just reading it is like a breath of fresh air after years of recriminations over every possible angle of political conflict related to war, peace, and domestic civil liberties.
In articulating a realistic case for the exercise of military force, Levin echoes not only Barry Goldwater's discussion of a robust Cold War foreign policy as the sine qua non for the preservation if liberty at home, he's also in sinc with more neoconservative-oriented analysts who place a priority on national defense and forward strategic doctrines of hard power (see, especially, Peter Berkowitz, "Constitutional Conservatism).
The flip side of Levin's realistic embrace of America's forward world role is that "libertarian" conservatives in the mold of Patrick Buchanan or Ron Paul will find little to agree with on foreign policy. Indeed, Levin's likely to be attacked mercilessly by these folks as a "faux" conservative and an imperialist warmonger.
Leven finds no fault with me, however, other than the small quibbles I mentioned above. On questions of faith and culture, liberty and markets, and the security of our borders and our national interests abroad, Tyranny and Liberty is a commanding achievement. I hope it's widely read as the conservative/small government movement consolidates the wave of Tea Party demonstrations that have swept the country in recent weeks.