"Rediscovering Americanism: And the Tyranny of Progressivism" is the latest book by Mark R. Levin: author, radio host, lawyer, and former Reagan administration official. It is a current #1 New York Times bestseller.
Mark R. Levin is not happy. Core American values installed by the Founding Fathers are under threat. Belief in an immutable natural law is being swept aside for transient moral relativism, while trust in market capitalist economics erodes via calls for more and more government influence. The future is dim.
The cause of this upheaval is, as you may have guessed, progressivism. Levin depicts a progressive movement lusting for a powerful, centralized administrative government, to be run by self-interested (presumably coastal) elites. To advance their pernicious agenda, progressives fight on multiple flanks. First, Bernie-esque populism riles up a previously dormant base. Second, pseudo-experts continually emphasize the “complexity” of national affairs, conveniently necessitating a larger bureaucratic presence. Like many conservatives, Levin sees massive entitlement programs as bloated evidence of progressive ideological failing. He goes further, though, dismissing dire climate change forecasts as fear-mongering used to justify government intrusion on individual rights. One gets the sense that Levin’s argument would have had slightly more force had Hillary won in November - as he perhaps expected when writing - but no matter.
Despite this striking thesis, the majority of Levin's book actually reads like Political Philosophy 101. He takes us on a whirlwind tour of the thinkers that inspired the Founding Fathers, from Locke to Montesquieu. It is fascinating to read Thomas Jefferson's thoughts on the definition of liberty, regardless of one’s political persuasion, and Levin vividly depicts the dire economic conditions faced by the founders prior to the Constitutional Convention. While disagreeing with its conclusions, Levin nevertheless traces the roots of modern progressive thought in great detail, from Rousseau and Hegel to Herbert Croly and John Dewey. Oh, and Karl Marx of course. These individuals are not so much quoted as entirely excerpted. Verbatim quotes often run to several pages, and after reading such copious amounts of political philosophy the return of Levin's own prose can seem like merciful relief. The philosophers probably deserve a co-author credit.
Levin's argument is certainly not without merits. With an assist from Milton Friedman, Levin compellingly describes the tremendous benefits generated (at least in aggregate) from mostly unfettered market capitalism. And Levin makes a strong case that the Constitution's Commerce Clause has been extended far beyond what the Founders would have deemed acceptable. The author points out that FDR’s expansionary New Deal probably wasn't all that great. And pretty much everyone can agree that government programs waste a lot of money. Finally, Levin's takedown of Karl Marx's muddled ideas on the proletariat and the bourgeois is the philosophical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel; we all know by now that communism doesn't scale.
What these scattered points fail to do, however, is convince the reader that the tyrannical progressive boogeyman is actually around the corner. After all, despite a fair number of Presidents who could be considered progressive, the Constitution’s separation of powers provisions are largely intact. Yes, too many executive orders are now passed, but nobody who has seen Trump's travel ban blocked by the courts or his attempts at healthcare reform stall in Congress could agree that we have reached central government tyranny just yet. Constitutional protections included in the Bill of Rights are supported by both sides; we simply differ on the details, particularly with regards to the Second Amendment.
Levin’s writing also contains a whiff of hypocrisy. When quoting Friedman, Levin admits that “big government” projects such as highways and dams have led to clear benefits. And yet highway construction involved a mass confiscation of private property clearly inconsistent with Levin’s stated principles. It seems like Levin is doing some sort of implicit ROI calculation to despise Social Security yet accept America’s excellent roads. In addition, Levin excoriates progressives for pushing a smug “we know best” attitude to policy choices, yet confidently declares that popular entitlement programs will end with a “devastating collapse.” Maybe so, but it hasn’t happened yet, and to call for the end of welfare supported by so many reeks of the elitist attitude that Levin rails against. Furthermore, how many of us really want to return to an era before entitlement programs, before fair labor laws, and before civil rights? Levin seems unaware that his views so frequently leave him on the wrong side of history.
Rediscovering Americanism’s strident climate change denials are also instructive. Levin clearly recognizes that climate change is a major threat to his pro-individual, anti-centralized government worldview, in that it is the ultimate tragedy of the commons problem. Most observers agree that government intervention is required. As sea levels rise, no private company will have the incentive or ability to keep Florida above water (assuming it will even be possible at all). But this justification of aggressive government action is intolerable to Levin, so he has no choice but to attack climate science viciously.
Still, Levin's arguments should not be completely dismissed, in particular his defense of individual rights and free market economics. It will always be important to consider the acceptable limits of government authority. Creeping executive power should be repulsed, from Obama’s drone strikes to Trump’s immigration ban. And as the left becomes more enamored with ideas like a universal basic income, it will be important to consider the effect an increased welfare state will have on the entrepreneurial spirit that has made America an innovation leader.
But Levin does not flesh this thesis out fully. He fails to reconcile his view that individuals can decide for themselves with the reality that most of these people support broad entitlement programs. The book ultimately presents a false choice between a return to the 1700’s and an all-encompassing Marxist super-state. Any reasonable observer can see that there is a middle path; one where government levies only moderate taxes to aid entrepreneurism while also providing some reasonable level of healthcare to all. Just as Hamilton and Jefferson compromised, conservatives and progressives can too.
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