In Defense of the Permanent Things

On August 25, 1829 Joseph Story, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, delivered his inaugural address as the Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University (a post he would hold concurrently with his seat on the highest court).  Story took the opportunity in his lecture on "The Value and Importance of Legal Studies" to remind the great and the good there gathered in Cambridge of just how fragile were the foundations of republican governments. 

Rather than fearing conquest by the "arms of conquerors" or by the military force of "daring usurpers" or other "insidious foes," republics had something far more subtle and pernicious to confront.  The "more common and fatal disease" facing them was a kind of internal,  intellectual "dry rot, which eats into the vitals, when all is fair and stately on the outside."  As a result, Story insisted, in republics it is especially necessary to guard against "the captivations of theory."   

Nine years later, a young lanky lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, offered similar warnings.  In speaking of the importance of "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions" Abraham Lincoln regaled the gathered members of the Young Men's Lyceum with his insight that if the United States were to die, it could only be by suicide, never by the force of external conquest.  As Story knew, so did Lincoln.  What could never be achieved by "invading foemen" could in fact be accomplished within by "the silent artillery of time." The future of liberty depends upon each generation seeking to restore the pillars that support free, republican government. This, Lincoln argued, demanded that a "general intelligence" and "sound morality" be inculcated in the hearts and minds of the people as nothing less than a "reverence for the constitution and laws" of the country.  An appreciation for the permanent things - and the ability to defend and perpetuate them - takes work.

This concern for the preservation and perpetuation of the permanent things that lie at the foundation of the American republic is the essence of Mark Levin's thoughtful -- indeed, learned -- new book.  While one could have every reason to expect a great guttural growl of conservative protest from this author, Liberty and Tyranny is, in fact, much, much more.  While it may present itself as a "conservative manifesto" (and it is that, too) it is also a compelling primer on the most basic principles of the American political order.  And it is only by the recovery of those principles -- principles such as the rule of law, the binding power of written constitutions, the ideas of federalism, separated powers, and the free market -- that there will be any chance of thwarting the growing success of those in American politics who seek, as Levin puts it, to substitute "arbitrary state power for ordered liberty."

This is not to say that the intricacies and complexities of the public policy battles of our day are ignored or passed quickly by; no, Levin takes on all of them, from the welfare state to environmentalism to immigration to the swiftly emerging shackles being placed on the free market by the Obama administration in the name of an economic stimulus policy.  But it is to say that the great and abiding virtue of this book is that those disputes are turned to only after the basic principles are excavated from beneath the rubble of those debates and defended in light of the founders' original concerns.  Ultimately, this is a treatise about the nature of American constitutionalism and the limits imposed on the politics of the moment by the Constitution itself.   

Levin's target is those collectivists whom he collectively labels simply the "statists". These are the big government reformers who are incapable of resisting Story's "captivations of theory."  Rather than be burdened by the thought that man's nature is imperfect, these so-called progressives swoon to the thought of the perfectibility of man's nature --  perfectible, that is,  if only government is allowed  to intrude ever further and impose rules drawn from increasingly abstract speculations about what the good life demands. In the end, Levin draws his reader back to an appreciation of the dangers of just how much tyranny can come about from good intentions left unrestrained.  The tyranny here feared is not the harsh and brutal policies of ancient times, but rather that peculiarly modern sort of "soft" tyranny of which that other great nineteenth-century writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, warned.  The danger here is not the executioner's block but the bureaucrats' ever more minute and suffocating regulations.

It would be wrong to leave the impression that this is simply a high-minded book with which all readers will nod in pleased agreement. Far from it.  Anyone who is remotely familiar with the author (or, for that matter, anyone who has a radio) will know that there are few who understand and appreciate the muck and the mire of contemporary politics as much as does Mark Levin.  As a result, there is something here to irritate all those whom he hopes to irritate. And his epilogue, the real "conservative manifesto" of the subtitle, has plenty to go around. His nuts-and-bolts proposals will surely antagonize his liberal opponents, but so, too, will they rile those who may, in fact, be his true audience - those weak-kneed conservatives who think success can be found only by becoming ever less conservative.  In the end, one has the sense that Levin's real purpose here is to stiffen the spine of the conservative movement itself.  After all, the permanent things ought not to be negotiable.   

Mark R. Levin, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto. New York: Threshold Editions, 2009.  $25.00.  ISBN 978-1-4165-6285-6.

Gary L. McDowell, Tyler Haynes Professor of Leadership Studies, Political Science, and Law, University of Richmond, is the author, most recently, of The Language of Law and the Foundations of American Constitutionalism, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. He is a member of the board of the Landmark Legal Foundation.
On August 25, 1829 Joseph Story, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, delivered his inaugural address as the Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University (a post he would hold concurrently with his seat on the highest court).  Story took the opportunity in his lecture on "The Value and Importance of Legal Studies" to remind the great and the good there gathered in Cambridge of just how fragile were the foundations of republican governments. 

Rather than fearing conquest by the "arms of conquerors" or by the military force of "daring usurpers" or other "insidious foes," republics had something far more subtle and pernicious to confront.  The "more common and fatal disease" facing them was a kind of internal,  intellectual "dry rot, which eats into the vitals, when all is fair and stately on the outside."  As a result, Story insisted, in republics it is especially necessary to guard against "the captivations of theory."   

Nine years later, a young lanky lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, offered similar warnings.  In speaking of the importance of "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions" Abraham Lincoln regaled the gathered members of the Young Men's Lyceum with his insight that if the United States were to die, it could only be by suicide, never by the force of external conquest.  As Story knew, so did Lincoln.  What could never be achieved by "invading foemen" could in fact be accomplished within by "the silent artillery of time." The future of liberty depends upon each generation seeking to restore the pillars that support free, republican government. This, Lincoln argued, demanded that a "general intelligence" and "sound morality" be inculcated in the hearts and minds of the people as nothing less than a "reverence for the constitution and laws" of the country.  An appreciation for the permanent things - and the ability to defend and perpetuate them - takes work.

This concern for the preservation and perpetuation of the permanent things that lie at the foundation of the American republic is the essence of Mark Levin's thoughtful -- indeed, learned -- new book.  While one could have every reason to expect a great guttural growl of conservative protest from this author, Liberty and Tyranny is, in fact, much, much more.  While it may present itself as a "conservative manifesto" (and it is that, too) it is also a compelling primer on the most basic principles of the American political order.  And it is only by the recovery of those principles -- principles such as the rule of law, the binding power of written constitutions, the ideas of federalism, separated powers, and the free market -- that there will be any chance of thwarting the growing success of those in American politics who seek, as Levin puts it, to substitute "arbitrary state power for ordered liberty."

This is not to say that the intricacies and complexities of the public policy battles of our day are ignored or passed quickly by; no, Levin takes on all of them, from the welfare state to environmentalism to immigration to the swiftly emerging shackles being placed on the free market by the Obama administration in the name of an economic stimulus policy.  But it is to say that the great and abiding virtue of this book is that those disputes are turned to only after the basic principles are excavated from beneath the rubble of those debates and defended in light of the founders' original concerns.  Ultimately, this is a treatise about the nature of American constitutionalism and the limits imposed on the politics of the moment by the Constitution itself.   

Levin's target is those collectivists whom he collectively labels simply the "statists". These are the big government reformers who are incapable of resisting Story's "captivations of theory."  Rather than be burdened by the thought that man's nature is imperfect, these so-called progressives swoon to the thought of the perfectibility of man's nature --  perfectible, that is,  if only government is allowed  to intrude ever further and impose rules drawn from increasingly abstract speculations about what the good life demands. In the end, Levin draws his reader back to an appreciation of the dangers of just how much tyranny can come about from good intentions left unrestrained.  The tyranny here feared is not the harsh and brutal policies of ancient times, but rather that peculiarly modern sort of "soft" tyranny of which that other great nineteenth-century writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, warned.  The danger here is not the executioner's block but the bureaucrats' ever more minute and suffocating regulations.

It would be wrong to leave the impression that this is simply a high-minded book with which all readers will nod in pleased agreement. Far from it.  Anyone who is remotely familiar with the author (or, for that matter, anyone who has a radio) will know that there are few who understand and appreciate the muck and the mire of contemporary politics as much as does Mark Levin.  As a result, there is something here to irritate all those whom he hopes to irritate. And his epilogue, the real "conservative manifesto" of the subtitle, has plenty to go around. His nuts-and-bolts proposals will surely antagonize his liberal opponents, but so, too, will they rile those who may, in fact, be his true audience - those weak-kneed conservatives who think success can be found only by becoming ever less conservative.  In the end, one has the sense that Levin's real purpose here is to stiffen the spine of the conservative movement itself.  After all, the permanent things ought not to be negotiable.   

Mark R. Levin, Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto. New York: Threshold Editions, 2009.  $25.00.  ISBN 978-1-4165-6285-6.

Gary L. McDowell, Tyler Haynes Professor of Leadership Studies, Political Science, and Law, University of Richmond, is the author, most recently, of The Language of Law and the Foundations of American Constitutionalism, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. He is a member of the board of the Landmark Legal Foundation.