Conservatism in defense of liberty

Peter Berkowitz, who reviewed my book Liberty and Tyranny for the Weekly Standard, and did a pretty poor job of it, sees the most aggressive assault on representative and constitutional government in modern history and preaches moderation and, ultimately, inevitability.  

In the first sentence of his review he asserts "Moderation ... is an essential political virtue and a quintessentially conservative virtue."  This is the way forward for conservatism, he insists.  At no time does he define "moderation" or any governing principles, other than to misapply moderation as prudence, when prudence is, in fact, about judgment. 

Edmund Burke, who Berkowitz misunderstands and, therefore, wrongly cites for his proposition, supported the American Revolution (while rejecting the French Revolution).  The American Revolution can hardly be described as a moderate reaction to England's usurpations.  Nor can it be said to be a popular uprising, given that a majority of the nation either opposed it or was indifferent.  But it was a revolution whose purpose was to establish a civil society rooted in natural law, a just rule of law, moral order, tradition, faith, reason, and, yes, liberty.  Would Berkowitz describe it as a "moderate" revolution?  An "imprudent" revolution?  Does he think it was a good thing or a bad thing?  Of course, moderations can be imprudent in certain circumstances.  The conflation of moderation per se and prudence requires such an inquiry of those who misunderstand and misapply the concepts. 

For the neo-Statist (or neo-Conservative), the problem is particularly acute when applied to international relations for he usually promotes a hawkish and interventionist foreign policy.  If prudence is moderation per se, then how does Berkowitz square this circle?  Is bombing Iran's nuclear sites, even as a last resort, a moderate or an immoderate act?  Obviously, the question makes no sense.  The test is whether it is prudent.  

Thus, those, like Berkowitz, who promote moderation (not prudence) as a principle, are actually promoting a tactic or process without any core.  They play right into the hands of the Statist.  As I wrote in Liberty and Tyranny:

"By abandoning principle for efficiency, the neo-Statist, it seems, is no more bound to the Constitution than is the Statist.  He marches more slowly than the Statist, but he marches with him nonetheless.  The neo-Statist propounds no discernable standard or practical means to hem in the federal power he helps unleash, and which the Statist would exploit.  In many ways, he is as objectionable as the Statist, for he seeks to devour conservatism by clothing himself in its nomenclature."  

This defines Berkowitz.

But prudence alone does not explain Burke or conservatism, either.  Burke rejected the French Revolution because he rejected its objectives as well.  Burke invoked prudence not for the sake of prudence, but to support and secure the civil society.  In other words, when Berkowitz uses Burke to argue that Burke supported gradualism and reform as opposed to radical change, Berkowitz does not explain that Burke supported gradualism and reform because he held core beliefs about religion, government, tradition, liberty, etc., which he contended were best secured through prudence.  Therefore, to invoke Burke in arguing that true conservatives would not challenge the foundations of statism today, as Berkowitz does in his review, is embarrassingly off the mark.    

Oddly, Berkowitz also argues that he uncovered a crucial flaw in my book.  He writes, in part,

"To be sure, there is a vital place in democratic politics for passionate partisans like Levin who rouse the base and adopt a take-no-prisoners approach to political argument. And better to have your enthusiasts on the airwaves where their principal job is to entertain than in the universities, which (officially, at least) remain devoted to dispassionate intellectual inquiry. But rightwing talk show hosts' extremism on behalf of liberty and tradition should not be allowed to set the tone for officeholders and party leaders. Nor should their immoderation slide over into an attack on moderation itself, especially since a delicate balancing act sustains their core conservative commitments."

This is a remarkable bit of malpractice by Berkowitz. Liberty and Tyranny's emphasis is on the civil society, of which liberty and the individual are, of course, key, as are other elements. Berkowitz himself selectively quotes from my exposition, although he does so to make some other point I don't quite get. However, here is what I wrote on pages 3-4:

 "Like the Founders, the Conservative also recognizes in society a harmony of interests, as Adam Smith put it, and rules of cooperation that have developed through generations of human experience and collective reasoning that promote the better of the individual and society. This is characterized as ordered liberty, the social contract, or the civil society.

"What are the conditions of this civil society?

"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, spiritual 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 judgment. As such, the individual in the civil society strives, albeit imperfectly, to be virtuous -- that is, restrained, ethical, and honorable. He rejects the relativism that blurs the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, and means and ends.

"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, that establish society's cultural identity. 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.

"In the civil society, private property and liberty are inseparable. The individual's right to live freely and safely and pursue happiness includes the right to acquire and possess property, which represents the fruits of his own intellectual and/or physical labor. As the individual's time on earth is finite, so, too, is his labor. The illegitimate denial or diminution of his private property enslaves him to another and denies him his liberty.

"In the civil society, a rule of law, which is just, known, and predictable, and applied equally albeit imperfectly, provides the governing framework for and restraints on the polity, thereby nurturing the civil society and serving as a check against the arbitrary use and, hence, abuse, of power.

"For the Conservative, the civil society has as its highest purpose its preservation and improvement."

Rather than understate "the conflict between liberty and tradition," as Berkowitz puts it, I explain that conservatism has appreciation and respect for both. And while they may conflict at times, one cannot flourish without the other. Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, who were contemporaries and friends, were at one on this point. Berkowitz should re-read the chapters titled "On Prudence and Progress," "On Faith and the Founding," "On the Constitution" and even "On the Free Market," in which I discuss, among other things, the vitality of liberty and tradition. It can be found throughout the book.

While claiming to embrace tradition, Berkowitz does no such thing. Remarkably, he seems to think that American tradition started with the New Deal or maybe the beginning of the so-called Progressive Era. In his review he writes nothing of the founding, the Constitution, federalism, etc. -- i.e., the tradition he claims to cherish yet completely ignores. Indeed, he writes: 

"Like it or not, the New Deal is here to stay. It has been incorporated into constitutional law and woven into the fabric of the American sensibility and American society. The utopian dream of cutting government down to 18th-century size can only derail conservatism's core and continuing mission of slowing and containing government's growth, keeping it within reasonable boundaries, and where possible reducing its reach. Indeed, one could scarcely devise a better example of the imprudence that Burke dedicated his Reflections on the Revolution in France to exposing and combating than Levin's direct appeal to abstract notions of natural right to justify a radical reversal of today's commonly held convictions about the federal government's basic responsibilities."

My, this is quite a jumble. And it reflects the confusion that is so prevalent among the neo-Statists. Unconstitutional statism is not an American tradition (it is actually more European). Indeed, it rejects American tradition and has as its aim to destroy the civil society. Burke would reject its purpose just as he rejected the French Revolution. Moreover, for starters, the "abstract appeals" to which Berkowitz refers are found in the Declaration of Independence (I have said many times that the Statist rejects the Declaration for he must in order to advance his agenda; perhaps the neo-Statist does as well), and the United States Constitution (which is hardly abstract, but which Berkowitz ignores as he must to make his own abstract arguments about "moderation"). Nonetheless, despite having just argued that the New Deal is now part of American tradition, it is constitutional, and woven into the fabric of the nation, Berkowitz wants to slow it, contain it, keep it within reasonable boundaries, and reduce its reach.

Why? If it is desired, why oppose it? If it is un-Burkean to challenge it, why reject it? If American tradition began with the New Deal and the people want more of it, why slow it and contain it? From what principles does Berkowitz operate? We don't know from his review. He doesn't tell us. If they are not discoverable in the Declaration, the Constitution, or our founding generally, if they are too abstract to bring to this fight, then what exactly does Berkowitz stand for other than an undefined, reactionary "moderation" which may be known to him but which cannot be set forth in a coherent or comprehensive way in his review? Besides, how can you effectively contain Statism when you fundamentally embrace it as inevitable? Berkowitz does not tell us.

Still, in another weird formulation, Berkowitz portrays the modern conservative approach as to wanting to cut the government down to 18th-century size. Having already argued for slowing, containing, and reducing the federal government, from which century is Berkowitz operating? And from what century is the Statist -- who rejects the Declaration and the Constitution's limit -- operating? Berkowitz embraces the notion that growing statism is of modern vintage and of modern necessity. Actually, it has been around since the beginning of man. That's why we know so much about it and must resolutely challenge it. Conservative principles, however, which are, after all, the founding principles, are said by Berkowitz to be stuck in the 18th century. Is this supposed to be a serious point?

As I wrote in Liberty and Tyranny, specifically addressing the neo-Statists:

"Liberty's permeance in American society often makes its manifestations elusive or invisible to those born into it. Even if liberty is acknowledged, it is often taken for granted and its permanence assumed. Therefore, under these circumstances, the Statist's agenda can be alluring ... It is not recognized as an increasingly corrosive threat to liberty but rather as coexisting with it."

It is I, therefore, who must remind Berkowitz that there is indeed much learn from our history and tradition that would serve us well today if he would consult them. Didn't he argue earlier for such an approach when invoking Burke? It would inform Berkowitz that, among other things, we live in extremely perilous times because of the distance we have walked from our founding principles. Those New Deal and Great Society programs Berkowitz says are woven into our society are fraying and ripping at our society's fabric six decades later. The former Comptroller General of the United States has said they are unsustainable, threaten the economic well-being of the nation, and will deliver a crushing blow to future generations in the amount of over $50 trillion in unfunded obligations. What does Berkowitz say about this in his review? Not a word. Yet, it's discussed at some length in the book. What about other aspects of the New Deal and Great Society that are unraveling? Nothing.

What about the efforts underway in the last six months to fundamentally transform our society -- massive new deficit spending, nationalizing the auto companies and ignoring bankruptcy laws, using TARP funds to buy equity positions in hundreds of banks, efforts to institute cap and trade and government-run health care, etc.? I discuss much of it in the book, having predicted it was coming. Berkowitz ignores it. Instead, in his review he takes offense at my supposedly unkind description of the Statist (where he misstates Alexis de Tocqueville's views) and his motives, and my supposedly too kind description of the Conservative and his principles.

Berkowitz writes, in part:

"To be sure, there is a vital place in democratic politics for passionate partisans like Levin who rouse the base and adopt a take-no-prisoners approach to political argument. And better to have your enthusiasts on the airwaves where their principal job is to entertain than in the universities, which (officially, at least) remain devoted to dispassionate intellectual inquiry. But rightwing talk show hosts' extremism on behalf of liberty and tradition should not be allowed to set the tone for officeholders and party leaders. Nor should their immoderation slide over into an attack on moderation itself, especially since a delicate balancing act sustains their core conservative commitments."

Hmmm.  What's this rightwing talk show extremism stuff?  Is this the same Berkowitz who disliked my (accurate) description of the statist?  Moreover, I cannot decide if he is reviewing my book or my radio show.  In any event, better I and my fellow conservative hosts are on the radio where we can be rightwing extremists than in the Ivory Towers of academia, which are reserved for, well, leftwing extremists -- who, of course, are dispassionate intellectuals, or at least supposed to be?   And better conservative talk show hosts not influence actual officeholders.  No, better that the leftwing professoriate be appointed as czars and other officeholders in the Obama administration where they can actually set policy.  Yes, some delicate balancing act.  Who is Berkowitz kidding?  He talks endlessly of moderation yet does not appear to live in the real world.   

Berkowitz points to this excerpt from Liberty and Tyranny as an example of my extremism:

"... the only economic system that produces on a sustainable basis, and for the overwhelming majority of Americans, an abundance of food, housing, energy, and medicine--the staples of human survival; it creates an astonishing array of consumer goods that add comfort, value, and security to the quality of life; and the free market recognizes that it is in man's DNA to take risks, to innovate, to achieve, to compete, and to acquire -- to not only survive but also improve his circumstance."

He adds this excerpt as well:

"Furthermore, the individual knows better how to make and spend that which he has earned from his own labor and provide for his family than do large bureaucracies populated by strangers who see classes of people rather than individual human beings."

Wow.  Pretty extreme stuff, huh?  Berkowitz contends "There is more to the story, however. As Levin himself observes, the market generates what Joseph Schumpeter called 'creative destruction,' the process by which capitalism's endless innovation and entrepreneurship constantly give birth to new products and companies and render others obsolete and ruin them. But Levin only brings up the market's destabilizing power to criticize efforts by the left to eliminate through law the uncertainty and hardship inherent in capitalism."

Really?  Here's what I wrote on page 83:

"Comprehend a future without creative destruction.  It is bleak, backwards, and destitute, like most authoritarian societies.  Yet the Statist has persuaded some erstwhile conservatives of its demerits.  Typically the argument is formulated around protecting America's industrial base.  The question is asked: How can America allow its industries to fail and outsource its vital needs to other countries?  From where will we get our steel?  How will we build our tanks?  This is a circular argument.  The Conservative urges an economic environment stripped of debilitating regulations and taxes that hinder the performance and competition of American industry.  He believes American industry is more than capable of competing against foreign industries and, in most cases, does so.  However, where industries are subjected to the Statist's heavy hand rather than the free market's invisible hand, they are obstructed and burdened in ways that are counterintuitive and self-defeating.  Ultimately, it is an unworkable formula, as the rest of the world is not obliged to adhere to it but rather will look for ways to exploit it.  The Statist, therefore, is destructive of the very ends and the very people he professes to represent"

For Berkowitz, rather than a fairly obvious truth that it is government, more times than not, which is responsible for misery throughout human history -- particularly given recent real world examples of widespread misery from the former Soviet Union and East Bloc, where creative destruction and capitalism were rejected, to our own automobile industry, which, as I explained in the same chapter, is hardly an example of the free market at work and, as is clear, has cost taxpayers, investors, and employees dearly -- he paints the argument for the voluntary use of labor and capital as rightwing extremism.  I would discourage him from reading Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and a score of other less prominent economists, some of whom, dare I say, are teaching at universities and colleges.  Conservatism borrows from all kinds of "rightwing extremists."  If you reject capitalism as producing far more good than bad, albeit imperfect (which I explain repeatedly throughout the book), then you do far more than embrace "moderation."  You reject conservatism.   

Berkowitz then writes:

"As Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and George Will (among others) have pointed out, capitalism also creates significant problems for conservatism. Its churning change erodes the traditional beliefs, practices, and institutions that the conservative rightly sees as essential to moral education in a free society. Because both liberty and tradition are good, because each provides the other crucial support, and because at the same time they often reflect opposing impulses and issue contradictory demands, the conservative, who cherishes both, is constantly called upon to strike a prudent balance between them, or exercise moderation."

Where did I state otherwise?  In fact, I make this very point at the beginning of the "On the Free Market" chapter, where I wrote:

"The free market is the most transformative of economic systems.  It fosters creativity and inventiveness.  It produces new industries, products, and services, as it improves upon existing ones.  With millions of  individuals freely engaged in an infinite number and variety of transactions each day, it is impossible to even conceive all the changes and plans for changes occurring in our economy at any given time.  The free market creates more wealth and opportunities for more people than any other economic model.

"But the Conservative believes that the individual is more than a producer and consumer of material goods.  He exists within the larger context of the civil society -- which provides for an ordered liberty.  The Conservative sees in the free market the harmony of interests and rules of cooperation that also underlie the civil society.  For example, the free market promotes self-worth, self-sufficiency, shared values, and honest dealings, which enhance the individual, the family, and the community.  It discriminates against no race, religion, or gender.  The truck driver does not know the skin color of the individuals who produce the diesel fuel for his vehicle; the cook does not know the religion of the dairy farmers who supply milk to his restaurant; and the airline passenger does not know the gender of the factory workers who manufacture the commercial aircraft that transports him -- nor do they care.

"The free market is an intricate system of voluntary economic, social, and cultural interactions that are motivated by the desires and needs of the individual and the community.  The Conservative believes that while the symmetry between the free market and the civil society is imperfect -- that is, not all developments resulting from individual interactions contribute to the overall well-being of the civil society -- one simply cannot exist without the other."

More rightwing extremism?  Berkowitz clearly fails to appreciate or comprehend the significance of the market system, which is why he can't bring himself to praise it in his review of my book.  The history, context, and experience he claims are missing from conservatism are right in front of him.  And we conservatives see them more clearly than most. 

Liberty and Tyranny confounds it critics, as it did Berkowitz.  By combining philosophy, history, law, economics, and current events I make the case for conservatism and against non-conservatism.  The book can be cherry-picked here and there if a reviewer wants to make out-of-context points and arguments, as Berkowitz has.  There is much more to the book than Berkowitz wants to admit because his agenda was not so much to honestly review it but rather to try to advance his own case for "moderation."  As such, my response to his review of my book is also an unflattering review of his Weekly Standard piece.

Conservatism is a magnificent philosophy that is worthy of its promotion intellectually and politically.  There really is no other philosophy that respects the individual and nurtures humanity generally.  Despite what some say, including the Weekly Standard when it published this subtitle -- "And extremism is no virtue in politics" -- it is a "broad-tent" philosophy that applies to all people.  I tried to capture its wonderment in Liberty and Tyranny.  So far 850,000 people have read it, and I will leave it to them to draw their own conclusions free from Berkowitz's agenda. 

I also believe that conservatism is the only real alternative to statism, and that's especially so given today's soft tyranny.  Berkowitz points to Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1960 as evidence that it cannot win at the ballot box.  Here again, his methods are sloppy if not troubling.  Of course, Ronald Reagan won two smashing landslides in 1980 and 1984 and there was no more articulate spokesman for first principles than he.  Indeed, "moderates" aren't sure whether to claim him (when they do, they often redefine who he was and what he stood for) or reject him (contending that his approach to politics and governance could never work today).  Berkowitz also fails to acknowledge the defeat of candidates he supports  who seem to represent the old school thinking (which he calls "renovated conservative policy thinking") -- Gerald Ford v. Jimmy Carter, Bush 41 v. Bill Clinton, Bob Dole v. Bill Clinton, and the most recent disaster, John McCain v. Barack Obama.  Obviously, events and circumstances play an important part in election results, as they did in the Johnson-Goldwater race, which Berkowitz uses to condemn conservative electoral chances for all times.

As an aside, when my office was contacted by an individual from the Weekly Standard seeking photographs of me "for a story we are running" on my book, it was suggested that the story would be favorable.  I assume Bill Kristol is not happy with my brief mention of him in the book as a neo-Statist.  So be it.  But in the future let's play fair, boys.

Mark R. Levin served in several top posts in the Reagan administration, is a nationally syndicated talk radio host, and author of several New York Times bestsellers, including Liberty and Tyranny (with over 1 million copies in print). 
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