Thursday, June 11, 2009

Response to David Frum's Review of Levin's Liberty and Tyranny

David Frum has written a review of Mark Levin's #1 bestseller Liberty and Tyranny. It can be found here.

I write these comments as a long time listener and fan of Mark Levin. For anyone interested in learning about the nature of government, or “the State”, there are few who are as learned, articulate, and entertaining as Levin, who is a first rate litigator, communicator, and teacher. Any close listener recognizes the erudition and thought behind what Frum calls “ferocious rage;” or what listeners and normal humans might call passion. While I cannot speak for Levin I will come to his defense: a myopic review such as Frum’s, seemingly substantive, breaks down after critical thought.

First off, the title of the book could not be more accurate. Some of the self-styled sophisticates in Republican circles might cringe at what they consider a gross simplification of what is, in reality, political complexity. But were Fascism and Communism so different for the citizens trapped under the machinations of their fanatical leaders? Does it really matter to the individual whether mob-like syndicalism or unchallengeable bureaucratization direct economic policy? In the end these are details; descriptions of the channels of power from which one man or one party directs incontestable rule. Both are tyrannical, and I very much doubt Americans would choose either over traditional American liberty. To the contrary of Frum, this blunt description is arresting because it is true.

Next, it should be no consolation to Mr. Frum’s readers that he picked the likes of the Germans and Poles to refute Levin’s claim that liberty once lost is rarely recovered. Yes, perhaps Levin should have added a qualifier to his proposition: that it is rarely recovered without great suffering. But few people would look at the experience of these two nations in the 20th century, under Hitlerism and Stalinism, and see models of government we should emulate. Thanks, but I’d rather not endure that extensive a reclamation process here in America.

Much of the review is dedicated to the notion that conservatives have little interest in practical politics, but long for simplified and idealistic arguments (and personalities) that make them feel good. This might come as a surprise to the ostensibly monkish Frum, but voters are people, too. There is little hope for electoral victory based on statistical readouts of current trends that offer no coherent and organizing philosophy. People do no follow pollsters – they follow leaders. Sarah Palin, looked down on by the ranks of Frum as parochial, is the movement’s most popular leader. Could it be that people can identify with her, trust her, see conviction in her professed beliefs? (I know it’s hard for Frum to stomach the idea of a party that is pro-life and opposes gay “marriage,” but frankly what do you expect from the son of a Canadian journalist?) Maybe this attraction to people and ideas is also why Levin’s book has been #1 on the NYT bestsellers list nine out of ten weeks? Nobody in their right mind looks to build a popular movement based on legislative tinkering. Finally, I’m sure that Levin, a former member of Reagan’s cabinet, could write a statistic-heavy, Frum-like book, but then again, who would read it?

On Levin’s economic analysis, Frum criticizes Levin for citing the Federal Reserve’s low interest rates as a catalyst for the unsustainable boom. By way of this remark and the shallow remarks on handouts that follow, Frum has exposed himself as an economic ignoramus who does not understand political economy or monetary policy. His entire analysis is incoherent. For example, Frum states “Then Fed chairman Alan Greenspan refrained from doing so because his libertarian instincts recoiled from the suggestion that he as a government official should decide that asset prices had risen ‘too high.’” Chairman Greenspan’s libertarian instincts were already gone when he slashed interest rates to 1%. If Frum is curious, he should read Hayek’s works beyond the popular “The Road to Serfdom,” and learn what flooding the banks with fake credit does to capital structure. Further, one wonders what Frum thinks of the Fed’s actions over the last year as our dollar finds itself dangerously close to demise. (There is more silliness that deserves retort, such as the crafty insinuation that Levin favors a “more restrictive immigration policy” when in fact what he demands is control over the southern border.)

A few closing thoughts. In 50 years, when the history of the present era is being written, Frum might be footnoted as being the Great Anti-Popularist. He has, after all, consistently demeaned the most popular conservative politician, Sarah Palin, and slandered the leader of the movement, Rush Limbaugh. That embarrassment of a Newsweek article will rightly be judged as carping from a petulant and largely ignored GOP fringer whose primary mission seems to be enforcing burdensome self-censorship rules on outspoken conservatives who refuse to surrender the language. After he is finished misrepresenting the free market, blushing at traditional social values, and adopting a Clinton-esque political correctness, Mr. Frum might consider reading the works of his AEI colleague Michael Novak for a rectification of his beliefs.

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