By Kevin D. Williamson
Friday, July 28, 2017
Mark Levin is kind of sneaky. He has been many things in life, but he is mainly known to the world as a talk-radio guy. He writes books that look like talk-radio-guy books — Levin on the cover in a blue jacket, glowering manfully in front of an American flag — and that have keyword-heavy talk-radio-guy titles. But he doesn’t write talk-radio books.
Which is great.
His latest, Rediscovering Americanism: And the Tyranny of Progressivism, covers a great deal of ground, although it hews closely to many of the themes he has explored in earlier books: the meaning of American exceptionalism, the founding philosophy of the United States, the upstart competitors to that philosophy, the prospects for reform and recovery. He spends a fair amount of time on a question that is of interest to me and that ought to be of interest more generally, which is: What kind of political order are we to have, nationally and internationally? Are we to have a rules-based order or one based on . . . something else, whether that is might-makes-right politics or princely caprice? Levin is interested in “Americanism,” but his attention turns frequently to the Austrians, especially to F. A. Hayek, and he reminds us that there is more to the Austrian school than economics per se.
Levin considers the question of individualism and its variations, contrasting the progressives’ romantic version of individualism, rooted in Rousseau, with the richer understanding of individualism in the classical-liberal tradition, which he connects to the political ideas of John Adams. The choice before us can be difficult to understand at times: Do we have a national (or, as some progressives envision, worldwide) social plan, under which all economic and political activity is in some sense directed toward a set of unified goals in a conscientiously engineered and purportedly rational manner, or do we have a rules-based order under which individuals, firms, political parties, associations, etc., each pursue their own plans, leading to the development of a spontaneous order? This is, as Hayek points out and Levin emphasizes, distinct from what we might indicate by the modern usage of “libertarian,” distinct from what Hayek called “a dogmatic laissez faire attitude.” The rules-based order permits the emergence of vastly complex systems that are beyond the understanding of any individual or bureaucracy. That is the hard part for progressives to swallow, because they imagine themselves to be engaged in the “scientific” management of society. Levin quotes Hayek at length on this:
The unwillingness to tolerate or respect any social forces which are not recognizable as the product of intelligent design, which is so important a cause of the present desire for comprehensive economic planning is indeed only one aspect of a more general movement. We meet the same tendency in the field of morals and conventions, in the desire to substitute an artificial for the existing languages, and in the whole modern attitude toward processes which govern the growth of knowledge. The belief that only a synthetic system of morals, an artificial language, or even an artificial society can be justified in an age of science, as well as the increasing unwillingness to bow before any moral rules whose utility is not rationally demonstrated, or to conform with conventions whose rationale is not known, are all manifestations of the same basic view which wants all social activity to be recognizably part of a single coherent plan. They are the results of the same rationalistic “individualism” which wants to see in everything the product of conscious individual reason. They are certainly not, however, a result of true individualism and may even make the working of a free and truly individualistic system difficult or impossible. Indeed, the great lesson which the individualist philosophy teaches us on this score is that, while it may not be difficult to destroy the spontaneous formations which are the indispensable bases of a free civilization, it may be beyond our power to reconstruct such a civilization once these foundations are destroyed.
(Hayek’s remarks about “artificial language” may seem odd to the modern reader unfamiliar with the Progressive Era political mania for things like Esperanto or the Communist project of “rationalizing” language, hilariously and terrifyingly parodied by Vaclav Havel in his play The Memorandum. But what is the modern project of political correctness if not the creation of an artificial language within English for the purpose of writing politics into the very tool of thought itself? E.g., the biological realities that bedevil women pretending to be men are recast as the curious case of “men who menstruate.” The more things change. . . . )
Levin applies the Hayekian standard to the case of regulation. Hayek, a classical liberal who gave a great deal of thought to the mode and character of economic regulation, argued that there were sure to be cases in which the conditions for market competition could not be created or maintained. What economic liberals (funny word, “liberals”) could not accept, in Hayek’s view, was the replacement of functioning market competition with “inferior methods of coordinating individual efforts.” What this means, Levin argues, is that the alternative to progressivism is not doctrinaire libertarianism but political action within the context of government power, particularly federal power, operating within its properly understood role. “Regulations informed by America’s founding principles and instituted for the limited but significant purpose of nurturing, improving, or promoting private property and economic vibrancy are both prudential and essential to safeguarding individual liberty and the civil society,” Levin writes. But regulations organized along other lines — “schemes to fundamentally transform society” as he describes them — are something else, inevitably put forward in the service of “progressive ideology, special interests, crony capitalism, etc.” and constituting “a perversion and abuse of legitimate governing authority.”
Free societies are delicate things, and they are based on complex economic and social systems that are not the design of any single intelligence and not subject to reform or management by any single intelligence. Hence, it is necessary, as EPA administrator Scott Pruitt likes to put it, for regulation to be regular. That means developing rules that are broad, stable, generally applicable, predictable, and oriented toward general social ends rather than toward highly specific political goals. (E.g., “We’ll generate x percent of our energy from solar and wind by year y.”)
Levin’s “Americanism” is very much an extension of the British and European liberal traditions. Indeed, he makes a very good case that the United States is where the best of British and European liberal political thinking endures, having been written into our foundational documents and built into our institutions by the founding generation. “Rediscovering Americanism” means rediscovering Hayek and Adam Smith as well as John Adams and James Madison, and Levin’s book provides a very interesting dive into that, not only in its discussion of political philosophy as such but also in its assessment of such early American events as the Annapolis convention that preceded the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, the subject of which was interstate trade barriers. It’s a lot to work through, but very much worth the effort.