Books: Liberty and Tyranny (continued)

[continued from yesterday’s post]

One thing I liked about this book was that it discussed conservatism primarily in the abstract, citing examples more from history than current events. That way you can focus on the concepts themselves, without the emotional baggage the accompanies current manifestations of conservatism, either in personalities or programs. Discussions on worldmagblog so often become mired in specific details of what some well-known conservative or liberal did, or anecdotal evidence of the success or failure of some particular program.

Since no one is perfect and no one’s program is perfect, there will always be places to find fault, and somehow the faults of one’s political opponents always seem somewhat worse than those of people on the same side. Even when this is admitted, however, such fault still end up being used as evidence of the perversity of the opponents’ political views. This tendency is less pronounced when it comes to discussing history – though it’s hardly absent.

On the other hand, discussing conservatism in the abstract makes it hard to envision how it can be put into practice in the real world. And it paints a picture of the conservative as the paragon of moral clarity, while his opponent is a tyrant, the source of unmitigated evil. There may be people in the world who fit those two extremes, but most people are much more a mix of noble and ignoble thoughts and motives.

Who is this Statist, anyway? Levin explains right at the beginning that he will use the term Statist rather than Liberal, since Liberal should rightly mean broad-minded, and Levin considers today’s “liberals” to be the very opposite. They want to control people’s lives by government regulation that reaches into just about every aspect of people’s lives. What products you are able to buy, how you can use your money, how you can use your own property – these are just a few of the ways that your liberty is abridged by those who call themselves liberals. Therefore, Levin calls them Statists, to emphasize their use of government power.

While it is true that liberals generally favor regulation far more than do conservatives, I have trouble with the idea of assuming to know their motives. Levin says, “But it is the Statist’s purpose to make as many individuals as possible dependent on the government.” I have known quite a few liberals, and they are variously motivated by concern for the poor and oppressed, protection of the environment, or reaction against what they perceive as the moral code that conservatives seem to be attempting to impose on society. The result of their efforts may well be dependence on the government, but that does not mean it is their purpose. If Levin thinks that all or even most liberals are Statists in the full sense he describes, he is blinded by his own ideology.

I also found myself wondering about Levin’s discussion of Natural Law. This was an essential aspect of the Founding Fathers’ understanding, regardless of their particular religious background or convictions. They did believe in some kind of Supreme Being, who had made all things and ordered the universe according to both physical and moral laws. Abandoning the notion of Natural Law, Levin says, would “lead man to arbitrarily create his own morality and rights, or create his own arbitrary morality and right – right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad, would be relative concepts susceptible to circumstantial application.”

I agree with Levin’s discussion of the role of Natural Law in the Founders’ design of our government. I believe myself that such law exists, and that it explains why virtually all societies develop similar moral codes, even while some aspects differ. Whether or not people consciously acknowledge Natural Law, there is for the most part a shared understanding of the value of life, respect for the property of others, and the need for justice when crimes have been committed.

But even assuming that Levin’s statement above is true, acknowledgement of Natural Law does not guarantee that men agree on what laws are just and right. Natural Law, unlike revelation, is presumed to be accessible to all men by use of their reason. But it seems clear to me from history that men reason their way to different conclusions regarding the rights and responsibilities enjoined on them by Natural Law. So even if you got everyone to agree on the existence of Natural Law, would they agree on much else?

Another topic of particular interest to me is economics. It was a subject never covered in high school, and it always puzzled me how something such as the Great Depression could have happened. As my older sister would point out when the subject came up, the day after the stock market crashed, the factories and farms were all still there, and people could go on producing goods as they had before. All that was gone was money that only existed on paper – plus people’s confidence in the country’s financial system.

I finally studied economics in my MBA program, and learned that the economy depends on those very things – money that exists on paper (or, today, on the hard disks of computers) and the confidence that people have in the financial system. Of the humungous total sum of dollars exchanged today throughout our economy, only a very small portion is actually represented by physical currency. The rest is “virtual” money – but so long as people do have confidence in the financial system, it works out just fine.

In his discussion of the free market as a key element of liberty, Levine claims that – contrary to what is commonly believed – the Great Depression was caused by government intervention in the economy. Furthermore, rather than ending the Depression, increase government involvement actually prolonged it. As another example, Levine points to the tax cuts under President Reagan, citing them as the cause of the prosperity that followed.

I have read these claims before – and they make much sense to me. But I have also read arguments to the contrary, citing the same data but arriving at the opposite conclusion. I studied economics in grad school largely to understand these issues, and came to the conclusion that while microeconomics is fairly straightforward, macroeconomics is far less precise. Any model of the economy is based on a number of assumptions, and as a practical matter can take into account only a limited number of factors. Change the factors and assumptions, and you get different results.

So while it makes sense to me, having been taught by economics professors inclined toward the “Chicago School” of economics, that government intervention can be shown to have cause many economic ills. Reducing government intervention, by lowering taxes, removing tariffs, and reducing regulation, has contributed to a growing economy and widespread prosperity. But is that because the data really support that view, or because the analysis that leads to that conclusion is based on assumptions rooted in the view that government intervention is bad?

I don’t know anyone who advocates a centrally planned economy, which has been shown to result in a failing economy and widespread poverty. Nor do I know anyone who denies government some minimal role, even if it is limited to collecting taxes, defining and enforcing intellectual property rights (an increasingly difficult role in the digital age), building and maintaining infrastructure, and hiring/paying the people who carry out those jobs. Most people, I think, also approve of some level of product safety monitorying by government agencies, so that people may be reasonable confident that their food does not contain unsafe levels of toxins and the buildings they live and work in will not suddenly collapse.

So the question is not whether government has a role (even the Constitution gave the federal government authority over interstate commerce), but how big the role should be.

I’ll try to finish up this point in my next post.

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