Books: Liberty and Tyranny (part 3)

[continued from previous two posts]

Levin covers a number of different areas of conservative thought, but important to all of them is the idea of limited government. There is a need for government to perform certain essential tasks – but no more. And as much as possible, the best level of government to handle these responsibilities is the one closest to the situation. That is why education is best handled at the local level. Very little was originally intended to be handled at the federal level.

Growing up in Connecticut, I was puzzled by the slight differences in laws between different states. When I went shopping in or near my hometown, I knew how to calculate the sales tax and thus the total I would need to pay the cashier. But when we did any shopping during camping trips elsewhere in New England, my calculutions were always off, because I had forgotten that other states had higher or lower sales tax, or includes/excluded different items.

There were also different traffic laws. Most other states allowed right turn on red, before Connecticut adopted the practice (it was the next to last state to do so). Speed limits were different (until President Nixon imposed the nationwide 55 mph speed limit in 1973). I think I was also vaguely aware of different state laws as to the sale of such things as alcohol, firecrackers, and lottery tickets.

None of the differences seemed huge. As far as I could tell, from visiting relatives in different states, there was not a lot of difference between living in one state or another, except those that had to do with by physical laws (climate, topography) rather than manmade law. As I studied history in school, I learned how and when different states had been added to the Union. But the reason why they each had a state constitution and their own set of laws remained a mystery to me.

If the idea of “states rights” was ever mentioned in any of my history classes, it was no doubt in a negative way, such as the South’s excuse for maintaining slavery in the mid-nineteenth century or segregation in the mid-twentieth. Of course each state had its own government, just as each town and city did. Any large organization with multiple locations has to have some administrative personnel at each location, and local circumstances may justify slight differences in rules or procedures.

But I still thought of each state as simply a geographical subset of the country, and the minor differences between them no reason to pick one state over another to live in, or to take pride in. I planned to pick my future home based on safety (low risk of earthquakes or hurricanes), and perhaps proximity to areas I would like to visit. I might be technically a citizen of the state I lived in, but I thought of myself primarily as a U.S. citizen, and I couldn’t imagine having any particular loyalty to the state.

As an adult, I occasionally heard references to states rights in regards to the issue of abortion, but the idea sounded quaint, a relic of a bygone age. It was not until I started reading worldmagblog regularly that I discovered that a lot of conservatives actually thought in terms of states rights when considering various issues. The liberals generally countered with arguments regarding slavery and/or civil rights, as well as pointing out that for many people, moving to another state is not a practical option.

So I was interested to see that Levin does address these concerns in his book. He points out that the federal government was also at fault in the matter of slavery, that for a long time it was complicit in enforcing slavery rather than fighting it, which undercuts the argument that federal power was needed to put an end to slavery. On the other hand – somewhat to my surprise – Levin admits that federal intervention was needed in the civil rights conflict, because the recalcitrant states were failing to adhere to the requirements of the 14th Amendment.

I can see, reading Levin’s description of how the Founders intended the country to be governed, how that would help prevent many of the abuses we see today. The more money and power is at stake, centered in a burgeoning federal government, the more money- and power-hungry people are drawn to take advantage. There are honest and idealistic people who enter government service, but corruption warps many, and thwarts the good intentions of others.

I hoped he would provide some kind of concrete vision of what modern America could look like, returned to the Founders’ vision, and how to get there, but in this I was disappointed. He rightly points out that conservatism is about principles that are applied differently in different situations, so he can only offer general recommendations rather than specifics. But I would have hoped for something more than just urging conservatives to do all they can to educate young people on conservative principles, as well as applying them where possible.

I honestly find it hard to imagine how to reverse the huge increase in federal power that has taken place over the past several decades. I have trouble even imagining what modern America would look like. And without having a vision of what the country would look like, it’s hard to see how to get there.

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