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Mark Levin certainly appears to have succeeded in laying the groundwork for having a discussion on how best to rollback the size and scope of government. It’s amazing how fast Americans are willing to stifle free speech when the words they hear challenge their worldview, or better put, how they want to view the world. I recently left a review on Amazon for his new book, in which he proposes the adoption of liberty amendments to the Constitution through Article V, or the state option.
Unfortunately, he has a certain Obama-like “cult of personality” following, who didn’t take very kindly to my interpretation of Mark Levin’s prescription in The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic. That’s not to say that all of Levin’s fans are cult-like, but when you receive backlash that is not grounded in any relevant argument whatsoever, it becomes apparent that some clearly are.
So, to those who idolize people they don’t even know, and allow their unhealthy delusion to obfuscate reason and reality, I say tough. Alone, Mark Levin’s liberty amendments unfortunately will not work, because as much as some may not want to admit it, a “country tends to get the kind of government it deserves.” Until we deserve better, it will remain so.
If you are a rational Mark Levin fan, let me explain what I am talking about before getting yourself all puffed up.
His basic premise, which I do happen to agree with, is that the federal government is not a viable option to implement true liberty-protecting reforms, because it is occupied by the very people who have designed the despotic flaws we hope to reform. For example, and to better illustrate my criticism, we will examine the Seventeenth Amendment in this article and why I say Levin’s approach falls short.
The Seventeenth Amendment, which established the popular election of senators, is widely revered in progressive academia as a populous victory for the American people. Indeed, this is the historical interpretation that is taught to our children by the progressive education apparatus, everyday. However, in reality, popular senatorial elections have resulted in an increase in average Senate tenure and solidified political careerism in Washington. Below is a chart from Our Virtuous Republic, in which I make the very same case surrounding the Seventeenth Amendment (as well as many others Levin and I seem to agree on), but I put the blame where it rightfully belongs.
As you can see ( I know it’s small), after the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment political careerism in the Senate explodes, but the trend actually began with the Supreme Court decision in Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1877), which granted Congress (and state legislatures) the power to regulate just about all economic commerce deemed “in the public interest.”
Suddenly, a politician became a valuable commodity to rent-seeking special interest groups, who could create an even greater economic divide between the ruling class and the citizenry. We can see the impact of Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1877) even more clearly (again, I know it’s small), when we compare the average tenure in the Senate to the House the impact becomes more pronounced.
The bottom line is that structural governmental reforms, which is what the liberty amendments Levin proposes are, are just an exercise in futility absent cultural and educational change meant to resurrect the original American national psychology. In fact, there is a very real danger that just such a conversation may overshadow the true problem.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, who is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, offered the single most thoughtful illustration of the argument I am making. In USA Today, he praised Levin for his creativity, “but the underlying problem is tougher. One way or another, the country tends to get the kind of government it deserves.” He adds, “And that gets to what I think is the real problem lying behind all of this enthusiasm for constitutional change: a sense that there are two sets of rules, one for the ‘insiders’ in Washington and their (frequently subsidized, or bailed-out, or protected) corporate allies, and another for everyone else.”
I couldn’t agree with Reynolds more, but the “sense that there are two sets of rules” spawned not from Barack Obama, but the Gilded Age. The Progressive Era, as well as the progressive amendments in question, were calculated responses to an economic phenomena that bore envy and hatred, which led to a popularly supported policy correction that was far too extreme.
The Seventeenth Amendment did not address any of the grievances put forth by David Graham Philips in his now-famous “Treason of the Senate,” which appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1904. Phillips lambasted Senate Majority Leader Aldrich, claiming that the interests of a few special interest groups drove the national agenda, concluding the adoption of popular senatorial elections would end economic disparity and rampant special interest corruption within state legislatures.
However, the opposite occurred, and now the special interest groups have simply centralized and concentrated political power in and around Washington, D.C., whereas prior to the Seventeenth Amendment wealth was far more diverse across the country. In other words, envy and hate won over reason, because it was fueled by disparity and hardship that had existed prior to the Progressive Era.
Of course, the adoption of these so-called solutions were not supported by men with pure intentions, as the Seventeenth Amendment was passed as part of a logrolling deal involving the Sixteenth Amendment, in which the federal government now would have the power to compel those rich people to pay their “fair share.” Also, now politicians could get around that pesky Constitution, which the Supreme Court had ruled prevented the government from directly taxing individuals in Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Company, 157 U.S. 429 (1895).
For those who are founding fathers fans, I will put it yet another way: There is “no virtue among us,” and we are in that “wretched situation” that James Madison warned us about. Our Founding Father’s would never have fallen for the crisis and Leviathan as we repeatedly do, because “necessary and proper” meant something completely different to them. They didn’t look to government in crisis as many of us clearly do. As Franklin correctly stated, “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Virtue, unfortunately, was degrading during the Gilded Age, which led to the Progressive Era. Unions didn’t manifest out of the clear blue sky, they were a reaction to horrific work conditions for both adult men and women, and even children; the Seventeenth Amendment wasn’t conceived out of thin air, it was sold by despots who took advantage of public envy that arose from already-present economic disparity. As Harlan attempted to phrase it:
You can address this problem with constitutional amendments, and I think that many are worth considering: The structural shifts in our government have indeed empowered insiders and at the expense of the citizenry. But underlying these shifts is a deeper problem of values, one that I doubt can be fixed by passing a few amendments.
In fact, from my research I know that they cannot, even if we were to entertain for a moment that such a movement was successful at the state level. The larger problem is one of values and education, which the progressive despots have worked to destroy over the better part of more than a century through secularization and other crafty attacks on the American national identity. How and why do people expect a few amendments will undo a hundred years of progressive assault? It won’t, and we must put in hard time and real effort to unravel their work.
The opposite of big government is not small government, or even limited government as Levin suggests. The opposite of big government is civil society; a virtuous civil society in which government is rendered unnecessary and improper. Education must be addressed first, which can then remind Americans of a once-superior national psychology that was antithetical to progressivism. Otherwise, as they have already proven capable of doing, despots in big business and government will exploit our failures of virtue, and we will be right back where we started.
As I concluded in Our Virtuous Republic, which one Levin fan claimed I was “despicable for plugging” (so much for a discussion of ideas), addressing the economic disparity and “rational ignorance” among the American people must come first, then the reforms can and will naturally follow. I favor term limits or the outright repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. I also favor a flat-tax to combat the cronyism possible by the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment, or its outright appeal. But we are getting way ahead of ourselves, because we must first change ourselves in conjunction with structural changes or before we can even make meaningful change to government.
Putting the cart before the horse, or in this case the structural reforms before the cultural, is nothing more than merely applying a band-aid on a sunken chest wound. The utterly blind willingness to accept only structural solutions is the out-and-out manifestation of Americans’ inability to confront their true shortcomings, a sad denial that serious introspection is needed because we refuse to take “the road less traveled,” as M. Scott Peck ingeniously explained our human tendency to take the easier path.
Therefore, while Levin has succeeded in laying the groundwork for having a discussion, it is hardly clear who else may be willing to participate in a discussion about liberty amendments, other than die-hard conservatives and civil libertarians. Others, including some conservatives, will not be satisfied with constant blaming of the progressive boogeyman for our troubles. A society virtuous enough to ensure that America has an economy that works for everyone will, in the end, render government unnecessary through a strong civil society that looks after those who are especially susceptible to the false promises of politicians.
Time would have been better spent helping us wrestle away the government monopoly on education from dangerous despots who teach ignorance to our children. That’s how we restore our once-virtuous republic, where all were indeed created and treated equal. Until we do, Harlan is right, America “gets the kind of government it deserves.”
UPDATE: Rich responded to his critics of this article, including Mark Levin, which you can read here!