Politics & Policy

Utopians in America

It’s a recipe for an Unmaking.

The “hour is late,” says Mark Levin, nationally syndicated radio-talk-show host and president of the Landmark Legal Foundation. But the bestselling author is optimistic that Americans haven’t all given up on the constitutional principles that have made ours an exceptional nation. In his new book, Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America, Levin talks about what ails us and how we can reclaim what our Founders had in mind. Here, he discusses the book with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.  

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How close are we to “The Unmaking of America”?

MARK R. LEVIN: We are well on our way. It has been a gradual, ongoing process that has led to where we are today — which is in an increasingly post-constitutional America. There is so much that the federal government does today, and is poised to do tomorrow, that America can no longer be accurately described as a constitutional republic, or a federal republic, or a representative republic — although we still vote for our representatives. The government retains certain characteristics of all three, but the fact is that the federal government is so large, intrusive, ambitious — ubiquitous, in fact — that it is devouring more and more of our civil society and threatening our individual sovereignty.

So numerous are the examples of social engineering and lifestyle calibrations that they are bordering on the infinite; it is impossible adequately to catalogue them here. But the utopian mind-set — which compels centralized decisionmaking and concentrated power, the reshaping of man’s nature by attacking his sovereignty, and the pursuit of impracticable and impossible long-term solutions and promises of great scope — requires the abandonment of the very foundational principles that undergird our Declaration and our Constitution. Woodrow Wilson specifically repudiated the Declaration, and Cass Sunstein, currently a top adviser to Barack Obama, has written that our Constitution is now FDR’s constitution — meaning, for the rest of us, that it has been thoroughly distorted and evaded.

This is is a hugely important subject, which is discussed at length in my book.

LOPEZ: You write that the “debates between the Federalist and Anti-Federalist camps did not involve fundamental disagreements about the nature of man and his inalienable rights — about which there was near-universal consent and for which a revolution had been fought and won — but how best to arrange a government, after the revolution, to ensure the perpetuation of American society.” How did we get to a point at which we don’t agree on such fundamentals?

LEVIN: There has been a fairly successful effort to disarrange our society over the course of many decades. It has been a steady campaign aimed at the psychology of the American people. The notion of rugged individualism — that is, the independent, self-sufficient, motivated, successful person who takes care of himself and is compassionate toward his fellow man — is under constant assault through legislation, taxation, entitlements, and political discourse. Indeed, individual self-interest is said to be “immoral.” For example, as I explain in the book, Columbia University professor Henry Rogers Seager’s arguments influenced, among others, Franklin Roosevelt. Seager, in turn, was heavily influenced by European models of socialism. Seager was one of the most prominent “thinkers” who provided the framework for Social Security. Time and again, Seager attacked the American “absorption” with individualism, as Wilson had before, and as the Left does today.

What is demanded is that the individual surrenders more and more of his liberty and property to the state, which is said to operate out of concern for, and in the best interest of, the entire community. Individuals acting alone prevent the attainment of the utopian fantasy, which includes equality of incomes, the elimination of poverty, cheap health care for all, and so forth. Meanwhile, the dislocation created by the masterminds’ plans and models is extremely detrimental to the society.

Today we have politicians, like Obama, talking openly about “fundamentally transforming” America. Nowhere in the enumerated executive powers granted by the Constitution will you find the authority granted to a president to fundamentally transform America. That phrase makes clear not only Obama’s intentions, but the efforts of a long line of his utopian predecessors; they do not seek to preserve this society but to replace it with own their notion of the ideal society. If Plato couldn’t do it in the Republic, I doubt Obama is up to the task. But we will all suffer the consequences of his chasing the abstraction and pursuing his paradise.

LOPEZ: Can we reverse this? 

LEVIN: I don’t know. It depends on the American people. I don’t believe it’s inevitable, but the hour is late. Many of our fellow Americans have surrendered to, or been conquered by, utopianism — through entitlements, etc. Moreover, the enormity of the federal Leviathan cannot be overstated. So many decisions regarding our lives are made by federal judges, and even more by an army of bureaucrats who populate a massive administrative state and who issue thousands of regulations. They are mostly unresponsive to the will of the people. Meanwhile, Congress piles on law upon law, while its members often don’t even read the most extensive and voluminous of the laws they are imposing on us. It is a formidable problem. Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Jefferson, and many others explained that despotism by legislatures and bureaucracies are a greater threat to democracies than despotism by a single tyrant.  

LOPEZ: How have politicians and judges drifted so far away from the republican values of the Founders?

LEVIN: How many politicians today refuse to vote for a bill because it violates the Constitution? How many even ask if a bill violates the Constitution before voting for it? How many vote for a bill anyway because they think that they know best? How many judges today take seriously the Tenth Amendment? How many judges broadly justify their rulings on the notion of activism based on a “living and breathing” Constitution? Let’s face it, they think they are better than us. We can’t even choose the right light bulbs, toilets, or showerheads without being required to follow some federal fiat.

I like the way that Frédéric Bastiat put it when he wrote, in part: “It is indeed fortunate that Heaven has bestowed upon certain men — governors and legislators — the exact opposite inclinations, not only for their own sake but also for the sake of the rest of the world! While mankind tends toward evil, the legislators yearn for good; while mankind advances toward darkness, the legislators aspire for enlightenment; while mankind is drawn toward vice, the legislators are attracted toward virtue . . . ” This kind of arrogance pervades our body politic today. When government is unhinged from the Constitution, public officials become unhinged too.

LOPEZ: Is the tyranny of regulation government’s best-kept secret?

LEVIN: It was perhaps a secret at one time, but no longer. It is easier today to say what is not regulated than what is. Tocqueville warned of this kind of smothering administrative despotism. He saw it throughout Europe, but he did not see it in America and he doubted it would come to pass. Too many Americans are impacted by federal regulations to keep it a secret these days. What may not be widely known, however, is the manner in which regulations are developed, who is involved in influencing the process, and the identity of those officials who are actually behind them. There is very little transparency in this regard.

LOPEZ: Central planning, you write, “is about illegitimately exercising power over others.” But it certainly can be well intentioned, can’t it? Certainly some who supported Obama’s health-care plan thought they were doing good, not simply wielding power over others?

LEVIN: By central planning, I am talking about the assumption of power over private property and economic decisions, which is inextricably linked to individual sovereignty, and which is neither constitutional nor wise. The fact that an official might think he is doing good is irrelevant. Friedrich Hayek, among others, wrote extensively of the conceit of these masterminds, who believe they have the knowledge and access to information to make competent decisions when, in fact, they don’t and can’t. Moreover, the idea that substituting an official’s personal and political decisions for the economic decisions of an individual is somehow preferable is nonsense. And the consequence of such arrogance of power is, in the end, mostly destructive. By now it should be abundantly clear that big government is both dangerous and unsustainable. 

I quote Adam Smith on the back cover of my book, as he summarizes the matter well: “The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”

As for Obamacare, and whether some may have thought they were doing good in supporting such a monstrous law: Despotism comes in many forms, and often under the banner of doing good. Surely the manner in which Obamacare was imposed on the public was not evidence of good intentions.

LOPEZ: Why is it important to distinguish utopianism from statism?

LEVIN: Utopianism and statism can be interchangeable, depending on how they are used. But I believe utopianism is what best defines or underpins statism and creates its attraction, even among otherwise sensible people. 

LOPEZ: Is “Hope and Change” utopianism and statism?

LEVIN: When spoken by Obama, yes, for we know his intentions. Otherwise, the phrase “Hope and Change” is, by itself, neither utopianism nor statism. It is a platitude that fits on a bumper sticker.  

LOPEZ: What do Roosevelt, Johnson, and Obama have in common?

LEVIN: They are all masterminds, that is, men who claimed by their words and actions the power and wisdom to impose their notion of an ideal society on our civil society in the name of the people. This is not to say that every last thing they did was/is without merit or justification. But they did a great deal of destruction to, among other things, our constitutional framework and the relationship of the individual citizen to the government. Whittaker Chambers was on point when he said that “the New Deal was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social and, above all, the power relationships within the nation.” The same can be said of the Great Society and whatever we call Obama’s presidency.

This is a good time to point out that a primary means of manipulating the public is class warfare. This is an appeal to equality, albeit to equality of outcomes and uniformity. But it is packaged as fair and just. All three presidents demagogically used the tactic to attract support for their agendas and to lure adherents. It is an appeal that ensnares malcontents, who blame the existing society for their circumstances, but also the unwary, who do not perceive such balkanization as a threat to their circumstances and existence. And the utopian target is the industrious, successful, and independent individual, for that individual demonstrates what is good and sound about the existing society. Again, I discuss this at length in the book.

LOPEZ: Aren’t you a little busy to be “sorting through an immense volume of writings,” as you did for this latest book?

LEVIN: I am very busy. But I am never too busy to do what I can, in my own way, to contribute to what I hope will be a resurgence among those of us who want to preserve this civil society, reestablish the Constitution, and ensure that our children live in freedom and prosperity.

LOPEZ: How close are we to “dying by suicide,” as Lincoln would put it?

LEVIN: My guess is that a number of the Founders would say we already have, given the abandonment of so much they held so precious. I think we are close, although it is not certain. That is not to say that our nation will disappear — it won’t. But it is to say that if we do not reverse course, and quickly, the federal government will devour enough of the civil society, and the circle of freedom within which the individual lives will have tightened to such an extent, that the tyranny of which Tocqueville wrote, and the internal threat about which Joseph Story, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan, among others, spoke, will have come to fruition. The individual will be constantly tormented and molested in big ways and small. Although it is not inevitable, the dark clouds are there. The unraveling has been going on for some time. The tea-party movement is a welcome response to it.   

LOPEZ: “To know liberty is to cherish it.” Do we not know or cherish it anymore?

LEVIN: I believe too many Americans see liberty as a demand on government to ensure economic equality and social uniformity, as a result of decades of being dumbed-down to and bought off with government programs. This is why I sought, in this book, to really dig into what liberty means, where it comes from, how is it manifested, etc. It cannot be covered in all its glory, given the practical limits of any book and my time. But much more needed to be written about it — and the threats to it — so I did. If more Americans understand where the Founders and, before them, the settlers and colonists acquired their beliefs — which is our heritage — then I believe (or at least hope) that we can rouse more citizens to our cause.

LOPEZ: You note and emphasize that a utopian mindset insists that the individual’s “personal interests are of no interest.” How does this square with the Left’s rhetoric of choice and “tolerance,” especially on issues involving abortion, sex, and the law?

LEVIN: By personal interests I mean, for example, that which the Declaration calls “the pursuit of happiness.” Even in the civil society that pre-exists a formal government, there are rules of behavior and moral standards that ensure the community’s wellbeing and enable it to function to protect the individual and the society generally. In America, these rules of behavior didn’t start with the federal government. John Locke wrote extensively of man’s nature in this context. Individual pursuits conflict with a top-down, centralized approach to governance, where a relative few impose their prejudices, values, idiosyncrasies, dogmas, fantasies, etc., on the society by means of law and coercion. All one need do is, for starters, take some time reading last year’s Federal Register to get a sense of how thoroughly the federal government seeks to regulate the individual’s pursuit of happiness. Virtually every great philosopher of the Enlightenment period, and many before, wrote of the inhumanity of centralized, concentrated power – they called it despotism.

LOPEZ: Is your book the political-philosophy education kids don’t get anymore, and haven’t for a few decades now?

LEVIN: My guess is that very few receive this kind of information in our public school system. In our colleges and universities, I have no doubt that students learn more Marx and less Locke or Montesquieu.

LOPEZ: Is yours the book for this election?

LEVIN: Others will determine that. 

LOPEZ: How can voters make most practical use of it?

LEVIN: Read it. And take the information in the book and share it with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. As I say in the book, to know liberty is to cherish it. I will add, to know tyranny and its disguises is to fear it. And then remind them all what Reagan said: “I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”

LOPEZ: What can a candidate learn from your book?

LEVIN: I suppose it depends on the candidate. For most, probably a lot!

LOPEZ: Did it take a leap of faith to write this: “No society is guaranteed perpetual existence. But I have to believe that the American people are not ready for servitude, for if this is our destiny, and the destiny of our children, I cannot conceive that any people, now or in the future, will successfully resist it for long. I have to believe that this generation of Americans will not condemn future generations to centuries of misery and darkness.”

LEVIN: We will all know in the next decade or two.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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