In a recent article that appeared on my blog and published on the Tea Party Tribune, I put forth several criticisms of those who view the liberty amendments as the ultimate solution to the assault on American freedom. I very much appreciate both positive and negative feedback and, believe me, I’ve received a good deal of both.
That being said, several comments demand a response, not only because they reveal some clear confusion with my argument, but also because some seem to have completely missed my argument, altogether. I am certainly willing to concede responsibility for the former, so I would first like to respond to a few one-by-one while offering more detail about my argument in an effort to rectify the latter. In the end, I hope it will help to move the conversation forward, because despite Mark Levin offering a well thought-out argument in The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic, the liberty amendments still will not save America, and our Founding Fathers would agree with me.
At times I will be heavy on the quotes, because I understand that some of you were pretty angry with my assessment. However, my argument is rooted in the forgotten wisdom of our Founding Fathers; hence my book’s subtitle, The Forgotten Clause in the American Social Contract. So, I intend to force you to get angry at them, as well. That is, if you insist on ignoring the inconvenient truth that America’s problems are values-based, and a law is but a culturally constructed reflection of a society’s values. That is why a “country tends to get the kind of government it deserves,” which many of you found to be offensive. After a few brief responses to common criticisms, I will also address why that is true using issues such as welfare and greater entitlements.
At its core, this is an argument between structural and cultural-based approaches to halting our nation’s lockstep march toward tyranny, a march that has increasingly picked-up in pace. Mark Levin and the liberty amendments represent structural-based solutions in this debate, with the liberty amendments addressing only government-centered solutions. My argument in Our Virtuous Republic: The Forgotten Clause in the American Social Contract, represents a cultural-based argument, because no matter how many laws we amend, the law cannot erase the reasons that the Progressive Movement was successful to begin with. Thus, the liberty amendments are the equivalent of “applying a bandaid to a sunken chest wound.”
Patrick Henry, the most ardent spokesman for the anti-federalists, had little confidence in our ability to sustain the single-most important and conditional characteristic of republicanism – virtue. He argued, and I have argued that he was right, “the devil in it all” would be the “necessary and proper” implied power, which will be used by despots to exploit the less agreeable aspects to our human nature. Rising at the Virginia Convention, he said:
Without real checks, it will not suffice that some of them are good… the wicked will be continually watching: I dread the depravity of human nature… I will never depend on so slender a protection as the possibility of being represented by virtuous men.
He was right about the fragility of virtue, but wrong about his structural solution’s ability to protect against tyranny without virtue – the Bill of Rights. Specifically speaking to an emphasis on structural solutions, or in this case the liberty amendments, the father of our Constitution James Madison, wrote:
Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks [like the liberty amendments], no form of government [like supposed limited government], can render us secure [free]. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.
Madison would have called the liberty amendments “a chimerical idea,” because we obviously brought “tyranny by popular support” upon ourselves, and must first deal with our own lack of virtue above all other considerations. Many proponents of the liberty amendments seem to forget that we once had a Constitution that was filled with restrictions on centralized power, and created a federal government with powers “few” and “defined” by the original design. Of its durability and the power of law alone, Samuel Adams wrote:
The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy the gift of Heaven [freedom], let us become a virtuous people; then shall we both deserve and enjoy it. While, on the other hand, if we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most abject slaves.
Measured by the standards of the men who adopted the original document, we are very close to “universally vicious and debauched in our manners,” to be sure. We also have a long way to go before we rediscover how and why virtue is so essential to freedom. “It is clear that you are obsessed with virtue and view everything through that prism,” one critic emailed to me while claiming I advocated “a regression to a state of virtue.” “Virtue is not hereditary,” Jefferson correctly observed, thus the position that teaching virtue is a regressive agenda, is a testimony to how far we have fallen culturally. I wrote Our Virtuous Republic for this exact purpose, because it is not me who was or is obsessed with virtue, but our Founding Fathers, and with good reason.
Don’t take my word for it, read the words of our Founding Fathers and you will come to understand “the eighteenth century mind was thoroughly convinced that a popularly based government ‘cannot be supported’ without virtue.” In truth, it was universally understood among the colonists that a “corrupt and selfish people” could never sustain republicanism. Benjamin Franklin plainly stated:
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.
Yet, how and why is freedom so contingent upon virtue? It is first necessary to understand the concept of virtue itself, and it must be understood in the context of the ideology that nurtured virtue as our Founding Fathers understood it – the Protestant ethic. Virtue, as understood by our Founding Fathers, could correctly be defined as an obedience to God’s moral law and the fulfillment of the obligation one has to God that they will make the happiness of others their duty. This manifests in many different forms of behavior, such as civic work-duty and showing affection to family, friends, and community. Lost along with this obligation or duty to community is the understanding that “the most acceptable service we render to Him is in doing good to his other children,” as Franklin stated.
Let’s look at welfare and entitlements as promised earlier. One of the main reasons Mark Levin and, indeed conservatives generally, feel such an urgency to rollback government, is the national debt. Where did that debt come from, and why are those programs now so essential? The answer is largely welfare and entitlement spending, but why they are essential is another question altogether. In the Protestant ethic, one has a duty to answer their “calling,” or the idea we all have a duty to labor to meet our own needs, which will be a benefit to the collective society. Far too many people, today, simply do not hear that calling, let alone answer it.
On the other hand, for those who do, too few are fulfilling their obligation to care for the welfare of their fellow-citizens, thus they have little recourse but to go to the government. Virtue and ethics are all that separated classical American capitalism from the simple pursuit of wealth that transpired in antiquity, European-style capitalism, and now the modern American capitalist “free” market. The secularization of American capitalism has made the pursuit of wealth an end, whereas with Protestantism in the American colonies, wealth historically was a means to achieve a strong civil society, with individuals like Franklin financially independent so that they may pursue interests for the whole of society. Of the Franklin Stove, he wrote:
Govr. Thomas was so pleas’d with the Construction of this Stove, as describ’d in it that he offer’d to give me a Patent for the sole Vending of them for a Term of Years; but I declin’d it from a Principle… That as we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.
Do you think if John D. Rockefeller thought Standard Oil should offer some service in the spirit of Franklin, even if in the form of cheaper Kerosene, then William Jennings Bryant would have had such an easy time selling the Sixteenth Amendment to economically deprived Americans, particularly in the western states? If you were able to take a time machine and go back to tell a western farmer – who was weighing whether or not he should support the Sixteenth Amendment – that the IRS Tea Party scandal would be the future in America if it should pass, I’d bet his hatred for Standard Oil would have caused him to care little for your plea.
Not to scapegoat Rockefeller and Standard Oil, but for reasons of simplicity we could correctly use the same example for the Seventeenth Amendment. Economic disparity and perceptions that people like Mr. Rockefeller played by a different set of rules fueled support for the movement to a popular election of senators, which Americans viewed as a chance to level the playing field. In reality, the results of the Seventeenth Amendment made special interest power during Rockefeller’s heyday look modest, as I had demonstrated in the last article. However, it doesn’t negate the fact that our Founding Fathers simply would not have approved of the behavior that transpired during the “Gilded Age,” because the idea of “worldly asceticism” caused them to condemn such behavior. As Weber writes in Protestant ethic:
On the side of the production of private wealth, asceticism condemned both dishonesty and impulsive avarice. What was condemned as covetousness, Mammonism, etc., was the pursuit of riches for their own sake. For wealth in itself was a temptation.
Certainly, progressive despots did all in their power to push the degradation of virtue along, such as secularization to weaken civic obligation and the modern myth of a “separation of church and state,” because they understood what Washington meant when he said:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.
Washington goes on to say that a citizen’s obligation to their family, community, and country cannot be persuaded by patriotism alone. Such an obligation must be owed to God first, because the hybrid philosophy of Natural Law and the Protestant ethic that dominated our Founders’ ideology holds that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail to the exclusion of religious principle.” Ironically, the progressive effort to secularize America resulted in the very same federal power that enabled the IRS to target Tea Party groups, as 501(c) status was constructed to kneecap church influence in the political arena, which is in chapter 3 of my book that I had posted in its entirety here on the Tea Party Tribune.
At the core of republicanism is the belief that society can draw on the tightness of human relationships to ensure citizens feel obliged to provide each other the highest acts of affection. The closer the relationship, then the stronger the obligation to respond to the needs of others is impressed upon us. Instead of proposing an incomplete solution because it gives conservatives false hope, Levin and others with his size microphone should be screaming about the dangers of losing that connectedness we all once had. After all, that is the true danger to humanity posed by big government, because once we lose those human relationships they are difficult to forge once again.
While I acknowledge the structural aspects to “how” the federal government centralized power, such as the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, I correctly argue that this is just too superficial of an assessment. These amendments are mere symptoms, rather than the “reason” or the actual cause of our national condition. Determining the action to fix a problem requires understanding the “reason” that there is a problem in the first place, and a “reason” is a question of “why” not just “how”. If our Founding Fathers were still around they would certainly know that the Sixteenth Amendment is “how” tyrannical targeting of Tea Party groups was even possible, but they would be more concerned with “why” Americans were so easily persuaded to support the amendment empowering the federal government to do so in the first place.
The answer is economic disparity coupled with a dereliction of civic duty to make the happiness of your fellow-citizens your obligation, as it was practiced when our Founders designed our social contract. There is no right that the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God have not also assigned an equivalent duty or obligation, or as Jefferson phrased it, a citizen “has no right in opposition to his social duties.” Society, as a whole, has only two choices when determining how the needs of the community will be met; through civil action within the community, or to defer their responsibility to government.
As it relates to poverty, for instance, social welfare policy is a manifestation of that deference, and possible only through the popularly supported Sixteenth Amendment. We have resolved to reconcile civil inaction through our high tax burdens, because although suffering can be difficult to witness, it can also be more difficult to resolve ourselves. If not for a lack of virtue, then why would we hand the government a dollar only for them to hand our neighbor 30 cents? Indeed, this has been the cause of the slow but steady degradation of liberty in American society, and even though progressives did not solely create it, they certainly have been successful at exploiting it.
A free and popularly based society in which individuals do not fulfill their civic obligations will soon find they must – by popular support – surrender to the State an unforeseeable amount of their liberty to ensure the general public welfare. None of Mark Levin’s liberty amendments will save America from that, no matter how many so-called conservative intellectuals swallow the idea that it will.
Criticisms I Did Not Get To
- Educating The Public On Natural Law And Virtue Will Take Too Long
Some comments, in particular, I was very sympathetic toward. They were from fellow-patriots filled with trepidation over America’s future, and as a father of two small children, I agonize over the future as well. But these comments underscore a central point in Our Virtuous Republic, which is that it was our own cultural shortfalls and dereliction of civic duty – as well as our inability to confront them – that allowed and still allows government to encroach on our freedom. It is unrealistic and fool-hearted to believe that a century of Statists’ gains can be reversed with a few amendments.
M. Scott Peck couldn’t have been more correct in his assessment of human nature in his groundbreaking work, The Road Less Traveled. The name M. Scott Peck may be synonymous with a string of “self-help” books in popular culture, but Peck was a renowned psychiatrist whose work professed the benefits to an American revival of many of the tenets found in the American mainstream Protestant ethic, which wrapped around our traditional national identity like a warm blanket. To those who study human behavior and psychology,he was refreshingly honest in his interpretations of our (human’s) disagreeable tendency to avoid the harder, yet correct path to solving the many problems of the human condition.
Many fellow-conservatives, still disheartened by the last election defeat were yearning for a solution, such as the liberty amendments put forth by Mark Levin, and the same conservative “leaders” who have failed at displaying any real leadership in the past are now lining up to praise this false hope. Hans A. von Spakovsky, is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the latest to take the easy path, perhaps because he himself feels defeated. He wrote:
Over more than a decade in Washington, I have at times despaired at the dangerous accumulation of power here, the downhill financial spiral we are on, and the inability, unwillingness, and lack of political will to do anything about it. Levin’s proposals give me hope that there might actually be a way out of the morass in which we find ourselves.
I, among others like Glenn Reynolds, understand that these structural reforms during the Progressive Era were only the product of a corroded value system, not the cause, and any attempt to reverse them without addressing “a deeper problem of values” is asking for insanity. Insanity, by definition, is the repetition of the same action expecting a different result. I don’t like it either, but breaking the cycle of insanity in America will not be easy. Until Americans have virtue enough to take “the road less traveled,” which unfortunately will take time, forget a state constitutional convention to repeal or restrict the Sixteenth or Seventeenth Amendments; it will never see the light of day.
- Attacking Mark Levin Makes Me A Traitor, A Liberal, And An Enemy Of Liberty
Last but not least, the idea that Mark Levin is somehow the only person entitled to have an opinion, or the only individual with the credibility to put forth a solution is deeply disturbing to me. He certainly deserves accolade for stepping-up and offering some solution, but in my view, replacing the painful truth with false hope is what truly is doing a disservice to the cause of liberty. I wasn’t necessarily attacking Mark Levin personally, but if I was to level any criticism of such a nature, then it would be that he certainly knows where to start.
He is a learned man as it pertains to our Founding Fathers, and most assuredly knows that they would not be concerned with hurting the feelings of their fellow-citizens if it meant telling them the truth about what it takes to preserve freedom. Levin concocted a plan to address issues that our Founding Fathers would, and did, put on the back burner to address the more challenging issue of national character and virtue. Someone must begin to confront We the People about our own failures, especially when we need to hear it. I have attempted to tell him so on a number of occasions during the show, as many of you suggested I do, but he is not that easy to get a hold of. I suspect that his fans are more angry with my criticisms than he would be. However, I have yet to find out for myself. I welcome the chance.
One of the biggest problems in America today, is that We the People refuse to accept any responsibility for our own condition. Nevertheless, in my past column, my primary criticism is leveled on the argument, not the man, as well as those who have completely subscribed to the liberty amendments without reserving a place for scrutiny.
I have never heard of an instance when the treatment of a problem’s symptoms proved to be an effective approach. Only the treatment of the root cause has ever, or will ever be effective. If we know “how” the government grows it is certainly helpful, but until we understand “why” it does, then we will never roll back the tyranny; let alone prevent it or make it harder for despots in the future. Beyond the oversimplified explanation that it is the nature of political animals to oppress We the People, we have to answer “why” We the People have let them.