Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ameritopia by Mark Levin con't

Sixty years later, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French thinker and philosopher, visited America to report on our experiment. He found the American people reveling in their freedom, enjoying their democracy, and taking advantage of a system that allowed upward mobility. Americans believed strongly in the sovereignty of the people, and this belief was deep-rooted and widespread. No one was going to dictate to the very independent minded American people.

Yet Tocqueville recognized a very real threat lurking in the future, the desire for egalitarianism. This abandonment of liberty as the chief ideal and a desire for equality of outcome instead seems to be at the core of man as he looks jealously at the wealthier citizen. Tocqueville was heartened by the lack of desire for equality of outcome among Americans. Liberty remained their chief desire and Americans celebrated wealth as an end to be admired and sought after by every citizen. Tocqueville did not find an America of envious, power-hungry people, but rather a country of freedom-loving, self-governing people who would not abide a government overstepping its bounds in the name of equality.

Tocqueville believed America's free market provided the greatest opportunity anywhere on earth to become prosperous. He realized that American knew their system led to wide disparities in wealth, yet Americans felt that as long as everyone had an equal shot, there was no need to plunder the wealthy. Most Americans led middle-class lives, neither obsessing over wealth nor envying the more prosperous citizens. He saw that the danger democracies faced came in a form of the soft-tyranny of a government inserting itself to "help" the less fortunate. While he could not name the menace he feared, Plato had already identified it - Utopia. Democracies are especially vulnerable to this beast because even when the government controls every aspect of the citizen's life in its never-ending reach for Utopia, the people are lulled into a dull complacency with the belief that they still maintain sovereignty. In short as government interferes more and more, we cannot be trusted pick the type of light bulb to use, but we can vote for our leaders so we believe we are still in charge.

Fast-forwarding to modern times, it is clear we have succumbed to the beast. While our Founders argued among themselves about the best way to limit a government that would most naturally become tyrannical, modern Americans argue about how much bigger the government can get. The anti-Federalist believed the Constitution would not be strong enough to contain power-mad men. They were right.

Our downhill journey began with Woodrow Wilson, the Princeton University president and President of the United States in 1913. He despised the idea of limited government as it did not allow him to do all he wanted to do. Our current President mirrors Wilson in this belief as he rails against a Constitution limiting how much he can accomplish. Wilson believed the government to be alive and limiting it or dividing its power would only kill or weaken it. Wilson denigrated Montesquieu's well-thought out insights and valued Hobbes' Leviathan instead. He believed with Hobbes that since man had given up his power to the government, the government was right in all it did. The Constitution had created an inefficient government where someone as wise and all-knowing as Wilson was limited in how fast and how widespread he could change the country into his version of Utopia. Wilson turned the whole idea of Americanism on its head, creating a living, breathing Constitution which could mean whatever he wanted it to mean. Unfortunately as the Founders would agree, a living, breathing Constitution is nothing short of a living, breathing tyrant.

FDR took Wilson's ideas as a blueprint for his own administration. He, too, recognized that the government moved too slowly for his liking and was appalled by the lack of progress he saw. He believed it was the utopians who sought to take our country into a glorious future and the conservatives who fought to hold it back. He rejected the idea of rights given by a Creator and substituted them with government-given rights to things like a house, a job, healthcare, education, and economic security. (This new Bill of Rights, proposed in 1944, strangely mirrored the one proposed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto.) The difference between the view of "rights" that the Founders held and FDR's is that rights given by God cannot be taken away, except by God, and come at no one else's expense. FDR's rights all had a price tag to be paid by fellow citizens. Government-given rights can be stripped away by that same government when it becomes politically expedient, but not without first throwing the populace into crippling dependency. Government, in FDR's view, existed not to protect private property as the Founders believed, but existed to redistribute it. Of course, over time, nothing will be left to distribute by even the most intellectual of leaders.

Today, we have arrived at the dangerous blend of Utopia and Americanism. Levin calls it Ameritopia. We have let the wolf in the gate by allowing our government to take more and more power. Yet we are lulled into complacency since we are still able to vote. In truth, we are only able to vote for which despot we want in office. We have surrendered our liberty for the false promise of perfection. There is no such thing. Man is fallen and society is not perfectible. No mastermind will ever accomplish the goals of the utopians. It is simply not possible for any one man or group of man to have all the knowledges of millions of Americans making decisions in their own best interest. Yet we have given up more and more of our freedom to choose for the ever-illusive perfect world.

Levin states, "The Founders would be appalled at the nature of the federal government's transmutation and the squandering of the American legacy. The federal government has become the nation's largest creditor, debtor, lender, employer, consumer, contractor, grantor, property owner, tenant, insurer, health-care provider and pension guarantor. Its size and reach are vast. Its interventions are illimitable." Levin believes the American character is strong enough to return to our true values. He hopes it is not too late to resist the appeal of radical egalitarianism in exchange for liberty.

He's wrong. It is too late. America as the Founders envisioned it, has failed.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ameritopia by Mark Levin

I don't think another book has depressed me so much as Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America by Mark Levin, and I am including Who Killed the Constitution and The Suicide of Reason.

Levin begins by reviewing the early purveyors of Utopia and the subsequent revelation that nothing short of totalitarianism would result. He begins with Plato's Republic. Plato describes an Ideal City run by Philosopher Kings. The individual is therefore subservient to the all-knowing and wise state. In his writings, Plato "sought to avoid the disintegration of society and the onset of tyranny but his solution was a totalitarian City destructive of human nature." Traces of Plato's Republic are to be found in subsequent Utopian ideologies.

Next up for discussion is Thomas More's Utopia. He describes a fictional peninsula, cut off from the mainland by a trench and turned into an island, in order to provide the kind of isolation needed for any Utopia to exist. The good King Utopus has segmented his society into cities and neighborhoods each a carbon copy of the other. Citizens are forcibly moved when the population grows too large. All jobs are regulated and assigned.  A small number of people are allowed to hold powerful positions and all decisions are made by them. Every element of daily life is strictly regimented. While well-intentioned and designed to end the more troubling aspects of a free society, More would destroy individual sovereignty and free will and create a tyrannical society.

Hobbes's Leviathan is the next classical work described. Believing that the natural state of man was fear, anxiety, and conflict, Hobbes felt man unable to govern himself. Therefore, a single person or assembly of men must rule over them. Although he sees man as fallen and sinful, somehow he believes a pure ruler(s) can rise and lead them. He believed everyone would willingly transfer all rights to the Sovereign in exchange for protection from the terror of the natural state. Since the Sovereign would be chosen by the people, whatever he did would be definitionally as a representative of the people. No one could disagree with or call anything unjust done by the Sovereign because he would be in effect condemning himself. This all-powerful government, called Leviathan by Hobbes, offers the better of a (false) choice between despotism or anarchy, as man cannot be trusted to govern himself.

Marx and Engels picked up on the Utopian theme in their Communist Manifesto. They believed all the disfunction of society begins in the idea of private property. All material wealth must be eliminated and all property held by the people in common. Knowing this would be an uphill struggle to get people to accept the loss of property, they advocated the complete destruction of all of society - the family, religion, traditions, customs, institutions, eternal truths - and replacing it with Communist indoctrination. Once the people abolished all remnants of the flawed bourgeoisie society, the state would simply fade away as each member lived in perfect harmony with each other. In reality, this utopian ideal worked out somewhat differently. Rather, "the entire society must be brought down to its lowest level. Individual sovereignty must be wrung from the human character; everyone becomes a slave to the state." The pursuit of perfect egalitarianism is merciless and relentless.

After reviewing the literature by those promulgating Utopia, Levin turns to the authors that influenced the Founding Fathers of America in their creation of our country. John Locke sought to counter Hobbes's view of the natural state of man and explored humanity's true nature. Without a true understanding of the human condition, all systems of government are destined to fail. In The Second Treatise of Government, Locke introduces the idea of humans having God-given inalienable rights, and therefore being equal amongst each other and before God, while recognizing unequal outcomes will surely result. He believed that men would generally work together for the common good in the state of nature. It was only when an individual went outside the law of nature and violated one's God-given rights that war and conflict resulted. Government would be created in order to clearly define the standing rules to live by and enforce them in a fair and impartial manner.

Locke also delved deeply into the matter of private property. Believing the earth and all that is in it to be a gift from God, which no man owns, he begins by defining our most basic possession as our own labor. However, once labor has been joined to creation, the man now owns that which he labored over. While the earth is held in common, a farmer my rightfully claim the crops he grew from the earth and the land he tilled as a result of the labor he put into it. Locke believes there will always be enough natural resources and therefore man will never run out of areas to claim as private property once he has invested his labor into it. This labor not only benefits the man, but all of society seeing as he has now improved what was once common. Also, no man may make a claim upon another's property as it rightly belongs to the one who improved it. In addition, every man is free to labor and so gain his own private property. Private property is therefore inextricably linked with liberty, and a government exists to protect both.

Locke argued for a representative, but limited government. He knew his history too well and could see that power is self-perpetuating and eventually destroys liberty. He argued first for a Legislature to create impartial laws, then for an Executive to enforce those laws, and finally for an indifferent Judiciary to adjudicate matters that should arise. However, even a representative government with three branches dividing power can become despotic should it cease to protect private property. In such cases, under the most extreme of cases, the government loses its legitimacy and so must be overturned. Obviously, Locke had a tremendous influence on the Founders, who would have found the Utopian totalitarian models repugnant and against the very nature of man.

A second philosopher to greatly influence the founding ideals of America was Charles de Montesquieu. He also wrote at length about the form of government and the nature of man in The Spirit of the Laws. Montesquieu however, did not have to imagine the natural state of man, he had only to look to the American colonies. Where very little government existed, Americans had formed civil societies and feeling very vulnerable alone on the frontier, men joined together for mutual benefits and protection. Montesquieu, too, argued for a representative, impartial government, but warned of the dangers of desiring egalitarianism, for he knew it would lead to despotism. He observed, "democracy has to avoid two excesses: the spirit of inequality, which leads it to aristocracy,... and the spirit of extreme equality, which leads it to... despotism." He believed in a Constitution that governs the governors. He knew too well the tendency throughout human history toward tyranny and believed that without strong checks on the government, despotism would always result. Governments governed best that listened to their people and worked with the will of the people rather than against it. Changes should be implemented after first persuading the people of its necessity, and above all, the people should be largely left alone to solve problems on their own and with their own good sense. He believed therefore that republics needed to be physically small in order to best represent their people and promote the most liberty.

Montesquieu influenced the Founding Fathers in obvious ways. From him we get the idea of separation of powers so as not to concentrate too much power in a single entity. He believed in enumerated powers to further limit the government and its overreach. Fearing that this would not be enough, the Founders took the idea of Federalism from Montesquieu furthering dividing the Federal Government's power by making the states share in the power of governing. This was a concession to Montesquieu's belief that republics work best in limited geographical areas so that the leaders could be more in tune with the people. Under our Constitution, the states would retain most of the areas of power which would impact everyday life for most citizens. The commerce clause allowing Congress to regulate interstate commerce grew out of Montesquieu's beliefs about the importance of commerce to the health of a nation. States were imposing tariffs and taxes on goods that passed state lines, causing inefficiencies in the market. Congress was allowed this important power to create a better flow of goods within the United States. Montesquieu has been labeled the philosopher most quoted by the Founders.

So how are we doing? Have we upheld the values the Founding Fathers so painstakingly research and debated? Have we avoided the pitfalls they worried about and kept the government in check and free of despotism?  That's the next post!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

1421 by Gavin Menzies

1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies tells the fascinating tale of a voyage all but lost to history. Using his skills as a sailor, and combining impressive detective skills, Menzies tracks down the voyages of four great Chinese fleets given the mission to "proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas."

Menzies begins with the discovery of a Venetian map dated 1424 with what appears to be Caribbean islands, yet it would be another 7 decades before history records the first European "discovering" these lands. His curiosity is greatly aroused and he begins his extensive search for how this information came to be known. He subsequently finds other maps, carried by these famous European explorers with the lands they are about to "discover" already on them! His initial research leads him to China as the only possible power on earth at the time with the wherewithal to circumnavigate the globe.

Menzies uncovers a story of the great emperor Zhu Di who, after securing his throne in China sets out to bring the whole world in subjugation. While his ships journeyed to the great unknown, Zhu Di was disgraced and died. China closed to the outside world and destroyed all records of the voyages. With no official records to consult, Menzies was left with fragments of documents and maps with lands that should not be on them.

Using the fact that the square-sailed ships would have had to travel with the wind, and his knowledge of the tides and trade winds, Menzies recreates the journeys of the four fleets. Along the way, he discovers fascinating evidence that the Chinese did in fact reach the "New World" long before Columbus ever stepped foot in a ship. Evidence includes native tales told to the Spaniards and Portuguese of previous visitors dressed and acting like medieval Chinese, statues and buildings built in the Chinese style in existence before the Europeans arrived, Chinese technological breakthrough known to the American natives at the time the European explorers arrived, and most fascinating of all, traces of Chinese DNA found in the natives of the Americas. One memorable snippet includes the journal of a sailor sailing with Magellan who claims the famous discoverer of the Straits that bear his name seemed to know exactly where the straits would be found. The seaman calls it a miracle, but Menzies attributes it to a map Magellan must have had in his possession made with Chinese knowledge. These "treasure maps" would have been held in the highest of secrecy knowing their value to competing nations was enormous!

Since his book was published, Menzies has uncovered more corroborating evidence as well as scholars with the same thesis. The footnotes and the accompanying website provide overwhelming proof that it was in fact the Chinese, not our vaunted European Explorers who deserve the credit for sailing into the great unknown, charting the lands beyond the sea, and, for a very few, living to tell about it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Touch by Randall Wallace

The Touch by Randall Wallace is a rare trip for me into the world of fiction. I was inspired to check it out after hearing the author on the radio discussing this book as well as his involvement in Secretariat and Braveheart. With such a stunning background, I knew I would not be disappointed.

Unfortunately, it doesn't really live up to the other two projects. While it's enjoyable and a relatively easy read, the story seemed somewhat predictable. Maybe it's the fact that I haven't been exposing myself to fiction for so long that I've become used to each non-fiction page revealing a new truth. Maybe it was just predictable.

Wallace tells the story of a gifted surgeon who abandons his gift after losing his most important patient. Since he  never again wants to experience the disillusionment, he restricts himself to teaching and research. An research opportunity of a lifetime is offered to him. The book tells of his journey through the process of redemption. It's uplifting and well written. I did enjoy it and would recommend it.

I'm just not gushing about it...