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!

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