Levin, Mark R. Liberty and Tyranny. New York: Threshold Editions, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-6285-6.
Even at this remove, I can recall the precise moment when my growing unease that the world wasn't turning into the place I'd hoped to live as an adult became concrete and I first began to comprehend the reasons for the trends which worried me. It was October 27th, 1964 (or maybe a day or so later, if the broadcast was tape delayed) when I heard Ronald Reagan's speech “A Time for Choosing”, given in support of Barry Goldwater's U.S. presidential campaign. Notwithstanding the electoral disaster of the following week, many people consider Reagan's speech (often now called just “The Speech”) a pivotal moment both in the rebirth of conservatism in the United States and Reagan's own political career. I know that I was never the same afterward: I realised that the vague feelings of things going the wrong way were backed up by the facts Reagan articulated and, further and more important, that there were alternatives to the course the country and society was presently steering. That speech, little appreciated at the time, changed the course of American history and changed my life.

Here is a book with the potential to do the same for people today who, like me in 1964, are disturbed at the way things are going, particularly young people who, indoctrinated in government schools and the intellectual monoculture of higher education, have never heard the plain and yet eternal wisdom the author so eloquently and economically delivers here. The fact that this book has recently shot up to the number one rank in Amazon.com book sales indicates that not only is the message powerful, but that an audience receptive to it exists.

The author admirably cedes no linguistic ground to the enemies of freedom. At the very start he dismisses the terms “liberal” (How is it liberal to advocate state coercion as the answer to every problem?) and “progressive” (How can a counter-revolution against the inherent, unalienable rights of individual human beings in favour of the state possibly be deemed progress?) for “Statist”, which is used consistently thereafter. He defines a “Conservative” not as one who cherishes the past or desires to return to it, but rather a person who wishes to conserve the individual liberty proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and supposedly protected by the Constitution (the author and I disagree about the wisdom of the latter document and the motives of those who promoted it). A Conservative is not one who, in the 1955 words of William F. Buckley “stands athwart history, yelling Stop”, but rather believes in incremental, prudential reform, informed by the experience of those who went before, from antiquity up until yesterday, with the humility to judge every policy not by its intentions but rather by the consequences it produces, and always ready to reverse any step which proves, on balance, detrimental.

The Conservative doesn't believe in utopia, nor in the perfectibility or infinite mutability of human nature. Any aggregate of flawed humans will be inevitably flawed; that which is least flawed and allows individuals the most scope to achieve the best within themselves is as much as can be hoped for. The Conservative knows from history that every attempt by Statists to create heaven on Earth by revolutionary transformation and the hope of engendering a “new man” has ended badly, often in tragedy.

For its length, this book is the best I've encountered at delivering the essentials of the conservative (or, more properly termed, but unusable due to corruption of the language, “classical liberal”) perspective on the central issues of the time. For those who have read Burke, Adam Smith, de Tocqueville, the Federalist Papers, Hayek, Bastiat, Friedman, and other classics of individual and economic liberty (the idea that these are anything but inseparable is another Statist conceit), you will find little that is new in the foundations, although all of these threads are pulled together in a comprehensible and persuasive way. For people who have never heard of any of the above, or have been taught to dismiss them as outdated, obsolete, and inapplicable to our age, this book may open the door to a new, more clear way of thinking, and through its abundant source citations (many available on the Web) invites further exploration by those who, never having thought of themselves before as “conservative”, find their heads nodding in agreement with many of the plain-spoken arguments presented here.

As the book progresses, there is less focus on fundamentals and more on issues of the day such as the regulatory state, environmentalism, immigration, welfare dependency, and foreign relations and military conflicts. This was, to me, less satisfying than the discussion of foundational principles. These issues are endlessly debated in a multitude of venues, and those who call themselves conservatives and agree on the basics nonetheless come down on different sides of many of these issues. (And why not? Conservatives draw on the lessons of the past, and there are many ways of interpreting the historical record.) The book concludes with “A Conservative Manifesto” which, while I concur that almost every point mentioned would be a step in the right direction for the United States, I cannot envision how, in the present environment, almost any of the particulars could be adopted. The change that is needed is not the election of one set of politicians to replace another—there is precious little difference between them—but rather the slow rediscovery and infusion into the culture of the invariant principles, founded in human nature rather than the theories of academics, which are so lucidly explained here. As the author notes, the statists have taken more than eight decades on their long march through the institutions to arrive at the present situation. Champions of liberty must expect to be as patient and persistent if they are to prevail. The question is whether they will enjoy the same freedom of action their opponents did, or fall victim as the soft tyranny of the providential state becomes absolute tyranny, as has so often been the case.

April 2009 Permalink