Levin, Mark R. Ameritopia. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-7324-4.
Mark Levin seems to have a particularly virtuous kind of multiple personality disorder. Anybody who has listened to his radio program will know him as a combative “no prisoners” advocate for the causes of individual liberty and civil society. In print, however, he comes across as a scholar, deeply versed in the texts he is discussing, who builds his case as the lawyer he is, layer by layer, into a persuasive argument which is difficult to refute except by recourse to denial and emotion, which are the ultimate refuge of the slavers.

In this book, Levin examines the utopian temptation, exploring four utopian visions: Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, Hobbes's Leviathan, and Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto in detail, with lengthy quotations from the original texts. He then turns to the philosophical foundations of the American republic, exploring the work of Locke, Montesquieu, and the observations of Tocqueville on the reality of democracy in America.

Levin argues that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were well aware of utopian visions, and explicitly rejected them in favour of a system, based upon the wisdom of Locke and Montesquieu, which was deliberately designed to operate in spite of the weaknesses of the fallible humans which would serve as its magistrates. As Freeman Dyson observed, “The American Constitution is designed to be operated by crooks, just as the British constitution is designed to be operated by gentlemen.” Engineers who value inherent robustness in systems will immediately grasp the wisdom of this: gentlemen are scarce and vulnerable to corruption, while crooks are an inexhaustible resource.

For some crazy reason, most societies choose lawyers as legislators and executives. I think they would be much better advised to opt for folks who have designed, implemented, and debugged two or more operating systems in their careers. A political system is, after all, just an operating system that sorts out the rights and responsibilities of a multitude of independent agents, all acting in their own self interest, and equipped with the capacity to game the system and exploit any opportunity for their own ends. Looking at the classic utopias, what strikes this operating system designer is how sadly static they all are—they assume that, uniquely after billions of years of evolution and thousands of generations of humans, history has come to an end and that a wise person can now figure out how all people in an indefinite future should live their lives, necessarily forgoing improvement through disruptive technologies or ideas, as that would break the perfect system.

The American founding was the antithesis of utopia: it was a minimal operating system which was intended to provide the rule of law which enabled civil society to explore the frontiers of not just a continent but the human potential. Unlike the grand design of utopian systems, the U.S. Constitution was a lean operating system which devolved almost all initiative to “apps” created by the citizens living under it.

In the 20th century, as the U.S. consolidated itself as a continental power, emerged as a world class industrial force, and built a two ocean navy, the utopian temptation rose among the political class, who saw in the U.S. not just the sum of the individual creativity and enterprise of its citizens but the potential to build heaven on Earth if only those pesky constitutional constraints could be shed. Levin cites Wilson and FDR as exemplars of this temptation, but for most of the last century both main political parties more or less bought into transforming America into Ameritopia.

In the epilogue, Levin asks whether it is possible to reverse the trend and roll back Ameritopia into a society which values the individual above the collective and restores the essential liberty of the citizen from the intrusive state. He cites hopeful indications, such as the rise of the “Tea Party” movement, but ultimately I find these unpersuasive. Collectivism always collapses, but usually from its own internal contradictions; the way to bet in the long term is on individual liberty and free enterprise, but I expect it will take a painful and protracted economic and societal collapse to flense the burden of bad ideas which afflict us today.

In the Kindle edition the end notes are properly bidirectionally linked to the text, but the note citations in the main text are so tiny (at least when read with the Kindle application on the iPad) that it is almost impossible to tap upon them.

May 2012 Permalink