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Levin’s ‘Liberty’ Needs Less Utopia, More Whig

Utopian visions are typically the purview of the left. Conservatives, with their well-placed tendency to have less faith in the perfectibility of man, tend to steer clear of such things.

Now comes talk-radio host, best-selling author and lawyer Mark R. Levin’s “The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic,” which bills itself as “a first step” on the road out of perdition.

Really, though, it’s a conservative’s view of utopia, where the states can amend the Constitution and transient policy preferences such as 15 percent tax rates and caps on debt pegged to gross domestic product are enshrined in the organic law.

Don’t get me wrong. Almost all of Levin’s ideas are good ones, from my perspective (not too sure about repealing the 17th Amendment and returning the election of senators to state legislatures, but everything else looks good).

He argues them lucidly, with just the right touch of ideological fanaticism.

And, as a book of policy proposals, “The Liberty Amendments” is as good a place to start as any for conservatives hoping to shape the debate inside and outside the Republican Party.

But Levin presents the book as more, and that is where he runs off the rails.

The idea that informs the book is that liberals have taken over the political process to such an extent that it is impossible for the true voice of the people to be heard.

“The Statists have been successful in their century-long march to disfigure and mangle the constitutional order and undo the social compact,” Levin writes.

Which leaves one wondering: How were they able to do this? Could it be that it was because they won elections and then acted on their principles? (Hey conservatives, that looks like fun. Why don’t you try it sometime?)

The “governing masterminds,” as Levin refers to them, have left the people “lamebrained and dumbfounded.” Again, this raises an interesting question. How are we supposed to trust the lamebrained and dumbfounded (that’s us, by the way) to fix this mess?

Levin doesn’t really blame the people for their abdication of responsibility, though, instead asserting that the public has been “indoctrinated, manipulated and misled” by its elected representatives.

Unfortunately, he has a point. But only up to a point. If people are being indoctrinated, manipulated and misled, it’s at least partly their own fault. People make choices, especially in a republic, and if they choose to make bad ones over and over again, there’s very little anyone can do about it (except the statists, who want to keep them from drinking soda and living too far from work and smoking in public and on and on and on).

Levin’s solution to all this is to employ the never-before-used provision in Article V of the Constitution that requires Congress to call a convention upon application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states for the purpose of considering amendments.

Levin, whose writing is always entertaining, is like the doctor who provides a perfect diagnosis for your incurable disease, then offers a curative that is unobtainable.

Nineteenth-century social reformers, mostly associated with the Whig Party, had a long-running internal debate about how to bend American culture to their will — for its own good, of course. Should they, when they had their hands on the levers of power, write laws that imposed their vision of the good society? Or should they expend their energies winning hearts and minds, persuading the populace to strive to be better people, of their own volition?

Both methods were tried, with varying levels of success, on issues ranging from dueling to temperance, from Sabbath observance to slavery.

Winning hearts and minds takes time. Winning elections takes votes. Votes are easier to get, but if you don’t get them, you can’t do anything. On the other hand, you can always be out winning hearts and minds, perhaps making it possible for you to win votes later on.

Any campaign such as the one Levin envisions would take years of winning hearts and minds. He notes the challenge, writing that he has “no illusions about the political difficulty in rallying support for amending the Constitution by this process.”

As well he should not, for one reason he acknowledges and one he glances past.

The resistance of the governing class “will be stubborn and their tactics desperate,” he writes, a fair assessment to be sure.

But he barely addresses an even more obvious challenge. What should give Levin more pause than the desperation of the elites is the voting record of the masses. It’s never made clear why he thinks the same people who have twice elected Barack Obama president will suddenly do a 180-degree turn and demand that the government undo everything Obama has just done.

Levin writes of the “untold numbers of citizens who comprehend the perilousness of the times and circumstances.”

But their numbers are not untold. They were told in 2008 and again in 2012. Turns out there are fewer of us than there are of them, at least for the time being.

One hates to discourage dreamers, so by all means, read this book. Levin has written a well-argued manifesto presenting a positive vision that serves as a welcome antidote to the leviathan-like present and dystopian future for which we seem to be headed.

Certainly, as he argues, winning elections isn’t sufficient. But winning is necessary. Before attempting a revolutionary rewrite (or restoration, if you prefer) of the Constitution, let’s see if we can muster a simple majority in a presidential election. Otherwise, the convention Levin seeks to call might yield results somewhat less satisfactory than he imagines.

John Bicknell is a former editor at CQ Roll Call and author of a forthcoming history of 1844 that will be published in fall 2014 by Chicago Review Press.

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