Touting Liberty, Flirting With Tyranny

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As President Obama asserts increasingly extreme positions on executive power, a faction of celebrated conservatives is cheering him on
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Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.

~ Mark Levin, writing in his 2009 New York Times bestseller Liberty And Tyranny

What does it mean to protect freedom? For Mark Levin, one answer is opposing Obama's domestic agenda. He is on the wrong side of the ongoing struggle between liberty and tyranny, Levin argues, spending so recklessly and violating the constitution so brazenly that these United States are imperiled. Levin's sizable audience and impressive book sales suggest a significant number of Americans agree. Asked if they'd feel safer if governed by the talk radio host, many would say yes: Doesn't he invoke as his guiding light the Founders and the US Constitution?

These Americans don't grasp what it would mean to be governed by people who share all of his views. Spending would decrease. The budget would be balanced. Certain federal agencies would be shuttered. Would we therefore be driving several miles in reverse, on a road away from serfdom? It is comforting to think so. The present size and scope of the federal government is alarming. Spending is out of control. The budget deficit and the national debt are long term threats to prosperity.

Unfortunately, a faction in the conservative movement has married its wariness of European-style social welfare and federal bureaucrats to extreme beliefs about executive power. The latter are far more ruinous to liberty, and more enabling of tyranny. Do I want to rein in the commerce clause? Yes. And like Mitch Daniels, I regard our fiscal problem to be overwhelming. But even a cursory look at history shows that a Friedrich Hayek-style road to serfdom has rarely if ever come to pass, while investing the head of state with excessive, unchecked power has ended in tyranny too many times to count. Elsewhere I've called this the shortcut to serfdom. It's the route Mark Levin and others like him endorse without grasping where it leads.

This is most evident in his recent Facebook posts on Libya and executive power, and his long-running endorsements of Bush Administration lawyer John Yoo. Taken together, these tell us Levin's position on what the president must do to initiate war and the extent of his power as he wages it.

As a matter of logic, a head of state is most constrained from becoming abusive in war time if he is unable to launch a war without checks and balances, and is meaningfully limited in his war-time actions. He is still constrained, if less so, when permitted to launch a war but restrained in waging it, or unable to instigate war but unconstrained once it is launched. Then there is the combination that safeguards liberty the least: one where the head of state can start a war on his own initiative, and claim extraordinary powers beyond what he normally enjoys while waging it. This last combination is what Mark Levin and John Yoo embrace. They claim it is consistent with what the Founders intended, and supported by the Constitution properly understood.

Ponder the implications. In arguing that Obama is justified in his behavior toward Libya despite his lack of Congressional approval, Levin is asserting that the president is vested with the right to launch a war (or is it a kinetic military action?) absent an imminent threat, a provoking act, or even a compelling national interest in the conflict. Nor does Levin think UN approval is necessary. So basically, the president can go to war anywhere, at any time. And once he goes to war, Yoo assures us that the president possesses the unchecked power to spy on Americans without a warrant, to declare us enemy combatants on his own unchallengeable authority, to waterboard us, to order the assassination of Americans abroad, as President Obama says he can do, to crush the testicles of our children in order to extract information from us, etc.

So I ask Levin's listeners - who regard it as creeping tyranny to give the Obama Administration partial control over the US health care system - what is it to invest President Obama, as an individual, with the unilateral authority to initiate war, and all the powers that supposedly belong to the wartime executive. Is it Constitutional? Is it prudent? Is it consistent with the admonition that "freedom is never more than one generation from extinction"? Which is the greater threat to our freedom: A system where Obama would be unable to launch a war against a small, faraway country that poses no threat to us sans Congressional approval? Or the system that Levin and Yoo endorse?

That Mark Levin has become the conservative movement's celebrated authority on "liberty and tyranny" is reason enough to never again invest its shortsighted ideologues with the power to go to war - and lest progressives forget, it is Barack Obama, a Democrat who raged against these dangerous theories, who is now embracing them, along with Hillary Clinton, his rival in the Democratic primary. The Democrats won't mount a serious primary challenge in 2012, though their rhetoric when President Bush was in office engaging in similar abuses of power ought to compel them to do so. Strange as it seems, the GOP is more likely to nominate someone who challenges present attitudes toward executive power - and if it fails to do so, as is also likely (or if their candidate is even worse than Obama, which is conceivable) we'll have people like Levin and Yoo to thank. 

Image via Reuters / Kevin Lamarque
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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