When Abstract Arguments Turn to Straw

by Conor Friedersdorf

In a critical review of Mark Levin's Liberty and Tyranny, Peter Berkowitz writes:

Like it or not, the New Deal is here to stay. It has been incorporated into constitutional law and woven into the fabric of the American sensibility and American society. The utopian dream of cutting government down to 18th-century size can only derail conservatism's core and continuing mission of slowing and containing government's growth, keeping it within reasonable boundaries, and where possible reducing its reach. Indeed, one could scarcely devise a better example of the imprudence that Burke dedicated his Reflections on the Revolution in France to exposing and combating than Levin's direct appeal to abstract notions of natural right to justify a radical reversal of today's commonly held convictions about the federal government's basic responsibilities.

Mark Levin offers a serious response -- unlike the fare on his talk radio show, the arguments are substantive, and include some excellent points. Critics take note: he is worth engaging here. He responds to the passage above as follows:

Unconstitutional statism is not an American tradition (it is actually more European). Indeed, it rejects American tradition and has as its aim to destroy the civil society. Burke would reject its purpose just as he rejected the French Revolution. Moreover, for starters, the "abstract appeals" to which Berkowitz refers are found in the Declaration of Independence (I have said many times that the Statist rejects the Declaration for he must in order to advance his agenda; perhaps the neo-Statist does as well), and the United States Constitution (which is hardly abstract, but which Berkowitz ignores as he must to make his own abstract arguments about "moderation"). Nonetheless, despite having just argued that the New Deal is now part of American tradition, it is constitutional, and woven into the fabric of the nation, Berkowitz wants to slow it, contain it, keep it within reasonable boundaries, and reduce its reach.

What frustrates me here are all the abstractions. Mr. Levin uses the term "statist" for defensible reasons. It focuses his rhetoric on what exactly he dislikes about the political philosophy of his opponents, and does so more precisely that would be possible if he criticized "liberals" or "progressives" or "Democrats." But those conventional political labels, muddy as they are, better reflect the reality of the American left. Arguing against "statists" is perfectly fine if the purpose is to clarify certain matters of political philosophy. Carry the same habit into an assessment of specific policies, however, and you risk arguing against a straw man of your own making.

Thus we see Mr. Levin taking on "The New Deal," as though it's a belief system like Communism rather than a set of historical policies that aren't usefully lumped together if we're discussing the possibility of their repeal. Are we talking about abolishing the Federal Reserve? Ending Social Security? Returning to the gold standard? Reining in the commerce clause? Eliminating the Tennessee Valley Authority? Once we look at the disaggregated specifics of the New Deal, rather than arguing against it as an abstract whole, it is evident how easily the latter approach becomes nonsensical. Hence the bit about the New Deal as "unconstitutional statism" that "has as its aim to destroy the civil society." It is easy enough to see which New Deal programs garner the broadest support. How many Americans would attest that their purpose in favoring, say, the continued existence of Social Security is civil society's destruction?

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Or ask 100 Americans whether they'd defend "unconstitutional statism." Would any? Ask the same group whether they feel good about the New Deal -- you'll elicit some differences of opinion. The true test, however, is asking how the same people feel about Social Security, and whether it ought to be abolished. That's the level of specificity required to advance any actual New Deal rollback. It is seldom on offer, however, as it is quite difficult to be taken seriously in America once you've claimed that Americans who support Social Security are complicit in an unconstitutional rejection of American tradition that "has as its aim to destroy civil society." Arguments like that only pass unnoticed at a sufficiently high level of abstraction.

Near the conclusion of his piece, Mr. Levin writes:

I also believe that conservatism is the only real alternative to statism, and that's especially so given today's soft tyranny.  Berkowitz points to Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1960 as evidence that it cannot win at the ballot box.  Here again, his methods are sloppy if not troubling.  Of course, Ronald Reagan won two smashing landslides in 1980 and 1984 and there was no more articulate spokesman for first principles than he.

Of course, Ronald Reagan spent two terms in office as a popular president, yet there we were in 1988, the New Deal intact, and the federal government larger than ever. It's almost as though, for better or worse, those landslides didn't actually signify an electorate even remotely ready to return the federal government to its pre-New Deal size and scope.