Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book review: Love song for Homo oeconomicus

I apologize for the long break between posts; I'm finding it more difficult to find time to write than I thought I would. Thanks for hanging in with me!

Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America, by Mark R. Levin (New York: Threshold Editions, 2012)

The political dialogue of today demands not only that complex subjects be reduced to black-and-white simplicities but that personalities be similarly reduced to “good guy/bad guy” homogeneity. It’s not enough that they be corrupt, jack-booted authoritarians trying to ruin The Good Life As We Know It: we must maintain an intellectual separation bordering on naïveté concerning the less savory aspects of our allies.

Such was my overarching impression on reading radio host Mark Levin’s Ameritopia. For the record, I’ve never listened to Levin’s show, nor have I read any of his previous books; the latter may affect this review more, because I may be missing some intended context if Levin didn’t expect Ameritopia to stand on its own. Also for the record, while I have sympathy for many conservative ideas, to identify myself as conservative would be misleading at best, for reasons which I hope will become clear as we go along.

In Ameritopia, Levin traces a quick sketch of the intellectual history behind what he calls “utopianism” and what I’ve called “progressivism”. That history begins with Plato’s Republic, wends through St. Thomas More’s Utopia and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan to fetch up at Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s Communist Manifesto. He also compares these writers to John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Charles de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, along with their impact on the Founding Fathers, and includes the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville some forty and fifty years later.

Of course, it’s to be understood that the Utopians suffer by the comparisons … even poor St. Thomas, whose satire I’m afraid Levin took too seriously. And since this is a philosophical examination, some historical shorthand and special pleading are bound to take place.

However, at times Ameritopia seems to be not a defense of traditional American values and political thought but of free-market capitalism. In fact, at times he seems not to be speaking of Homo sapiens but of Homo oeconomicus, a strange creature whose sole purpose and activity in life is to convert raw material into finished goods for purchase and consumption by others. This leads to an incredible imbalance in his presentation of conservativism, in which many social institutions and the bulk of community-stabilizing mores get no more than passing mention while Levin fixates on the unjust burdens the wealthy must bear in taxation and corporations in regulation.

It’s precisely here that the black-hat/white-hat dialectic prevents many conservative commentators from grappling with historical examples of capitalist self-interest driving business behaviors that can lay no claim to enlightenment. Certainly there would never have been a need for labor unions if business owners had paid living wages for some of the crummiest jobs ever devised, no FDA or Pure Food Act if packers hadn’t been deliberately selling tainted meat, no SEC if there’d never been examples of insider trading such as the Hunt silver run-up, no OSHA if industrialists had willingly spent money to make workplaces safer. Indeed, as I’ve said before, for every good business practice the commercial and industrial sectors have willingly adopted, another four or five have been imposed upon them against their will by the government because the suits have been unable to see beyond the impact on profits.

By contrast, as an example of Marx and Engel’s flawed social analysis, Levin quotes two passages in which the authors claim that the bourgeois family is based on capital, especially this chilling piece: “The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child become all the more disgusting as, by the action of modern industry, all ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor” (pp. 39-40). Unfortunately, I can find in Levin’s arguments no counter-balancing quotation from Locke or Montesquieu maintaining the traditional family as the foundational unit of civil society — a major conservative platform plank! That Marx and Engel are wrong-headed is given; that modern utopians under Marxist influence have done horrible damage to family cohesiveness goes by unnoticed and unremarked.

Religion gets even shorter shrift.  Levin doesn’t speak ill of religion, faith or any religious belief … but neither does he go to any lengths to underscore its importance. While of the utopian authors only Marx and Engels have written anything so infamous as the “opiate of the masses” slur, it’s a major part of the modern utopians to at least confine religion to the margins of civil life; yet Levin doesn’t even mention this area beyond the briefest of allusions.

Such is Levin’s obsession with Homo oeconomicus that his god might truly be Mammon. In discussing Leviathan, he often speaks of “enlightened self-interest”, the free-market apologist’s favorite substitute for a moral compass. However, the best that can be said of “enlightened self-interest” is that it occasionally takes notice of the needs of others … at least long enough to construct a “win-win scenario”. This, nevertheless, isn’t enough that “enlightened self-interest” can be held equal to virtue or mores, which Locke, Montesquieu and de Tocqueville all held to be essential for holding a bloated, micro-managing central government at bay. For “enlightened self-interest” acts for the sake of others only so long and so far as the individual has the potential to gain from it, while virtue seeks the good of others even at the expense of self — “enlightened self-interest” performs no battlefield heroics nor life-saving sacrifice.

In sum, in Ameritopia Mark Levin gives us some food for political thought; yet it fails to hold a well-rounded and attractive picture of conservativism against the evils of well-meant tyranny.  To give us the cardboard cutout it does, it necessarily ignores the evil done by capitalists in the spirit of American enterprise and ignores the contributions of federal spending to the technological advances Levin attributes solely to capitalism.  This is certainly not a case on which the plaintiff should rest.