BOOK REVIEW: ‘The New Leviathan’

THE NEW LEVIATHAN: THE STATE VERSUS THE INDIVIDUAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Edited by Roger Kimball
Encounter Books, $25.99, 350 pages

Political conventions aren’t ideal venues for rigorous political argument, so maybe it’s unfair to highlight speechifying that qualifies more as burlesque than artful persuasion. Yet without exception, the appeals from the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last week had one theme in common: Democrats serve progress, and Republicans don’t.

U.S. Senate candidate from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren: “We turned adversity into progress because that’s what we do.” Vice President Joseph R. Biden: “There is only one choice. That choice is to move forward — morally forward.” President Obama: “Ours is a fight to restore the values that built the largest middle class and the strongest economy the world has ever known. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I’m asking you to choose that future.”

Against progress, “shared sacrifice” and collective action stand the boogeymen of laissez-faire capitalism, rampant oligarchy and the total absence of regulation. As Ms. Warren put it, “The Republican vision is clear: ‘I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own.’”

A cartoon caricature, perhaps, but a prevailing one against which conservatives need more than mere caricatures of their own to offer in rebuttal. Enter “The New Leviathan,” a collection of pamphlets conceived in the 18th-century spirit of “Common Sense” and “The Federalist Papers” that take dead aim at the progressive project.

Since 2009, Encounter Books, one of the livelier and more erudite conservative publishers on the scene, has published a sharp series of polemics called “Broadsides.” At 30 and counting, these short monographs have addressed a range of topics from health care reform and immigration to America’s deteriorating foreign relations and the war on terrorism.

“The New Leviathan” collects 13 of these revised and updated essays, focusing largely — but not exclusively — on how nearly four years of Mr. Obama’s liberal public policy have sought to steadily replace the old American habits of autonomy and self-sufficiency with entitlement and dependency. “The goal” of the series and the collection, writes editor Roger Kimball in his introduction, “is to change minds, not merely to add to the pile of commentary.”

The talent Mr. Kimball has assembled to that end is formidable. Contributors include former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, Daniel DiSalvo, Richard A. Epstein, Victor Davis Hanson, John Fund, Peter Ferrara, Stephen Moore, Andrew C. McCarthy, Betsy McCaughey, Glenn H. Reynolds, Rich Trzupek, Kevin D. Williamson and former U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey.

The goal isn’t far-fetched, given the problems these essayists diagnose: $16 trillion in national debt; at least $3 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities for public employees that threaten to plunge several states into insolvency and bankruptcy; more than $3 trillion in new regulatory costs; a multibillion-dollar onslaught of new taxes and tax increases — for everyone, not just the despised “1 percent” — to fund Obamacare and other liberal pipe dreams; a hopelessly politicized Justice Department; an inept foreign policy that has alienated friends and allies and emboldened Russia and China.

And that’s just the first half of the book.

The central argument of “The New Leviathan” is that although progressive policy threatens individual liberty, progressive theory cannot survive sustained contact with hard reality. It’s no great mystery why Mr. Obama has floundered. “Consistent bad results can only be explained by consistent bad policies and not by some mysterious run of bad luck,” Mr. Epstein observes in arguably the most important chapter in the book. “Bad policies,” he writes, “rest on an unsound worldview.”

But it’s fair to say much of the extended indictment in “The New Leviathan” against the Obama administration’s “unsound worldview” spills over to previous (and possibly future) administrations. It was President George W. Bush, after all, who infamously said of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.”

Against the sorts of false choices laid out at the convention by Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden and their fellow party stalwarts, Mr. Epstein boils down the question to its essence: “As the next election comes ever closer, this nation faces a fork in the road. Does it continue with the progressive policies of the past several years, dating back to the first years of the second Bush administration, or does it return to the classical liberal model” of lower, flatter taxes, strong property rights and free markets?

These essays might make for some uncomfortable reading among partisans brave enough to crack this book, but the writers here are interested primarily in engaging ideas and policies, not leveling ad hominem attacks. In that sense, “The New Leviathan” sets a standard for serious political debate.

At the same time, the book offers heavy intellectual firepower for conservatives and classical liberals. With self-styled progressives lobbing spitballs and stink bombs from the blogosphere and low-rated cable channels, the broadsides contained in “The New Leviathan” return fire with howitzers and smart bombs. It’s not even close.

Ben Boychuk is an associate editor with the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and a syndicated columnist.

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