- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004


By Donald J. Devine

University Press of America

$50, 179 pages

Edmund Burke some 200 years ago seemingly described America’s plight here in late 2004 when he declared: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.”

That Burkean insight is invoked here by Washington Times columnist and political scientist Donald J. Devine. Mr. Devine was President Ronald Reagan’s head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981 to 1985, and is currently professor and director of the Center for the Study of American Values at Bellevue University in Nebraska.

The author reminds us that freedom is never forever — it must be continually reborn, protected and justified. It is under attack, both from without and within, as the war on terror and the war in Iraq intrude themselves daily. In today’s world, Americans can wonder how just one of our traditions — federalism — is faring when Uncle Sam foists $352 billion (2nd quarter, 2004, annualized) in grants-in-aid to states and localities and when these (mostly) able-bodied mendicants beg and pressure for more.

Mr. Devine hails the conservativism propounded by the late Russell Kirk, who sadly saw America and its invaluable legacy “using up the moral and intellectual tradition which had been accumulated,” the legacy over the ages of Judaism and Christianity.

This millenia-old tradition, according to Mr. Kirk, was to be sustained through the age-old values of the individual, family, community and church, and not through government, which is at base bureaucratic and non-creative when not destructive. The poignancy of our situation lies in the spurious claim of President Clinton that “the age of Big Government is over.”

Mr. Devine reminds us that our sorry situation today worsens with tension between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, as depicted five years before September 11 in the brilliant work by Harvard historian Samuel P. Huntington in 1996, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.” Mr. Huntington foresaw the conflict between elements of Islam and the West. Mr. Devine takes solace in the case of Turkey since that Muslim nation, under secular rule, is a major U.S. ally and a member of NATO.

But his main concern in this richly philosophical, carefully documented work is revealed in its subtitle, “American values under siege.” Mr. Devine holds that America’s cultural recovery and security lie in our getting back to basics. Without knowing our roots, he argues, we have become a nation adrift, a drift reflected in the tattering of our national culture from Hollywood to Broadway. As the philosopher George Santayana noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Mr. Devine seeks the answer to this national sickness in re-education, in rediscovering our values. He sees what Alexis de Tocqueville saw and predicted in his classic “Democracy in America” back in the 1830s: that as America became ever more democratic, the people would lose interest in limiting government. In 1913 came both the 16th Amendment, which bestowed the national income tax and the IRS on Americans, and the 17th Amendment, which further harmed state rights by dropping state appointment for popular election of U.S. senators.

Thus does centralization advance and values slump, while big government gets bigger and the individual becomes smaller in the scheme of things. Mr. Devine wonders how long this can go on. He sees how, like Dorothy pulling back the magic cover concealing Oz’s Wizard, there are only plain ordinary people caught in a vast governmental fix of endless inflation, strangling regulations, daunting and haunting state power.

The author concludes his study with three searching Socratic questions: “Is it necessary for most or all of the members of society to accept limits on their own power and courageously accept moral responsibility themselves, perhaps fortified by their belief in a Creator? Is that what the preceding generations did to pass to us the great wealth, order, freedom and decent social harmony we mostly enjoy today? Is the future in everyone’s hands, each one of us, even in the face of our own powerful passion to first please ourselves?”

The collective answer lies in that Burkean quote at the outset of this piece.

William H. Peterson is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation and contributing editor to the Foundation for Economic Foundation’s “The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.”

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