Mark Levin is one of the most popular conservative voices in America. His radio program reaches six million listeners weekly, and his latest book Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto has been on the New York Times best-seller's list for 14 weeks and counting.
When my critical review of Levin's book was published at the conservative webzine Taki's Magazine earlier this month, I curiously wound up on Levin's list of "deranged bloggers" at marklevinshow.com, where the boisterous talk host questioned not only my sanity but my masculinity (or as Levin put it, "Charleston City Paper's First Lady: Jackie Hunter"). That Levin would call me crazy or gay was no big deal, and perhaps a little funny. But refusing to actually link to the book review that got his goat is a big deal, because the primary question I ask in my piece — a question that examines the very root of limited government philosophy — is something that Levin and the conservative establishment he represents still refuses to answer on a consistent basis.
Every day, talk radio rails against President Obama's "socialism," pointing out that America cannot afford to spend trillions of dollars on so-called stimulus packages, cap-and-trade, health care, or any other big government scheme — and rightfully so. Conservatives have always believed government should be minimal, limited, and restrained by the Constitution. Spending trillions means enduring a massive, bureaucratic state to oversee the collection and redistribution of taxpayer dollars. A state this large will always trend more toward "tyranny" than "liberty" because it wields such great power.
Forget whether or not you were for or against the Iraq War. Forget whether or not you believe we should continue fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Forget whether you believe it is necessary to station American troops around the world. Here are the costs of these realities: The Iraq War cost an estimated $3 trillion. The U.S. military budget for 2008 alone was $711 billion, or 48 percent of the total cost of global defense. To contrast, the entire continent of Europe only spent $289 billion or 20 percent of global defense spending. These are big numbers. The kind of spending numbers Obama and the Democrats seem entirely comfortable with.
And apparently so are conservatives. Many conservatives believe the trillions spent on the Iraq War, the continued fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even confrontations with Iran or other nations is money well spent. For those who do, this is entirely their prerogative, but they cannot honestly lay any claim to being for small government. They can say that they believe big government is necessary to defend America, but they must admit the America they seek to defend will never again be a nation dedicated to the proposition of limited government. Levin's latest book seeks to combine the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington with the promotion of the massive bureaucracy necessary to promote what many have rightly identified as the ongoing, ever-expanding American Empire — not the republic of the Founding Fathers.
Calling his book a "conservative manifesto," Levin largely ignores the fact that some of the greatest conservative minds have called into question the very notion of America as the world's policeman — men like 20th century giants Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Murray Rothbard, and H.L. Mencken; more contemporary figures like Paul Weyrich, Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan, and Ron Paul; or even military figures like Major Gen. Smedley Butler, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. Anthony Zinni, Col. David Hackworth, and Gen. William Odom. The opinions of these men, who dared to question their government about the wars they fought, would be dismissed as "left-wing," "liberal," or even "statist" by talk hosts like Levin. Yet, virtually all of these men were or are conservatives who believe America needs a strong national defense. They just asked whether much of what America does around the world has actually been about defending the nation and whether the cost of such an empire has been worth the price of the republic.
But mainstream conservatives don't ask such questions anymore and seem mortified by those who do. Why are they so afraid to confront this glaring, philosophical contradiction? Again, my overriding question to Levin, as asked throughout my book review, is how can any conservative claim to be for small government or liberty while enthusiastically promoting the tyranny of big government, even if for reasons they believe are necessary?
And my question still stands. Not that I expect someone like Levin to answer it. My guess is he would much prefer that such questions go away. In Mark Levin's lucrative role as a talk radio, conservative spokesman, the volume of his bark is infinitely more important than the bite of his logic — and certainly more important than entertaining any challenges that might question his reasons for calling himself a "conservative" in the first place.
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