I started M. Stanton Evans’ 1975 book, Clear and Present Dangers: A Conservative View of America’s Government. You can read more about Evans here. The reason that I am reading this book right now is that it will set the stage for my “Year (or More) of Nixon”, in which I will blog through books by and about Richard Nixon throughout 2013, which is the one-hundredth year after Nixon’s birth in 1913.
Why would blogging through Evans’ book set the stage for my “Year (or More) of Nixon”? For one, this book by Evans dates to 1975, which was soon after the Presidency of Richard Nixon. Second, Evans had definite opinions about Richard Nixon: Evans didn’t care much for Nixon’s foreign policy or domestic policy, but he started to like Nixon when Watergate happened! It will be interesting, therefore, to see how Evans addresses Nixon’s Presidency. And, third, I bought this book because it appeared to me to criticize the expansion of the Presidency’s power and the decline of Congress, and that reminded me of a book by John Dean that criticized George W. Bush’s Administration for expanding Presidential power. It’s interesting that what is considered right-wing and what is considered left-wing can vary with time. You’d expect for conservatives, who claim to believe in less-government, to oppose a more powerful Presidency, but that’s not always the case!
In my latest reading of Evans’ book, at least four things stood out to me. First, Evans says that he is challenging the liberal consensus that few in that day were challenging. That intrigued me because, nowadays, a significant number of people challenge liberalism. Back in Evans’ day, however, that was probably not the case, at least not as much. Although I am rather left-wing, I happen to admire contrarians—-those who challenge conventional wisdom. That’s probably why I played that role for so many years, even though people may not have thought that I was intelligent when I did so.
Second, Evans argues that the American system (the ideas of equality, limited government, opposition to tyranny, the value of the individual, etc.) is based on biblical rather than Greek values, and that liberals have tended to accept moral values while detaching them from their theistic roots. Evans may have a point when he says that biblical values influenced the development of the American system. At the same time, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the American system is entirely consistent with biblical ideas, for the Bible in some places is quite supportive of monarchy, stomping on the religious freedom of idolaters, and the fusion of religion with government (whereas Evans says on page 10 that the state in the Hebrew Bible is merely a “peace-keeping agency”, not a “compact religious-political institution”). Conversely, there are liberals who root their liberalism in the Bible and religious beliefs, so I think that Evans is wrong to characterize liberals as people who detach ethics from religion. Even if Evans can make a solid case that prominent liberals have done this, such a characterization disregards the many liberals who have not.
Third, Evans wrestles with the apparent inconsistency of liberals in supporting an active state that subordinates the individual to the common good, while maintaining an almost absolutist regard for certain rights, such as free speech. Evans believes that there is a thread that ties all of this together, but, at the moment, I’m unsure what exactly he believes that thread is. It will be interesting to see how he handles conservatism’s inconsistency in supporting economic freedom but also restrictions in the social and cultural sphere.
Fourth, Evans talks about federalism and the Tenth Amendment. I’ll have to admit that the Tenth Amendment is a challenge to my liberal support for an active federal government, for Evans is probably correct to note that a number of Founding Fathers sought to limit the federal government’s authority to certain enumerated powers, while reserving other powers to the states and the people. I guess that the question then would be what powers the U.S. Constitution enumerates for the federal government. Many liberals interpret the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution quite expansively, which means that they believe that the federal government can regulate, not just interstate commerce, but also whatever affects it (see here). The Commerce Clause may have originally been intended to allow the U.S. government to regulate trade between the states, but liberals have a more expansive application of it. Is this wrong? Perhaps, in the Founders’ time, what went on in an individual state primarily affected the state itself, and the Constitution granted the U.S. Government the power to step in when one state impacted another through commerce. Nowadays, however, what goes on in one state can arguably impact the entire country. Would that not necessitate a broader interpretation of the Commerce Clause?