HH: This hour, a special conversation with a young writer about whom you may not have yet have heard, but I think you’ll be hearing from for years if you haven’t already. Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer for The Atlantic. Conor is also the entrepreneur behind the Best in Journalism newsletter, which I subscribe to. It’s linked over at Hughhewitt.com. Conor, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
CF: Thanks for having me.
HH: Let me begin by saying I’ve got three objectives. I want to learn about you, I want to establish the standard you have for what qualifies as an important book, and then I want to explore with you why you don’t think Mark Levin’s Ameritopia is an important book as you put in your lengthy review over at The Atlantic, Why Mainstream Media Ignores Conservative Bestsellers. Sound like a plan, Conor?
CF: Yeah, that sounds good.
HH: All right, let’s start with you. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? And how did you end up writing for The Atlantic?
CF: I grew up in Orange County, California, where I understand you live as well. I grew up in Costa Mesa and went to college at the Claremont Colleges out in Claremont. I went to Pomona College, which is one of the five schools. And after I graduated, I got a job right out of school working for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, which is a newspaper out in Ontario, California. It’s about 80,000 circulation. And I covered basically a local city beat, where I did a lot of reporting on everything that went on in Rancho Cucamonga, California, which is a city of about 100,000. Meanwhile, as I was doing my reporting, I also did a little bit of writing and editing for the Claremont Institute, and eventually decided I wanted to make the transition from newspapers to magazines, partly because I like the freedom to do a little bit longer form writing, and take a little bit more time with things, partly because I’ve always loved magazine journalism. And so I ended up actually getting a great deal. I got free tuition to go to NYU Journalism School, and was kind of on the fence about whether journalism school was a good idea. But I couldn’t turn down free, and I studied under some great writers there, and got an internship at The Atlantic after I was done, and actually had the offer to stay after my internship was done, but ended up taking an editing job elsewhere at a startup called Culture 11 that was unfortunately short-lived. But after that, I was freelancing, and then found my way back to The Atlantic, and I’ve been there ever since.
HH: And how did you come to start the Best of Journalism newsletter? And again, I subscribe to it, it’s linked over at Hughhewitt.com. It’s a wonderful service.
CF: You know, I think a lot of us that love long-form journalism have been trying to figure out how are we going to make this work in an era when fewer and fewer people are reading print. And you know on one hand, that’s a bad thing for long form journalism, because it’s nice to sit down with a long magazine article. And the distraction of the web just takes away from that. But I had this insight as I was reading on the web where if I was reading a blogger, whether it be, you know, it’s happened with Mickey Kaus, it’s happened with Instapundit, it’s happened with Andrew Sullivan, it’s happened with a lot of bloggers I follow, and I would find that you know, the mental hurdle it takes to read a 10,000 word article is pretty high, especially if you’re busy. But if a personality that you know and like starts taking about it, and pulls out a little chunk and says isn’t this interesting, somehow the mental hurdle is lower. And I found myself enjoying a lot of pieces by clicking through in that way that I wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed. And gradually, I just thought you know, I think that there’s maybe a business opportunity here, because I read in the course of my work, a ton of great, long articles. And I also think that…so I think there’s money to be made maybe by sharing some of these great articles, and maybe people will find utility in the picks that I have. And I also think it’s important to highlight this really good work, and for people to take time to say wow, this is actually deserving of a little bit more of my time, even though I could spend this time, you know, surfing around on YouTube, or scrolling through blog posts. And I love YouTube and I love blog posts. But I think it’s also important to highlight some of this longer work that people just take months and months of their careers to report on, and really turn out some great stuff.
HH: It’s a very interesting business model. How many people have now subscribed? It’s $1.99 a month, and so it’s very low barrier to entry. How many people are doing it, letting you be their editor?
CF: No, it’s around a thousand. I couldn’t tell you exactly, because I have former, I have people whose articles get recommended on there for free, and so I see that overall number. But it’s around 1,000.
HH: That’s good. Well, long may it grow. Now I want to get you on an ideological matrix. By the way, which high school did you go to in Costa Mesa?
CF: I actually went to Santa Margarita High School, which is a Catholic school down in Southern Orange County.
HH: Oh, yes, they have pretty good football down there, you betcha. All right, are you yourself Catholic?
CF: I grew up, I was raised Catholic. I did not ultimately get confirmed. I’m not a practicing Catholic, no.
HH: All right. Now I want to go through and put you on an ideological matrix for this conversation we’re about to have about books and Levin. And so not trying to trick you, not trying to, you know, tumble you over. Just want to put you out there for the audience to understand where you’re coming from.
HH: Did you vote for Obama or McCain?
HH: Are you pro-life?
CF: I’m very conflicted on abortion. I couldn’t tell you which way I come down one way or the other.
HH: Do you own a gun?
HH: Did you support the invasion of Iraq?
CF: You know, I couldn’t say. At the time, I was paying attention to local issues, and I had conflicted feelings on that, too. I’ve since come to think that it was a bad idea to go into Iraq.
HH: Do you think the EPA generally is a force for the good in the country?
CF: OH, geez, that’s complicated. I think there’s a need for some sort of federal environmental oversight. I couldn’t tell you whether the EPA does it well more or less of the time. I think there are certainly excesses that we ought to worry about.
HH: And do you, just generally, give me your theory of global warming.
CF: Geez, I have no idea. I mean, I would, I think that certainly the climate is getting warmer. Are humans causing it? If I had to place a bet down, I guess that I would bet yes, but I wouldn’t want to have to place that bet down.
HH: And do you think we ought to have cap and trade, or anything like that?
CF: No, I’m persuaded by Jim Mandy’s (sp?) arguments against those kinds of things, that it is better to try and develop efficient energy technology now and wait, and that the economic costs are too high right now, given the uncertain benefits.
HH: All right, now Conor Friedersdorf, I want to now turn to books, and get your standard established. What is it that you think makes a book deserving of the term an important book?
CF: Well, I mean, there a lot of criteria that I think make up an important book. I mean, I would look at a book like War And Peace, and I would say what makes that an important book is its author’s ability to write about life in a way that rings true and gets across penetrating moral insights through a narrative. What makes a great political book? I think that’s a little bit different. One book I mentioned that I like a lot in my review is Hayek’s The Constitutional of Liberty. And I think what makes that an important book is that it gives us a lot of insights that maybe we wouldn’t have thought of on our own, both about why it’s important to have spontaneous orders like the market that don’t have to be planned, that allows us to advance as a society without a central planner. I think another great thing about The Constitution Of Liberty is that a lot of people have this idea of sort of, what’s the word for it, natural rights, of rights that come by virtue of being human. And I certainly think that we have natural rights, and that government cannot infringe upon those.
HH: How about in the last couple of years, last three years? Have you identified any books that you, Conor Friedersdorf, would say that’s an important book?
CF: All right, you know, I’ve enjoyed books, certainly, in the last few years. I haven’t read a ton of political non-fiction, but you know, I enjoyed Larry Lessig’s book about campaign finance. I thought it was one of the more libertarian-friendly takes on money in politics. I enjoyed Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat’s book, what was it called, New Majority, I believe, where they were kind of sketching out their version of history of the Republican Party, and its future as well. But no, I really, it’s not usual for me to review books. So in the past two or three years, in this genre, I’ve probably only read maybe five books, if that.
HH: Let me see if any of the ones that I though were important over the last two or three years cross. Have you read Joby Warrick’s The Triple Agent?
CF: I have not. Oh, and I should mention, actually, Ed Glaeser’s book about cities, I thought, was really good. And there’s also a book called Seeing Like A State by, who was that? I’m forgetting who is was by. But I thought those were actually really good books, too.
HH: Have you read Justice Breyer’s Making Our Democracy Work?
CF: I have read reviews of it. I’ve not read the book.
HH: How about Jonathan Alter’s The Promise?
CF: I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.
HH: Jonathan Alter’s The Promise?
HH: David Brooks’ The Social Animal?
CF: Again, I’ve read sort of lengthy treatments and reviews, but not the book itself.
HH: Hitch-22 by the late, great Christopher Hitchens?
CF: Yes, I have read that.
HH: Okay, did that count as an important book?
CF: I enjoyed it, because I enjoy Christopher Hitchens. I don’t know if I would say that it was an important book. It was an enjoyable one, I think.
HH: E.J. Dionne’s Souled Out?
CF: Did not read that.
HH: Sam Tanenhaus’ The Death Of Conservatism?
CF: Again, I read a bunch of treatments, and magazine articles about it, but I didn’t read the book itself.
HH: David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge?
CF: No, did not read that.
HH: Andrew Breitbart’s Righteous Indignation?
CF: I did read and review that.
HH: Did you think…important book?
CF: No, I thought again, it was a man’s life story, but I don’t think it had any particular new insight into anything.
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HH: He’s written a review blasting Mark Levin’s book, Ameritopia. He read it, actually, at my suggestion. We Tweet back and forth. Conor’s got a very, very find Twitter presence, @conor64. I read a lot of his stuff when it comes out in The Atlantic, and I thought he’d like Levin’s book. He didn’t. And so I’m setting up the conversation for what makes an important book by just a couple more of these question and answers. Have you, did you read any of the memoirs – Bush, Cheney’s, Rumsfeld’s or Rice’s?
CF: You know, I’m trying to think. I read at least chapters of Cheney’s. I might have read the whole thing. I don’t think that I read, I definitely didn’t read Rice’s, and when did Bush’s come out?
HH: Decision Points, last year.
CF: Hmm, you know, I must have read, I must have read excerpts of it, but I don’t remember, really.
HH: All right, three conservative Senators wrote books in the last year – Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Jim DeMint. Did any of those cross your table?
CF: No, I did not read or review any of those.
HH: Do you read thrillers? Like I always read Daniel Silva and Vince Flynn and Brad Thor and C.J. Box. Do you read any of those?
HH: How about the classics like le Carre? Right now, I’m on a James Clavell jag. I’m rereading all of James Clavell. Do you read those sorts of things?
CF: Yeah, I mean, I’ve read a ton of classics over the years. I think my favorite are probably Steinbeck and Hemmingway, if I had to pick.
HH: Well, the reason I’m asking this is that you’re very hard on Mark, and you say that people really applauded him too long and too loud, and for no good reason. But I’m trying to find a book that was not more than ten years old that you would agree was an important book that deserves sustained applause, and why.
CF: Yeah, I mean, like I said, this is maybe the wrong way to about it, because I haven’t read a ton of books in the last ten years in this genre. I mean, I think it’s generally a very high hurdle in the sort of politics/bestseller genre to write an important book. I think it happens very rarely. Even if we go back 50 years, I don’t think that I would rate a ton of books as important. But certainly, I think there are good books. I don’t think that Mark Levin’s book was a good book, because I think that its thesis was inaccurate and reductive. I don’t think that utopianism is the main problem in political philosophy that America faces.
HH: Boy, are we going to disagree here. One more try, though. A good and important book is The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. Have you read that?
CF: Yes. I think that that is a good and important book. I think it delves into an organization that America was at war with, and tells us more about it than any other comparable book, at least that I’ve heard of.
HH: Oh, good. Now we have some common ground. Perfect. I think The Looming Tower is a good and important book, because it teaches really big truths, the details of which I don’t have to recall in order to recall the big points. And if I need to go back and get the details of them, I can. And I can rely upon those details. Would you agree that’s a fairly good estimate of what makes an important book?
CF: Well, you know, I guess that’s a fair description of what could make an important book.
HH: Okay, now turning to Ameritopia, you won’t deny, obviously, it’s sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It’s a commercial success, though you suspect some people of saying it’s a good book because they wish to get Mark to sell their material and increase their profile, correct?
CF: Yeah, I think within all ideological movements, there’s a huge pressure to get in good with very successful broadcasters. I think we saw it most clearly with Glenn Beck, where he would go on the air and say pretty outlandish conspiracy theories pretty regularly, but he had a huge audience. And if you were someone like Jonah Goldberg, you could go on his show, and your book could become a huge bestseller, you know, partly by virtue of him. And I don’t want to say what would have happened if Beck never would have touted it, but certainly it’s a big temptation for anyone to do this. And I don’t think that we can discount that.
HH: Did you read Liberal Fascism?
HH: What did you think of it?
CF: Meh, I don’t have strong feelings. I wasn’t really persuaded by its thesis that again, you know, I think it’s important for libertarians, which is probably the political philosophy I’m closest to, and for conservatives, when they’re arguing against liberals ideas, to try to define what the opposition thinks with as much precision as possible, and as much realism, because that’s the way that you push back against their arguments, it’s the way you persuade people that are on the fence that they’re wrong. And I keep bringing up Hayek, because I think that…I’ll say this. What utopianism and liberalism share, one thing they have in common, is excessive optimism about the potential of planned orders, the potential of the ability to plan. I kind of think that that is where the similarity ends, and that it’s the excessive planning and insufficient due that they give to spontaneous orders that have problem, not utopianism, which I think…
HH: But I’m a little confused, Conor, because one of the things you score Levin for is for quoting large parts of very classic books like The Republic, like Thomas More’s Utopia, like Leviathan, like The Manifesto. I think you say great big slabs of text. But that’s in order so that many people who have never touched them…I had never read Utopia. Never. Did you actually read Utopia as an undergraduate?
CF: Yes, I did. Well, I don’t know if I read it as a undergraduate, or it I read it on my own, but I certainly have read it, yeah.
HH: Okay, I tend to believe that what Mark did was a great service, because 95% of college graduates walking around, and I’m pretty comfortable with that number, maybe higher, will not have read these eight books. And to those four, I would add Montesquieu, Locke, some of the framers, whether it’s the federalists or not, and de Tocqueville’s Democracy In America. Do you agree with me that 95% of America has not read those books?
CF: Yeah, and I think it’s a good thing for them to encounter those books, and I think that that’s probably a salutary effect that the book had. And my complaint about the excerpts was more stylistic than substantive. I think that you know, as an author who’s trying to work on a biography myself, I come across long passages that really say what I want to say really well. And it’s really tempting to just paste them in. And it takes a lot more work to go through and paraphrase in a way that is more concise. And just as a reader, I was a little bit frustrated with what I thought were needlessly big chunks. But that doesn’t really go to the substance of the book, and it’s not a huge deal.
HH: No, the substance of the book is that utopia is our threat, that the framers were deeply concerned about utopianism, and you argue that they were not, that they were really concerned with I’m not quite sure what, but they were…just because they rebelled against the crown and the perversion of the parliamentary system as they understood it. They were classically trained, Conor. They were very much afraid of the republic, of the Gracchi brothers, of the beast that eventually sprang out in the French Revolution just a couple of years later. I think Mark’s thesis is absolutely square on, which is that which the Constitution was intended to prevent is utopianism.
CF: I think the Constitution was intended to prevent tyrannies of any kind. And certainly, there are tyrannical utopias. But you know, the Constitution was also designed to prevent the United States from devolving into something like North Korea is today, right, which is not a utopia. It’s an authoritarian state. So yeah, I mean, sure, the founders would have wanted to prevent an authoritarian utopia. Of course. But they would have wanted to prevent all kinds of authoritarianism.
HH: Well, that’s what, but that’s what I think Mark’s book was, and we’ll come back from the break and talk about this. I think the genius of Ameritopia is it laid out for any reader who is not familiar, that this argument is neither recent nor is it resolved. It extends as far back as The Republic. It goes through an iteration every generation. And it is back in front of us right now. And those who are on the left who are attempting to spread the administrative state are just the latest variant of a long and pedigreed group of people who want to run your lives.
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HH: In the middle of your review, you write, Conor, “What I’d love to know is why Hugh Hewitt finds his thesis persuasive, unless he was merely satisfied by Levin’s affirmation of what the vast majority of Americans already believe, that the framers conceived a governing framework that is superior to any utopian scheme.” That’s not why I like this book so much. It’s because I think we have a general population who is generally ignorant about the desire for governing elites to amass power, the way they have done so in this country, the way they have infused it into the administrative state, that that administrative state stretches out across the country, and people have to choose whether to keep that, or to rely upon liberty, that it’s the choice of our time. And so I wanted to ask, maybe one of the reasons I’m more sympathetic to this than you, by a lot, is that I represent people in front of that state. I follow it. Did you by chance see the decision in Sackett V. EPA last week, Conor?
CF: No, I did not.
HH: 9-0 decision upholding the rights of a couple of little, tiny property owners against the EPA, or the 9-0 decision in Hosanna Tabor from last month against the EEOC. Did you see that one?
CF: No, I did not.
HH: You see, I think what Levin and I bring to this that a lot of writers don’t, and I’m going to put you in that category, though you are well and truly equipped to write well, is that we know what the administrative state is up to in a way that you don’t. You never have to confront how ubiquitous and how grasping and how tyrannical it is in small ways and large. And he writes about this at length in Ameritopia, but you don’t seem to believe it, Conor.
CF: Well, I don’t actually think that that’s true. I would just say 1) ubiquitous and tyrannical are not synonyms for utopian, one, and 2) you know, I read a lot about the overweening state. One thing that I focus on that I wished that Mark Levin would focus on, are the threats to civil liberties that we’ve seen in the last couple of administrations where now you have President Obama going so far as to assert that he can assassinate American citizens extra-judicially, and without presenting any evidence, on his authority alone, and that he can do it in secret. Now to me, that’s a terrifying power for a president to invoke. To me, that certainly goes against the Madisonian concept of having a separation of powers, and always having power be checked and balanced. I have no illusions about the tyranny that the state is capable of unleashing. But in that case, right, the justification is oh, we need to keep people safe from terrorism, right? It’s not we need to create a perfect utopian society. In the case of the EPA, even an overweening regulation, whether it’s right or wrong, and I’m sure I agree with you a lot of the time that they’re wrong. But it’s being sold as we need to keep lead out of water, or we need to preserve this species. It’s not being sold as if we arrange this perfectly planned system, then we’re going to have some sort of platonic or more styled utopia.
HH: Oh, I think you’re wrong there.
CF: And that’s my disagreement…
HH: Most of these, all of these people in these agencies are in fact utopians working for the greater good as they understand it, a world that is perfectly regulated, that is perfectly safe. And I thought that what Mark did, in fact, I’ll make this argument quickly and we’ll come back to it, did you follow the Supreme Court argument of the last three days?
CF: You know, I haven’t read through the whole transcripts, but I’ve certainly been following it, yeah.
HH: I played most of it on the air. And here’s what’s astonishing. Everyone who’s read Ameritopia would have been so much better equipped to understand the last three days of debate. In fact, Justice Kennedy on Tuesday asked a question about whether or not this changes the fundamental relationship between the federal government and the citizen, this health care bill. It’s a question right out of Levin’s book talking about Woodrow Wilson’s 1908 treaties on Constitutional government. And so I think Mark’s book is important, because if you had read it, the argument that just unfolded between Paul Clement and the Court was the argument that Mark describes in great detail. Isn’t that a point in its favor?
CF: You know, I don’t think that anyone listening to the Supreme Court argument would have trouble grasping the point that what’s at stake is the relationship between the federal government and the individual, and how much power the federal government has, whether there are limits on its ability to mandate you do to anything, how far the Commerce power extends. All of these things are easily grasped, it seems to me, by a lot of people who haven’t read Levin’s book.
HH: Oh, I don’t know that they would understand the significance of Kennedy’s question about the fundamental issue in front of us. This is not, Kennedy went at great length, and he’s the centrist on the Court. This is not just another lawsuit. This is a fundamental choice that America has to make about whether or not the federal power will be restrained, and if it isn’t retrained, how we will end up indeed at Ameritopia. We will end up where Mark predicted we would, which is why I think Ameritopia is a great book.
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HH: One thing that bothered me, Conor, let me raise it to you, you quoted Jim Manzi’s blast at Mark’s first book, Liberty and Tyranny.
HH: And Manzi was himself blasted by the Heartland Institute, by James Taylor, for mischaracterizing and not fairly presenting Mark’s book in his first book. And I’m curious whether or not, if you’re going to pull in an outside authority to help you run over a book, you ought not to also alert your reader that that outside authority has himself been run over by other outside authorities?
CF: You know, I remembered going through the Heartland response, and being totally un-persuaded by it, thinking that Manzi clearly had the better of it. I’d actually forgotten about reading it. It’s been quite a long time since that controversy. And I actually would be happy to go back and add a link to that for readers who wanted to decide for themselves. I would have, had I remembered it.
HH: Yeah, that might be a good thing. But now, to the much more important issue. You sort of defend FDR as not a utopian. Now Mark makes a very specific argument that FDR…
CF: Wait, wait. Hold on. I don’t want to…you say I defend FDR as not a utopian. I don’t think not being a utopian is necessarily a defense of someone. I think it’s just a description of someone.
HH: Okay, that’s fair.
CF: I think FDR did a lot of terrible things. I don’t think utopianism was one of them.
HH: That’s fair, but Mark makes a very specific argument, Pages 200-205 in his book, that the 1944 state of the union address by FDR which he quotes at length, is in fact utopianism. And he goes on to say these are not rights, what FDR said were rights. They are tyrannies disguised. There is little space between FDR’s premise and the distorted historical views of Marx and Engels. And so I thought what Mark was building to through the whole book was here’s what utopianism looks like, here’s what its opposing force looks like. They culminated in the United States in the New Deal. The New Deal gave birth to FDR’s full-sprung vision, which was built on the ruins of Wilson’s utopianism. And in 1944, he articulated, and for the next 65 years, we’ve been arguing about it. And now we have to choose. And then he did something very brilliant. He linked that to the intellectual architect of the Obama White House, Cass Sunstein, who’s been a guest on this show, great University of Chicago law professor, very smart leftist. I don’t think you can refute this argument, Conor. But I don’t think you tried.
CF: Well you know, I think one thing that bothered me about Levin’s treatment of both Wilson and FDR is that when I go back and look at those presidents, both of whom I have a lot of beefs with, one of the things about Wilson that I have a beef with is the Sedition Act. One of the things I have a beef with about FDR is that, as Ronald Reagan later apologized for, he took a bunch of American citizens and threw them into internment camps. If we’re talking about liberty, and we’re talking about government and its overweening tyrannical force, it seems like those are important things, right? They’re never mentioned in Levin’s book, because they don’t fit into the utopian/non-utopian dichotomy that he sets up.
HH: I don’t think so. I think what Mark’s book is about is not about…Jonathan Alter’s The Promise is a history of Obama’s first year in office. And Jonathan wrote a book about FDR’s first 100 days, which was a pretty good book as well. Those are books about history about what they did. This is a book of intellectual history about ideas, and so he laid out the architecture of the Wilsonian and FDR mindset so that one could see how the actions, whether internment, whether sedition, you know, 2,600 prosecutions under Wilson, whatever, those were natural expressions of the utopian mindset. And in fact, they’re completely consistent with utopianism, which I think Mark’s argument is, always ends in tyranny.
CF: Would you agree that you know, you looked at Mark’s account of Plato, and his account of Thomas More. Would you agree that neither FDR nor President Obama are using utopian arguments to advance their ideas? I mean, it seems like no one is actually using the language that utopians have used.
HH: I think Mark quite correctly pointed to Wilson’s 1908 treaties on Constitutional government, and to FDR’s 1944 state of the union address to point that they in fact did use the language of utopianism occasionally. But of course, and having hung out at the Claremont Institute, you know the Straussian critique here. They’re never going to declare up front. Obama’s never going to tell us what he aims for. No one told us when the health care bill was passed that it would end up in this absolutely gorging on authority, wildly expanding jam down of Thomas Aquinas College having to give their students abortifacients. That’s…
CF: But look. I certainly don’t dispute that politicians sometimes misrepresent themselves in their rhetoric and what they’re really up to. At the same time, it seems to me that one of the core problems with utopianism is that it’s holding out this promise of a perfect society. This is how it sucks people in. It’s saying oh, if we only do these things, if they’d only give us all this power, then we’re going to have this perfect society that I’ve planned down to the last detail. The essence of it is the utopian promise. The essence of it is the…if you do this, then all of these things that I’ve planned are going to go perfectly. It seems to me that without selling utopianism, you know, it’s like you’ve set up a non-falsifiable thesis. You say oh, well, they’re really secretly utopian. How would we possibly know that?
HH: Good argument. The good argument is that they are always promising that they can make the basic conditions of life better if in fact you will turn over to them some measure of your liberty.
CF: Well, sure, but…
HH: That is the defining mark of utopianism.
CF: Look, what politician in America, Republican, Democrat…I mean, didn’t Reagan say that if you turned over some measure of your liberty to him, that he would make your life better?
HH: No. I served there. I was there.
CF: Reagan was an anarchist?
HH: No, he did not say turn over some measure of your liberty. He said we will apply the Constitutional order of government. The problem is not less government. It’s too much government. That was the famous phrase
CF: Right but was the war on drugs not taking away some liberty? Maybe rightly. Maybe people shouldn’t be allowed to take drugs.
HH: That’s the expression of the Constitutional order that he inherited. He did not wish to expand it. Maybe I misunderstood your question. What I’m saying is Reagan did not arrive in office, nor will Romney promising to expand the government. Obama did. FDR did.
CF: Oh, I agree with that. I agree with that. I’m just saying that every politician is saying let me change society in some way that I want, whether it’s shrinking government or expanding government. And by doing that, right, we’re going to make things a little bit better. And I think this is another thing that I raise in my review. Levin seems to treat all utopians as if they’re statists, where in fact we see in Heinlein and in Ayn Rand, there are in fact anarchist utopias. You know, one thing, you can invoke Hobbes, right, against an anarchist utopia.
HH: He does, in fact.
CF: And that’s another problem.
HH: He does. In fact, he does do that.
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HH: Conor Friedersdorf, first, thank you for being with me today. Now what I wanted to conclude with is I really liked Ameritopia. You really did not. But I think you didn’t like it for reasons that are unrelated to its ambition and its achievement, but because you don’t like Mark’s tone on the radio, and you can’t get past that. That’s my charge against you. And fair enough. Some people don’t like some radio people. Some people don’t like me. But do you think you let that interfere with what is a very ambitious, very closely argued and a very scholarly book?
CF: I disagree that it’s ambitious and scholarly, and no, I don’t think that I…I mean, look. You asked me to review the book. I wouldn’t have even gone after it had you not pressed me to read it. I don’t think that my disagreement with Mark’s tone on his radio show impacted my review. I think I laid out in pretty clear terms what my arguments were. And you know, people can read them and disagree with them. But they’re out there for you to see. There’s no, there’s nothing hidden about the arguments that I lay out.
HH: Do you have any other book to hold up as a comparison that you say now here is a book that really has impacted politics, and did it the right way, and stands in distinction to Ameritopia?
CF: Yeah, I think in my review, I cited The Constitution Of Liberty by Hayek, I cited…
HH: I meant recently.
CF: …by Milton Friedman.
HH: Those books will not be read in great numbers now because of the nature of the book selling world. So I’m looking for, in the last three or four years. I mean, Rachel Maddow has a new book out. Everyone’s got books out. Is there anything on your bedside stand that you say hey everybody, read this, this is important?
CF: No, I mean, if I could send, if I could send Americans to anything, it wouldn’t be anything written in the last five years. I’d send them to Hayek. I would send them to Tolstoy for that matter. I mean, I don’t think there are very many important political genre books that are written that stand up to time.
HH: But Conor, that won’t help them. I mean, right now, people have to decide whether or not to vote for Obama or Romney. Now part of that is journalism’s function. But if you want to make an informed choice about the worldviews they represent, you can’t read Milton Friedman. He had no idea where we would be at this point. No one could have imagined this. I want to give you the last minute.
CF: Oh, I think that reading Milton Friedman or Hayek are very relevant today. I don’t see how anyone could read them and not think that they’re relevant, and not think that they bear directly on the choices before us. I think that you know, unfortunately, we’re in a situation where neither the right coalition nor the left coalition in American politics cares very much about limiting government to its Constitutional constraints. On one side, you have you know, liberal spending programs and government programs. On the other side, you have a total disregard for the separation of powers, and a growth of everything from the drug war to the war on terror in a way that now we’re spying on American citizens without warrants. I think that the libertarian critique is certainly relevant to today.
HH: Conor Friedersdorf, a great first appearance. I hope you’ll come back often. Thank you for being with me. His review of Ameritopia is linked at Hughhewitt.com, as is his Best of Journalism newsletter.
End of interview.