Liberty Law Talk

Robin Harris discusses the rise, fall, and legacy of Margaret Thatcher

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Margaret Thatcher’s death one year ago sparked much commentary either critical or adulatory. You were certainly hard-pressed to find balanced commentary on her legacy unless you were reading Theodore Dalrymple’s thoughtful assessment on this site (his latest on Thatcher is here). Now contributing to this site’s ongoing appraisal of Thatcher is Robin Harris, her speechwriter and policy advisor. He comes to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his highly-acclaimed 2013 biography of the Iron Lady entitled Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher. Harris worked closely with Prime Minister Thatcher from 1985 until her departure from Number Ten. He left with her and subsequently drafted the two volumes of her autobiography.

Harris includes in the book a letter he received in 2005 from Thatcher. She states the following:

Over the years, both during my time as Prime Minister and since, you played an important role in shaping not only my own thinking but that of the Conservative Party. As a key figure in Central Office during the 1980s you knew the struggles we endured in turning our beliefs into policy, often in the face of severe opposition. And because we have spoken about it so often, you also know, better than anyone else, what I wanted our reforms to achieve for the people of Britain.

This discussion recounts both Thatcher’s rise in the Conservative Party as she waged a rebellion against its uninspired leadership and her intellectual development into an adherent to free-market, small government, and low tax policies. Talking with Harris, we begin to understand just why she was the Lady who was ‘not for turning’.

 

Presidential Power Rising: A Conversation with Frank Buckley

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This next Liberty Law Talk is with Frank Buckley about his new book The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. Buckley’s book is a profound challenge to the script of presidential power that many conservatives have read from over the past decades. Our conversation focuses on Buckley’s argument that the American constitutional system has become dangerously unmoored from the congressional system of government that its ratifiers intended for it.

This conversation explores a close reading of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to understand Buckley’s claim of how indisposed the members of that convention were to an executive power that would dominate the federal government. All of this matters profoundly, Buckley contends, because presidential forms of government are not, generallly speaking, well disposed to freedom. Parliamentary systems are in fact freer than their presidential rivals. Among presidential systems, America has been the exception in the high level of freedoms it has preserved.

There is, however, great reason to be worried, Buckley observes, that such a trend will continue for much longer. Power continues to accrue in the American presidency, and congress shows little willingness to reassume the full constitutional powers granted it to run the government.

Negroes and the Gun

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This next Liberty Law Talk is with Nick Johnson on his new book Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. Johnson writes that “The black tradition of arms has been submerged because it seems hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence in the modern civil rights movement.” Added to this, Johnson observes, was the rise of a “new black political class” that came to prominence “within a progressive political coalition that included the newly minted national gun control movement.” “The burgeoning black political class,” he writes, “embraced gun bans and lesser supply controls as one answer to violent crime in their new domains. By the mid-1970s, these influences had supplanted the generations old tradition of arms with a modern orthodoxy of stringent gun control.”

The full history, however, of the black tradition of arms ought not be submerged. The historical record that we discuss – it includes runaway slaves defending their communities from slave catchers and blacks in the Jim Crow South defending life and property – uncovers a tradition that affirms guns as essential to self-defense while avoiding their use in organized political resistance. For reasons not difficult to imagine, the conceptual separation between these two notions of self defense and political resistance was difficult, at times, to maintain in practice. Finally, Johnson notes that it was two black plaintiffs, Shelly Parker and Otis McDonald, would-be beneficiaries of enlightened, progressive supply-control policies, who led the lawsuits against strict gun prohibitions in Washington, D.C. and Chicago that recently bolstered every American’s constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

America’s Way Back

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Friedrich Hayek once noted that “A successful free society will always in large measure be a tradition-bound society.” In pursuit of Hayek’s wisdom, this podcast with Donald Devine, author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and the Constitution focuses on his attempt to revive fusionism by harmonizing freedom and tradition in the manner once proposed by Frank Meyer.

While conservatives and libertarians have long been fractured, Meyer attempted in a series of essays almost fifty years ago to find the principles that would unite them. He observed that individual freedom emerges from the religious and moral heritage of the West. However, this freedom presupposes virtue that individuals must practice in order to be free. This heritage of freedom and its underlying principles forever remove the state from possessing a comprehensive ordering role in the lives of its citizens. So the state should not and cannot make virtuous individuals, but freedom, Meyer argues, requires virtue and the commitment to excellence in the use of one’s choices. Freedom is high drama and welcomes family, religion, and the arts of association for its support. Believing that we are a nation exhausted by the size of government and the inefficacy of our major parties to defend the American tradition of liberty, Devine discusses why we need to recover Meyer’s fusionism today.

Common Core Nation

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In this discussion I talk with Professor Sandra Stotsky who has emerged as one of the leading critics of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Stotsky has testified before numerous state legislatures and has written reports and op-eds documenting its deficiencies. Common Core aims to be a national solution to the problems of performance that have dogged education in America. As such, its scope is comprehensive in its attempt to impose education standards, testing requirements, teacher and student evaluations, among other items, on all 50 states. Currently, 45 states have accepted the standards and are implementing curricula around them. But do the standards actually raise the knowledge bar? Stotsky, who was for a time a member of the validation committee, argues the opposite. Educations standards are lowered by the Common Core in an attempt to get to the next-best result. Its own writers seem to agree.

This process, as noted by Stotsky, has never been driven by the states. Rather, it is the outcome of philanthro-policy making, notably the Gates Foundation and the National Governors Association, and a heaping dose of cartel federalism courtesy of being tied to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top legislation. As Stotsky and I discuss, slighted by the process have been parents, teachers, and local school boards who have somewhat helplessly watched their State Boards of Education adopt the standards, in many cases before they were even finalized, in order to receive largesse. States accepting the Common Core standards and testing apparatus received money and a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements—the last successful attempt at national education policy.

In almost 4 years, the Common Core standards have swept the country and only now is a real push-back beginning to occur.

PovertyCure: From Aid to Enterprise

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Can the current model of humanitarian aid generated by networks of large philanthropic foundations, NGOs, and Western governments actually alleviate the poverty of the world’s Bottom Billion, to quote the title of Paul Collier’s book? This podcast with the Acton Institute’s Michael Miller, director of the new Poverty Cure Initiative, puts forward a persuasive case rooted in particular communities in Africa and South America that the conditions for prosperity emerge from our free and relational nature as human beings. Accordingly, authentic help to the world’s poor must not be driven by the notion that the global poor are the objects of wealthy compassion, but that they are the subjects of creative potential. As Miller discusses, the prevalent humanitarian aid model frequently uproots the very beginnings of the circles of exchange that must exist for wealth to be created in these societies. Frequently missing as well in the current approach is understanding how crucial the rule of law, property rights, and markets are in the uplift from poverty, and that frequently, these economic and legal orderings are absent in regions of hardship. Consequently, the conditions for human flourishing don’t exist and cannot be created by large philanthropic interventions, which everywhere substitute parental relationships between the donor and recipient in the place of real human flourishing in these communities.

The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism

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This next Liberty Law Talk is with Gordon Lloyd of the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine on his new book, co-authored with David Davenport, The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism (Hoover Press, 2013). Much has been made, and rightly so, of the example set by Calvin Coolidge in his confrontation with the forces of taxing and spending and nascent regulatory attempts to cartelize certain markets, among other challenges he faced. However, might it be that Herbert Hoover and his “American System” articulated in the 1932 campaign, along with his subsequent attempts to repeal the New Deal, offers the better teaching moment? After all, as Lloyd stresses in this conversation, Hoover confronted dead-on the revolutionary moment urged by Progressives in the form of the New Deal. He lost, but the principles he articulated remain latent within our Constitution and civil society. As the authors state on the first page, “Go back to come back.” This conversation focuses on Hoover, his defense of the American constitutional order, and what this might mean for our contemporary challenges.

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

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This edition of Liberty Law Talk is with Yuval Levin, author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. A 2013 Bradley Prize recipient, Levin connects us with the actual contest between Burke and Paine as they debated the central claims of the French Revolution and much of modern political thought with its focus on rights, individualism, the social contract vs. Burke’s more expansive notions of social liberty, the contract among the dead, the living, and those yet to be born, and his belief in prescription or the notion that change should be guided within the broad lived experience of the nation. Levin and I discuss the terms of the Burke-Paine debate while considering how it continues to shape the contours of current political conversation.

Power Tends to Corrupt

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Christopher Lazarski comes to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his deep inquiry into Lord Acton’s attempt to understand the dimensions and nature of liberty as it unfolded in Western history. In this podcast, Lazarski underscores Lord Acton’s historical quest to find the conditions of liberty, as well as his formal understanding of what constituted liberty. The conditions of Acton’s ordered liberty we can describe as “arbitrary law,” national history, and a bottom-up development of positive law.

Arbitrary law was Acton’s way of describing divine and natural law, which he believed a pillar in support of political liberty because it was law that transcended human invention. The significance is that man is not the author of truth and authority but discovers and receives them. As a result, Acton stresses that liberty is a “summons to do what one ought,” and not a expansive practice limited only by the rights of others. National history is merely that political tradition that provides weight and context to the collective choices being made by persons in society. Perhaps the key here is the generational inheritance of a regime of ordered liberty that must be preserved and modified by each subsequent generation. Again, liberty under law is profoundly stressed by Acton. Lastly is the growth of rule of law by communities in their traditions and habits as opposed to the geometric projection of individual liberty from the center as in the French Revolution. Lazarski also provides a fertile discussion of Acton’s understanding of liberty of conscience and his differences from John Stuart Mill on the general question of liberty.

Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning

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This Liberty Law Talk is with political scientist Justin Dyer on his latest book, Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 2013). In debates over the legality of abortion common opinion has focused on the connections between the legal treatment of slavery in the nineteenth century and the contemporary status of abortion as a fundamental right. Dyer takes this debate as his starting point but goes much deeper by showing the layers of constitutional, political, and philosophical meaning linking slavery and abortion in the American experience. This conversation covers the ground of the Dred Scott opinion, the 14th Amendment and its privileges or immunities and due process clauses, abortion and the common law, the historical legal record the Roe Court relied on, and Rawlsian public reason as a legitimating authority for political debate.

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