Jonathan Last’s book What to Expect When No One is Expecting is the subject of the next Liberty Law Talk. Last, a senior writer for the Weekly Standard, points our attention to below replacement level birth rates evident in countries throughout the world (including America since 2008) and the dismal future it promises if things don’t change. In short, Last compels us to wonder who, exactly, will bring the future? However, Last does not come to cast blame on anyone or a particular philosophy, although he notes that our individualism must think more deeply about the requirements of human flourishing. Moreover, the demographic downturn he documents is obviously not just an American or European problem. Just ask the Singapore government, which has been trying to entice, with little success, greater fertility amongst its citizens using all manner of incentives. Last’s purpose is to get us thinking about what it means when a prosperous society of free persons hesitates to fulfill its crucial role in giving birth to and forming the next generation in sufficient numbers. Last’s fact-laden book is challenging, controversial, and also necessary for us to reflect on as we consider the foundations of a liberal society.
Liberty Law Talk
This next conversation is with Joshua Hawley, a former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri, about the arc of power exercised by the Supreme Court since the passage of the 14th Amendment. In one sense, we understand directly what the Antifederalist Brutus once opined about its potentially unlimited powers. The Court, Brutus informed, would be the most dangerous branch because its judges “are independent of the people, of the legislature, and of every power under heaven.” Of course, criticisms of the Court’s activism are now part of our political discourse. Indeed, how could they not be given the Court’s performance in any number of decisions?
But where does a revival of a limited judiciary begin? Less noted amidst talk of judicial methodology and interpretation that fills our discourse on constraining the judiciary is that our written Constitution is rooted in the principle of self-government and is, ultimately, the people’s document to be interpreted by their voices and practices. Its political structural principles of federalism and separation of powers seem to commend a competitive politics that is largely free of substantive judicial intervention. So, how to get there from here? For that, you will need to listen to Hawley discuss several ways a more targeted focus on self-government might challenge the Court’s self-understanding of its expansive powers.
The next Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with Paula Baker about her new book, Curbing Campaign Cash. You might recall former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith’s review of the book in this space. Smith observed that Baker’s book uncovers for the reader the perennial tale of campaign finance legislation and its many untoward consequences that distort a system of fully competitive elections. “Before Super PACs, McCain-Feingold, “soft money,” and the Keating 5; before Watergate, and even before Teapot Dome, there was the Michigan Senate race of 1918. . . . one of the nation’s most contested elections and earliest campaign finance “scandals.”” As Smith also notes, “Unlike the typical political saga, however, Baker presents the story not as a morality tale of honest government corrupted by big money, but rather as a cautionary story about big government regulation of honest money and the political choices of the electorate.” I hope you enjoy this conversation about one of the first attempts by campaign finance rules and the self-interested incumbents who enforce them to restrict basic constitutional freedoms in the name of equalizing politics.
This edition of Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with Vincent Cannato, author of American Passage: The History of Ellis Island, about America’s constitutional and policy history regarding immigration. In this podcast, we discuss the recent Supreme Court decision Arizona v. United States that substantially limited the rights of states to set their own immigration policy apart from the federal government. Cannato recounts the history of the authority exercised by the federal and state governments for immigration which diverges substantially from the holding in Arizona. In addition, we discuss at length the evolution of immigration policy from the early nineteenth century to present day. Our evolving immigration policy, to note one of Professor Cannato’s recent musings on the subject, closely tracks our expectations for the role of the federal government.
This Liberty Law Talk is a discussion with Samuel Gregg about his most recent book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Recent events in Cyprus, to say nothing of the economic stasis that envelopes much of Europe, highlight America’s need to think deeply about the current trajectory of our fiscal and entitlements policies, among other weighty matters. Gregg’s book, however, is not merely a rehashing of dire spending problems and bankrupting entitlements and the predictably poorer future this promises, but is a discussion of the social and cultural commitments that are required to make economic freedom a reality in America. The erosion of these norms within Europe has made it much easier for the array of dirigiste economic policies pursued by so many nations on that continent. The good news, Gregg informs, is that we aren’t quite Europe. To avoid its fate America must reexamine the foundations of its own economic success and renew its commitment to them.
Additional Law & Liberty links: Theodore Dalrymple’s review of Becoming Europe.
Amity Shlaes comes to Liberty Law Talk to discuss her new biography, Coolidge, that explores and analyzes the triumph of Calvin Coolidge. Much like the title of Shlaes’ previous bestseller, The Forgotten Man, Coolidge recovers for the reader a president that our country seems to have forgotten. For many, Coolidge had to be left behind. The successes of his fiscal and regulatory policies and the judgments these policies make on America’s New Deal and postwar open-ended spending and regulating tendencies are hard to reconcile. There is also the sober rectitude that Coolidge insisted should guide our lives in a modern commercial republic. The deep pre-commitments of a free society require diligent work, an effort that Coolidge profoundly, even spiritually understood, quite well. Unfortunately, it seems, we have kept at a distance the vital truths that Coolidge lived and governed by.
Coolidge’s life speaks to us in other ways. For the thirtieth president’s life was not an inevitable rise to prominence. It was marked by tragedy in the early deaths of his mother and sister, and also the death of his 16-year old son, Calvin, Jr. in the White House. As Shlaes observes, however, these personal losses did not equal defeat. His life was not “Yes, but.” It is a story of “But yes.”
The achievements of Coolidge’s presidential tenure are staggering. “Under Coolidge the federal debt fell . Under Coolidge, the top income tax rate came down by half, to 25 percent. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent or even 3 percent.” As Shlaes details even further, “When in 1929 the thirtieth president climbed onto a train at Union Station to head back home to Massachusetts after his sixty-seven months in office, the federal government was smaller than when he had become president in 1923.” Why, you may ask, do we not know more of this man, this American leader?
Answering that question is Shlaes’ Coolidge. Listen to this podcast with the author. Then, buy the book.
The Supreme Court will soon pronounce upon the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which amended that state’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act that was enacted into law in 1996 under then President Bill Clinton. This conversation with Ryan Anderson, co-author with Sherif Girgis and Robert George of the recently published What is Marriage?, engages the philosophical argument that there is a natural form to marriage which has been instantiated by the western legal tradition in various ways. This lively conversation debates the most basic questions on this subject in a serious and respectful manner. Don’t miss it.
The next Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with Randy Simmons on his recently revised and updated book, Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure. Serious policy analysis frequently begins with the unspoken assumption that government must fill the gaps in the marketplace. Markets are vastly imperfect and require for their proper functioning the precise, i.e., perfecting, commands of the regulatory state. Not content with this narrative’s iron-clad belief that government rules and regulations live and move in rational operation, having their being serving the commonweal 24/7, Simmons provides a comprehensive way to think about the giant suck of political reality. The truth, Simmons tells us, is that markets are rarely corrected by government diktat (what would that mean, anyway?), but are frequently distorted, minimized, if not corrupted by the machinations of public law. Listen and learn from Randy Simmons.
This next edition of Liberty Law Talk is a discussion with John Vile about his new book, The Writing and Ratification of the U.S. Constitution: Practical Virtue in Action. Our discussion, chronologically and philosophically, retraces the dramatic story of the Founders’ Constitution. In four parts, we talk about the failing of the Articles of Confederation, the need to reground republican government on constraints and diffusions of power given the governing weaknesses of many state governments, arguments and contests among major and lesser known figures at the Philadelphia Convention, and the often overlooked state ratifying conventions where the Constitution had to prove itself to delegates highly critical of the new powers it assumed.
The next Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with Greg Lukianoff, attorney and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE), about his new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. For those who have followed the pathetic censorship episodes on campus the past few decades, you might think that many of these battles had been won. Lukianoff, however, has the proof that free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association remain under siege on campus in myriad forms. Unpopular opinions, usually attributed to those held by conservative students and religious students, are frequently targeted by administrators laboring under diversity and no intolerance mandates. To put it mildly, this type of heavy-handedness proceeds apace. Political comfort for certain students is privileged over the search for different forms of meaning and truth that other students might be articulating. Ultimately, Lukianoff wisely argues that the inability to argue, debate, and take ideas seriously on many campuses makes students dumber and indifferent, with consequences for public discourse and civil society that stretch beyond college years.