Spring Reading for Conservatives

This spring, there are plenty of new books for conservatives to choose from for fun and enlightenment. Here is a sampling of what’s new.:  

Meltdown: A Free Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse
By Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
Regnery, 2009
$27.95, 194 pp.

Bestselling author Tom Woods (The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, etc.) applies his wide-ranging intellect and talent for making complicated material accessible to a wide audience to the task of disentangling our current financial crisis. While liberals blame “deregulation” for the meltdown and many on the right point to government meddling in the housing market, Woods shows that government (mis)management of the economy goes much deeper than the Community Reinvestment Act and legislators’ encouraging their buddies at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reap fat profits while the public bore all the risks. Meltdown explores the little-understood but crucial role of the Federal Reserve Bank in this financial crisis — and in the destructive “boom and bust” cycles in the American economy over the past century, since, in fact, shortly after the 1913 creation of the Federal Reserve system. As long as the Fed kept pumping outsized amounts of fiat money into the economy as it did in the 1990s and early 2000s — and as it inevitably will do, in response to political pressure — that money had to inflate something. Irresponsible government pressure to expand home ownership at almost any cost made it easy for that inevitable inflation to flow into residential real estate.  

Conservatives — especially those of us who love traditional family, community, and morality as much as we cherish our economic freedom — can find ourselves on the defensive about capitalism. There’s something to the charge that free markets are destructive precisely because of their success. Capitalism can weaken community because communities can be bound together by hardship. When prosperity removes the need to work together to overcome obstacles, the connections between people become weaker.  

But what if at least part of the destructive “capitalism” that we’ve seen in the past two decades is the result of the Fed’s easy money policy, not of the free market? Recently back in my hometown for a wedding, I noticed how many businesses had been gobbled up by large out-of-town corporations in the 1990s and early 2000s: the local grocery chain where my grandmother shopped, an independent bank that had been founded in the 19th Century. Did cheap money enable destructive corporate acquisitions in pretty much the same way that it enabled outrageously leveraged home-buying?  

Woods’ case against the Fed will make you see the last two decades of economic history in a new light. It’s interesting to speculate about what other booms, bubbles, busts, and distortions of the market we might lay at the Fed’s door. And it’s frightening to think how very far the folks making economic policy for our country today are from questioning the Fed’s easy money regime.  

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal
by Robert P. Murphy
Regnery, 2009
$19.95, 198 pp.

As we wait on tenterhooks to learn whether Washington’s feckless and free-spending politicians will manage to turn this recession into a Greater Depression (or possibly a Weimar-style hyperinflation), or if we’ll escape with only a few years of Carter-era stagflation, it’s a good time to take a new look at lessons from the financial crises of the past. Robert Murphy has a warning for the Obama Administration: Don’t try another New Deal — or we may end up with another Great Depression.  

The Great Depression and the New Deal make a perfect topic for the Politically Incorrect Guide series. It’s difficult to think of another historical period that’s more misunderstood and mistaught. If Americans know anything about the period, they “know” that FDR’s radical interventions in the economy pulled us out of the Depression. And yet, as Murphy demonstrates, the Depression is called Great precisely because it lasted longer than any other depression in American history — thanks to Roosevelt’s unprecedented attempts to resolve it by government action.  

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the New Deal and the Great Depression is worth reading for the period quotations alone. Murphy quotes Lionel Robbins, a 1934 economist whose critique of government policies in response to the 1929 crash would seem to apply today: “We prefer the lingering disease … the efforts of central banks and governments have been directed to propping up bad business positions.” Hoover and Roosevelt wouldn’t follow Andrew Mellon’s excellent advice, and neither did Bush nor will Obama, but it’s good to be reminded that clear-thinking people then, as now, saw that necessary bankruptcies, not bailouts, are the way forward to a healthy economy: “It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.”  

Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster
By Martin Anderson and
Annelise Anderson
Crown, 2009
$32.50, 464 pp.

When Barack Obama called for the total elimination of nuclear weapons in Prague this April, his naïveté was panned by many conservatives — who sometimes forget that Ronald Reagan had the same ambition. Of course, Reagan’s discomfort with nuclear weapons arose from his old-fashioned morality and his American optimism. To him, “Mutually Assured Destruction” seemed obviously wrong, and also crazy. Why shouldn’t men be able to invent a defense against nuclear weapons? Every offensive weapon invented in world history had inspired the invention of a defense against it.  

Obama, we suspect, is moved less by American can-do optimism and traditional ideas on “just war” than by wishful thinking about our enemies. Our new President behaves as if Islamist Iran, neo-Fascist Russia, and Socialist Venezuela’s differences with the United States will melt away now that George W. Bush’s cowboy arrogance has been replaced by his own openness and respect toward tyrannical regimes. Obama’s attitude encapsulates our elites’ discomfort with all things American and their eagerness to win the approval of the global community.  

Ronald Reagan was cut from different cloth. This latest volume from Martin and Annelise Anderson (following up on Reagan: In His Own Hand, Reagan: A Life in Letters, et al.) supplies more evidence of Ronald Reagan’s remarkable leadership qualities, this time in the context of the dramatic nuclear diplomacy that seemed to end in failure but ultimately forced an end to the Cold War. Reagan’s great strength as a negotiator was his ability to buck conventional opinion — even when it was coming from his closest advisors — and stick to his principles and his own keen instincts for the issues and the personalities involved. With access to previously unavailable documents, the Andersons have put together a real treat for any Reagan fan: a ringside seat from which we can watch Ronald Reagan applying all his principles and political skills in the service of his great ambition to make the world safer and freer.

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
by David Bentley Hart
Yale, 2009
$28, 253 pp.

This remarkable book is much more than an answer to the raft of “village atheist” books that have achieved bestseller status in the past few years. At a minimum, it destroys Christopher Hitchens’ absurd claim that “religion poisons everything” with overwhelming evidence of the many benefits Christianity has showered on the human race.  

Hart’s dismantling of the case that Christianity has hurt more than helped human happiness drips with sarcasm, but the snark is earned. In area after area of the classic case against the atheists, Hart gives both new and fascinating detail and also a broader historical understanding of how Christianity changed not just history, but the human mind itself.  

Take the canard that religion is responsible for bloodshed and cruelty. Many a Christian apologist has responded that atheist regimes in the 20th Century killed exponentially more people than the Crusades, Inquisition, and Wars of Religion put together. What Hart shows is that the supposed “Wars of Religion” in the 16th and 17th Centuries — whose horrors secularists since the Enlightenment have been pointing to as an argument for lessening the public role of Christianity — were actually the birth pangs of the secular state. Church authorities in the Middle Ages were succeeding in progressively limiting war within Christendom. Modern nation-states emerged as monarchs achieved absolute control of their territory by ejecting church authorities or else subordinating them to state control — often using national churches to bolster nationalism (think Henry VIII and Elizabeth I).   

It’s been pointed out before that witch burnings were a phenomenon not of the Dark or even High Middle Ages, but rather of the dawn of the modern secular era. But Hart gives fascinating circumstantial details. Medieval religious authorities, far from fearing and persecuting witches, continually debunked them. One cleric chased a supposed witch around a locked room, daring her to escape through the keyhole (as she had claimed she could do) or admit she was a fraud.    

But the greatest strength of this fascinating book is Hart’s ability to show just how Christianity transformed civilization — no, even more important than civilization, individual human beings’ minds. The analysis of Christ’s trial before Pilate is a stunning exposition of the true revolution that Christianity brought to the ancient world: upending power politics, stripping paganism of its magic, establishing the infinite value of every human individual no matter how humble. Hart asks whether our respect for human dignity, which we learned from Christianity, can survive the modern world’s abandonment of that creed. It’s a question that should concern us all.

Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hell-bending, Celebrating America the Way It’s Supposed to Be — with an Oil Well in Every Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in Every Carport and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Mowing Our Lawn
by P. J. O’Rourke
Atlantic Monthly, 2009
$24, 288 pp..

Nobody writing today is more fun to read than P. J. O’Rourke. He’s succeeded in squeezing hilarious entertainment out of such unlikely subjects as Polish communism and public housing in America. His newest book, celebrating the American cult of the automobile, will be thoroughly enjoyable even for folks (those of us getting through life without a Y chromosome, mostly) who can’t tell a crank shaft from a carburetor, and to whom “vapor lock” sounds like a method for ensuring that frozen vegetables taste fresh.  

Driving Like Crazy
begins with a reprise of an old magazine piece whose very title is too racy to reprint here. Suffice it to say that its theme is the joys of driving at high speeds in an alcohol-enhanced state in the company of a very friendly girl. There’s great writing in the original piece: “You have to get a car that handles really well. This is extremely important, and there’s a lot of debate on this subject — about what kind of car handles best. Some say a front-engined car, some say a rear-engined car. I say a rented car. Nothing handles better than a rented car. You can go faster, turn corners sharper, and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed in a rented car than in any other kind.”

But the icing on the cake is the author’s commentary on the original piece from the vantage point of his (long-delayed) maturity. O’Rourke has grown up from an unapologetic partyboy enjoying excess drink, drugs, and the company of exciting women (largely products of his fevered imagination. (He confesses now that no girl like the tube-top-wearing lovely he put in the front seat of his car in that old article would really have given him the time of day. Elsewhere, he’s admitted that his brief involvement in the counter-culture was largely due to relaxed relations between the sexes in that milieu. He passed through a libertarian stage and became a responsible, freedom-loving conservative husband and father, now making clever fun of the nanny-state regulations that are depriving his children of the red-blooded American childhood he remembers. (In another stroke of writing genius, O’Rourke calls his children Poppet, Buster, and Muffin — only in books and articles, we hope. Thus he charmingly situates his WASPy Midwestern Republican stock as one more odd flavor in the new multicultural America.)  

This book harks back to — I almost said a more innocent time in America’s past — but that’s not it, at all. The car-crazy America O’Rourke reminds us of was in some ways more innocent than our 21st Century lives — in other ways, less naïve, more in touch with hard realities. But what it absolutely was, was more free.  

The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals
by William D. Gairdner
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009
$29.95, 398 pp..

“There are no absolutes.” We’ve all heard this absurd moral relativist claim. And we’ve all heard relativism ridiculed on logical grounds: “Everything is relative, except the claim I’m now making that everything is relative.” But now — from a Canadian academic press, of all places! — comes a refutation of relativism on inductive rather than deductive grounds. In this more affordable version of the $39.95 hardcover published last year, William D. Gairdner marshals impressive evidence of “constants of nature and of human nature” from a stunning array of different fields. Gairdner finds absolutes in physics and biology. And he finds more absolutes in peculiarly human things: language and ethics. Sex differences, science has now conclusively demonstrated, are significant and universal — detectable even in unborn babies (so much for the “social construct” theory of gender).  

The Book of Absolutes offers a fascinating capsule history of our understanding of the natural moral law over the centuries, including an account of how in the 19th Century “political theorists … exerted themselves to separate what they began calling ‘human rights’ from traditional natural law, and hence from duties.” Gairdner demonstrates that again and again the only appeal from unjust human laws — whether the horrors of the bloody Roman civil wars or the Nazi atrocities or Jim Crow — has been to a moral law “that is universal, immutable, eternal, and objective.”  

But moral law is only one arena in which there are demonstrable absolutes — the physical world is full of them, too. Apparently scientists have been busy discovering ever more universals, in the very same period that the softer (in the head, you might say) disciplines– sociology, women’s studies, literature as taught by the postmodernists — been doing very little beyond popularizing the notion that such universals don’t exist. The Book of Absolutes makes the perfect graduation present. You can hope that it may inoculate the student against the relativist nonsense that makes up too much of today’s college curriculum, and you can be sure that it will give him much food for thought and further study in a variety of fascinating subjects.  

Liberty and Tyranny
by Mark Levin
Threshold, 2009
$25, 256 pp.

Conservatives were thrilled when Liberty and Tyranny fought off the challenge from Open Veins of Latin America (Hugo Chavez’s gift to President Obama) to hold its #1 Amazon ranking. We cheered when it was announced that print runs for Mark Levin’s latest blockbuster had reached one million books. The present moment cries out for a rousing defense of liberty against the ambitions of our new President and his co-conspirators in statism. Levin has delivered just what the customer ordered.  

Mark Levin frames the case against the Obama Administration and its fellow travelers precisely as it ought to be framed: as a defense of liberty versus state control. The mainstream media misunderstand the message of the “tea party” protest phenomenon across the country April 15, either willfully or out of genuine ignorance of what motivates hardworking Americans who take care of their own families and don’t feel the itch to run other people’s lives. It’s not that these ordinary Americans reject tax increases because they selfishly don’t want to “share” with the less fortunate. It’s that they object to the management of ever more parts of our lives by politicians who apparently have no sense of the value of money, no idea of what it takes to produce or save anything. Mark Levin gets it. He lays out the battles ahead of us—perhaps most crucially, the dire threat of national health care — and issues a rousing call to arms.  

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir
by Christopher Buckley
Twelve, 2009
$24.99, 272 pp.

Christopher Buckley thoroughly annoyed his father’s conservative fans during the recent election by endorsing Barack Obama on the basis of his “first-class temperament” and “first-class intellect.” He’s clearly not someone whose political judgment we can trust. But he is a gifted writer in a unique position to shed light on the life and death of William F. Buckley, Jr. And Losing Mum and Pup is a fascinating memoir — by turns painful, touching, insightful — that Bill Buckley followers will not want to miss.  

There are details here that some will find too intimate or even too ugly for public consumption. But the whole picture — of William F. Buckley as a father, of the remarkable woman who was his wife, and possibly the most infuriating mother (among basically sane and decent women) that you’ll ever read about, of Bill Buckley’s final year with all its sorrows and its horrors and its poignancy (William F. Buckley is always larger than life. He was effortlessly dictating the beautiful sentences of his last book even as he’s furiously self-medicating with a variety of prescription drugs) — is softened by Christopher’s love and respect for his father, which shine through their differences.

That love suffuses even Christopher’s treatment of those things that he didn’t really understand about his father, but that we — a privilege we should be grateful for — do.