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An Austro-Libertarian Review of Glenn Beck's "Common Sense"

In recent months I have become involved in the local Tea Party group. It’s a rather odd experience - I’m approximately 30-50 years younger than everyone else in the group. I tend to lean towards anarcho-capitalism/agorism while everyone else tends to be diehard conservative (mind you, I try to keep quiet about that since as Bob Lefevre put it, mentioning the word “anarchism” brings up images of mustached men in black capes carrying bombs with most people). Anyways, this group is closely tied with the local 9/12 group and as a result, I’ve heard people rave about how great Glenn Beck is and how his book “Glenn Beck’s Common Sense” is “must read.” I decided to check it out from my local library and apparently, there was quite a queue to check out the book - 6 different libraries had the book, but they were all checked out and 30 people had placed holds by time I got there.

Well, fortunately I managed to get my copy today and even read all of it. I was not aware that Mr. Beck’s book was packaged with Thomas Paine’s original “Common Sense”, which beefs it up from what would otherwise be a skinny pamphlet. Nonetheless, I did read Beck’s portion of the book in hopes of learning something about the people in my group and where they are coming from.

The overall theme of the book is “unity.” Beck’s argument is essentially this - after 9/11, we all felt good and “united” as a nation (I’ll say more on that later). But then we started bickering and divided and that’s how the politicians made government grow and take away our liberties. What we need to do, then, is to go back to what united us as a nation to begin with, limited government and so forth, and we’ll all be just fine.

It’s very tempting to say there’s nothing good with this book. A more hardcore Austrian or agorist is tempted to attack the book because Beck does not come from an Austrian perspective (it’s a pity that based on the bibliography of sources in the book, not a single Austrian is mentioned - no Mises, no Rothbard, no Hayek, etc. Not even familiar names for those truly interested in liberty, like Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, John Stuart Mill, etc. The only good economist he quotes is Thomas Sowell, which is really limiting himself when there’s so many good economists that can support his cause). Likewise, a Randroid would be tempted to dismiss the book because it lacks “a proper epistemology.” But there are a few good things.

For instance, on page 9, he describes the all too common story of the State using crises in order to gain power. Later, he makes a brief mention of both corporate and personal welfare which is good as not too many conservatives are willing to admit that corporate welfare is just as bad as personal welfare. He attacks both Republicans and Democrats as being one and the same. He does what very few conservative pundits are willing to admit is that there are “Progressives” (personally, I prefer the term “Statist” in what he is referring to those favoring increased state powers and intervention, not necessarily restricted to the Progressive movement of the early 20th century) on the right who favor intervention in the form of a military welfare state as much as Progressives on the left have the image of favoring the personal welfare state. Yet despite these astute observations on the nature of the State that might lead one to a more anarchist position, Beck doesn’t seem to think there’s anything inherently wrong with the system, per say, only the people who are in it at the moment. That brings us to some of the things wrong with the book.

Now, it’s very tempting to attack some of the things Beck seems to think are crucial to the cause of liberty - a border fence, climate change denial, etc. I’ll avoid those only because I can write entire articles just dealing with those subjects alone. Instead, I’ll focus on more broader issues. On page 14, Beck says:
Compassion and capitalism go hand in hand, but compassion does not go with what these people [those selling the idea of “debt isn’t bad”, particularly with the housing market] are really promoting: greed. Of course, not everyone fell for their lies — some banks and mortgage companies refused to play the “home giveaway” game. To them, things like debt, income, and character stille mattered and they prudently denied unqualified borrowers. And what was their reward? They were labeled racist, greedy, and out of touch with the new reality.

Mr. Beck seems woefully ignorant of Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Yes, I should be kinder on the fact he is a pundit and not an economist, but ABCT can easily explain the housing market scenario without resorting to claiming banks were “greedy.” Banks that sold mortages to people who were offering sub-prime mortgages were merely responding to incentives that were helped put into place by the central banker, the Federal Reserve. It wasn’t so much people being “greedy” as it was people acting in their own self interest and having resources misallocated because of how the central banker acted. A minor quibble, but still.

Another thing is about salaries of members of Congress. Beck seems to think they get paid too much, and frankly, I’m not particularly fond of the fact they get paid to so much and yet they tend to do an awful job. But let’s be a bit reasonable. The salary that Beck cites is $174,000 a year. Why is that? Well, consider the fact that Congressmen and Senators tend to need money to pay for a home near DC and a home in their home district so they have somewhere to be when the house isn’t in session. Furthermore, I’d rather the taxpayer pay these people as opposed to having to be bought off by special interests just so they can get by. Yes, they are bought out by special interests now but a morally sound politician (if one can exist) could manage to live without selling themselves out.

The biggest thing for me, though was how he had to bring religion into it. The rest of the book was alright - pretty much stuff any libertarian or Old Right conservative should be able to agree upon, like about out of control spending, the rise of the political elite, and increasing powers of the state. But then he has to invoke God and it’s a rather poor attempt at it. He quotes Ben Franklin and how he believes in God (Ben Franklin was in fact a Deist who once remarked that “Lighthouses are more useful than churches”) and he even quotes Thomas Jefferson, while also a Deist, was very skeptical of religion including Christianity (one of his great contributions was the Jefferson Bible, a version of the Gospels with all supernatural phenomena pertaining to Jesus removed and strictly the philosophy of Christ remaining). Point is, it’s misleading to say the Founding Fathers were religious. Yes, they believed in God. But they were far from being devout evangelical Christians some like to portray them as. Yes, some of them were rather devout (George Washington comes to mind). But for most of the Founding Fathers, they would accept the idea that God created the world and that’s about it. To them, religion is just a human invention, and Holy Books were just individual interpretations. Furthermore, Beck seems to suggest that one needs religion to be moral and I do not believe that is the case. One can think of many men who did not believe in religion or God and still managed to lead virtuous lives. While a virtuous citizenry is an admirable thing, this does not necessarily translate to a religious citizenry.

To be fair, Beck does not do a lot of plugging for this 9/12 project, tending to refer to how America felt “after 9/11.” At the end, he drops the 9 principles and 12 values. Most of them I can agree with - I tend to agree with the general spirit conveyed, but I agree with a few of the principles, notably one and two and the second value of “reverence” (the 12 values are based off Ben Franklin’s personal values that he strived to maintain, but as mentioned, Ben Franklin’s idea of reverence is probably one differing from what Mr. Beck is suggesting). As I’ve already discussed principle 2 (“I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life”), I’ll discuss number 1 - “America is good.” But WHY is America good? I cannot imagine a situation where one can axiomatically derive “America is good.” What makes us good? Is it our system of government? Our economic system? Our military? The fact we’re #1 in some statistics? A poll perhaps of Americans who answered in the affirmative to “America is good”? True, it’s not catchy to elaborate but it comes off as mindless patriotism. However, there is one principle I am particularly fond of - “It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or to share my personal opinion.” This, in a way, seems to undermine it’s message of unity and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps Beck thinks America is good for its unity, the entire theme of both the book and the 9/12 project which I have a problem about. In the discussion about religion, Beck feels that religion is important because religion “unites” us. Just the other evening, at the local Tea Party group meeting, I disagreed with another member’s comment that we should be about “English first” because I do not believe that people should be forced to speak a particular language. I was scolded and told how English “unites” “us.” Beck’s goal of the 9/12 movement is to “unite” us as we were on 9/12, the day after 9/11. But is unity what it’s cracked up to be? True, a house divided cannot stand. The 9/12 Movement uses the likeness of the “Join or Die” cartoon by Ben Franklin, from when the image was used to unite the colonists against the British. Yet unity, I think, isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. The talk of “unity” hearkens in my mind the Nazi slogan of “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer” (“One People, One Country, One Leader”). I think, contrary to Beck, that bickering is productive - I’d be scared if everyone in government was in total agreement with each other and in public discourse there was a unity of thought. There’s a few places I can think where this happening - the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, etc. Personally, I think our differences are good. I think one of the things of what makes America good is that we have a rich diversity of colors, creeds, ethnic backgrounds, etc. I have nothing against unity at all - you need some form of consensus - but to get some sort of total assimilation, to totally unite us and have us all feel as one is a bit much. I would feel a bit scared if everyone thought like me, or at least fought similar. I dislike socialists but I think they’re handy to be around just to provide a dialectic force. I think that argument can be constructive. I think with diversity comes a wide range of choices and a rich flavor.

Overall, I think Beck means well. But I don’t think that “unity” should be a goal but rather liberty, a society that protects private property, a society where people are free to act in accordance to natural law which Thomas Paine, author of the original “Common Sense,” had in mind.

Posted Aug 11 2009, 07:40 AM by champthom


jtucker wrote re: An Austro-Libertarian Review of Glenn Beck's "Common Sense"
on Tue, Aug 11 2009 8:46 AM

very nice review!

NewLiberty wrote re: An Austro-Libertarian Review of Glenn Beck's "Common Sense"
on Tue, Aug 11 2009 10:34 PM

Great writing. I'd think this would be a popular daily article.

Do it.

Michael Cermak wrote re: An Austro-Libertarian Review of Glenn Beck's "Common Sense"
on Wed, Aug 12 2009 7:20 PM

Good job. I agree with most of your opinions. I think this mysterious "unity" is something which does, and probably will not exist. I'd like the idea of America dedicated to the ideal of liberty, but now it would mean the USSA (United Socialist States of America)...

btw maye you could do some spell check. For example Fuhrer (not Furher) and the redundant apostrophe in the antepenultimate paragraph(simply the third last, I'm not a native speaker so I'm not sure how to express it).

freefred wrote re: An Austro-Libertarian Review of Glenn Beck's "Common Sense"
on Wed, Aug 12 2009 7:36 PM

The part about the Founding fathers being deists is just factually wrong..if you indeed have an open heart and mind please refer to and you will see several hundred  quotes from our Founding fathers who were indeed devout Christians. This sample is just the tip of the iceberg. These are not the qoutes of "deists"