The Magazine

The Real Debate

The 2012 election is about far more than our pocketbooks.

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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Simply put, to see our fundamental political divisions as a tug of war between the government and the individual is to accept the progressive premise that individuals and the state are all there is to society. The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government. The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years​—​the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves​—​is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.

Progressives in America have always viewed those institutions with suspicion, seeing them as instruments of division, prejudice, and selfishness and seeking to empower the government to rationalize the life of our society by clearing away those vestiges of backwardness and putting in their place public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest. Progressive social policy has sought to make the family less essential by providing for basic material needs, particularly for lower-income women with children. It has sought to make civil society less essential by assigning to the state many of the roles formerly played by religious congregations, civic associations, fraternal groups, and charities, especially in providing help to the poor. And progressive economic policy has sought to turn the private economy into an arm of government policy, consolidating key sectors and protecting from competition large corporations that are willing to act as public utilities or to advance policymakers’ priorities.

In each case, the idea is to level the complex social topography of the space between individuals and the government, breaking up tightly knit clusters of citizens into individuals and then uniting all of those individuals under the national banner​—​allowing them to be free of the oppressive authority of family or community norms while building solidarity through the common experience of living as equal citizens of a great nation. Dependence on people you know is oppressive, the progressives imply, because it always comes with moral and social strings. But dependence on larger and more generic and distant systems of benefits and rules is liberating​—​it frees people from the undue moral sway of traditional social institutions even as it frees them from material want. A healthy dose of moral individualism combined with a healthy dose of economic collectivism make for a powerful mix of freedom and equality.

Conservatives have always resisted such a gross rationalization of society, however, and insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolving social institutions​—​from civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, to charitable enterprises and complex markets​—​will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that space between the individual and the government is vital​—​at least as much a matter of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation. Moral individualism mixed with economic collectivism only feels like freedom because it liberates people from responsibility in both arenas. But real freedom is only possible with real responsibility. And real responsibility is only possible when you depend upon, and are depended upon by, people you know. It is, in other words, only possible in precisely that space between the individual and the state that the left has long sought to collapse.

What happens in that space generally happens face to face​—​between parents and children, neighbors and friends, buyers and sellers. It therefore answers to immediately felt needs, and is tailored to the characters and sentiments of the people involved. This is both good and bad, to be sure. It means that what happens in that space can be moved by resentments and prejudices, by old hostilities and by greed and vanity. But it also can be, and often is, moved by warmer sentiments​—​by the love that binds families; by fraternity, friendship, and loyalty; by compassion for the poor and the weak; by a passion to see wrongs righted; by ambition and drive to excel and to be seen as excellent; by a desire to give your children more; by commitment to the place you are from and mutual support of neighbors; and by love of country. These sentiments, not systems of material provision, are what makes society tick, and what holds it together. And you could never replace them with government administration, however capable or rational it might be.

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