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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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In that space, in other words, we do more than provide for ourselves and others. We build our character and raise our children, we sustain and evolve our traditions and culture​—​we flourish and thrive. The various institutions and forces that act between the individual and the state do not all pull in the same direction, of course. There are disagreements and tensions, and different ideas of the common good and the individual good. Some of the most powerful cultural influences that operate there​—​like the ethic of the capitalist consumer and the ethic of the pious believer​—​can be in great tension with one another. But the diversity (indeed, at times the incoherence) of our public square is not proof of its backwardness or uselessness, as progressives have suggested. It is often a source of its strength, and of ours. It is what a free society looks like.

All of this, of course, forms citizens, too, and gives shape to our political life. That it lies between the individual and the state does not mean that this vital space stands apart from both, but that it necessarily shapes both, and our ideas of both​—​including our ideas of individual achievement and success.

This is one crucial point that today’s progressives, who insist that no one builds anything alone, fail to grasp. The dense and layered network of social fibers that fills the space between the individual and the state makes it possible, among other things, to sustain an idea of earned success in America​—​an idea that is one of America’s greatest achievements. It is built upon incentives and institutions​—​patterns of praise and blame and honor and duty​—​that yield the drive to work and innovate, and that alone make genuine self-reliance possible. The “you didn’t build that” Democrats can see that none of this is truly achieved by any individual alone, but they are mistaken to jump to the conclusion that America’s elevation of the individual achiever is therefore delusional. It is, rather, a function of an arrangement of society’s circumstances, economic rules, cultural mores, and laws that make individual initiative and risk worthwhile and make hard work a plausible path to a better life. Success by this path is neither assured nor evenly distributed. We have not managed to make life fair, and we must help those who do not prosper or rise. But we have managed to make earned social mobility possible, and from that achievement we have derived an amazing trove of initiative, creativity, and gumption that has been an almost indescribably effective engine of both wealth and virtue for two centuries.

These circumstances, rules, and mores help us enable and reward success, and sustaining them sometimes involves a kind of celebration of success, which can easily be taken too far. But though the ideal of the lone risk-taking entrepreneur is certainly a creation of tradition and culture, it is not therefore a myth: It is a social achievement and is as real as America. And it is deeply tied to our other ideals​—​especially the ideal of social mobility.

To insist that anyone who celebrates these achievements of our society cannot at the same time bemoan the ballooning growth of government in recent years is to suggest that any common achievement​—​by proving the inadequacy of radical individualism as a theory of American life​—​is proof of the truth of progressivism. This is a theory of American life as confused as radical individualism itself, because it too sees nothing between the individual and the state and therefore it too is blind to the structure of American society and to the sources of its success.

There is no question that America’s government is one of those sources, and a very important one. Government could never be a substitute for the mediating institutions of our society, but those institutions could not exist without the environment created and sustained by our system of government. While the progressive view of government has long involved the effort to shrink and clear the space between the individual and the state, the conservative view of government has long seen the purpose of the state as the creation, protection, and reinforcement of just that space. This involves, of course, defending the nation from its enemies, it involves creating and sustaining the infrastructure (both legal and material) for a thriving society, and it can involve taking actions or moving resources on a scale that only government could manage.

This means that government is crucially important, but it also means that limits on government are crucially important​—​and for the very same reason. Without those limits, the state can gravely threaten the space for private life that it is charged with protecting. It can do so by invading that space and attempting to fill it, and by collapsing that space under the weight of government’s sheer size, scope, and cost. Both dangers have grown grave and alarming in our time​—​the first as an explicit goal of federal policymakers, the second as an unavoidable consequence of their actions​—​and the space between the individual and the state seems now to be in very real peril.

When our government carries out its proper task​—​building, sustaining, and protecting that space for private life​—​it plays its fitting part in the life of our free society, and earns the right to be elevated, even consecrated, with the adornments of patriotic piety: to be wrapped in the flag and identified with the larger society. But when it fails at its task and becomes a threat to the very way of life it is charged with protecting, it breeds only cynicism and resentment. It is no coincidence that our period of progressive government has been a period of declining faith in government.

The task of conservatives in politics today, therefore, must be to restore an idea of government as a preserver and protector of the space in which our society thrives​—​of the social architecture of American life. And although they rarely speak in these terms, this is basically what today’s conservatives propose in practice. They propose to reform the means of our government in order to preserve the shape of its relationship to the larger society as we have known it in the postwar era.

That relationship has involved a federal government that takes in and spends roughly a fifth of our economic output, protects the country, performs some basic services, offers support to the states in meeting some of their obligations, and provides income and health-insurance support to the elderly and the poor. Beyond that, it has involved an energetic and flourishing common life filled with countless civic, religious, fraternal, corporate, and charitable entities performing a mind-bogglingly immense array of functions​—​large and small, necessary or desired, wise or foolish​—​and constantly evolving in response to information and pressure moving from the individual and the family upward. That is where the other four-fifths of our economy lives, and how it grows and enables the American miracle to persist.

It has become increasingly apparent in recent decades that the trajectory of our welfare state is not consistent with the survival of this way of life. Left on its current course, the federal government will take up a greater and greater portion of our economic output (increasingly starving other social institutions and burdening future generations with debt) and will become less and less able to perform its own crucial tasks (as the costs of benefit payments to individuals overwhelm all other functions). Meanwhile, the character of some of those programs of benefit payment threatens to undermine the character of our citizens.

The latter problem, which conservatives often describe in terms of dependency, is better understood in terms of entitlement. People so poor they actually depend on government support surely deserve our help and a path to independence, which our public programs too often deny them. But it is people who are not dependent but who nonetheless feel entitled to benefits who really pose a challenge to republican citizenship. Because not only the poor but the great mass of citizens become recipients of benefits in our welfare state, too many people in the middle class come to approach their government as claimants, not as self-governing citizens.

The essence of Mitt Romney’s policy proposals this year (and the essence of the House Republican budgets of the last few years) might be described as changing the structure of government programs for the sake of preserving the structure of American society. They propose to reform government in order to sustain our way of life​—​which has been the definition of conservatism since at least Edmund Burke.

Romney, for instance, proposes to keep the size of the federal government at roughly 20 percent of GDP (federal spending averaged 19.7 percent of GDP from 1950 to 2008, but has averaged 24.4 percent since 2009 and is slated to rise sharply in the coming decades), to maintain something like the balance we have known between the government’s various functions (defense, domestic discretionary spending, and benefits to individuals), and to modernize some of our failing governing institutions​—​all of which he would make possible by reforming our tax system and our entitlement system, particularly the health care entitlements driving the ballooning of the welfare state. He proposes a set of ingenious ways to continue performing the functions of those programs​—​to continue providing health and income support to the poor and the old​—​without making everything else our society does increasingly untenable. This is hardly a radical agenda of austerity and retrogression. It is an agenda of modernization for the sake of preservation.

President Obama’s agenda, on the other hand, is in essence an attempt to preserve the structure of our government programs at the cost of transforming American society. To avoid reforming our entitlement system and tax code, he would abide a far larger government than America has known, and would have that government increasingly invade and collapse the space between the citizen and the state​—​the space where our society does most of its living.

In effect, both parties are trying to preserve something of the postwar era, but they disagree about just what -merits preserving. The Democrats think the design of key government programs was the essence of that era’s success, while Republicans think it was a function of a particular relationship between society and government.

That suggests a very great deal is at stake in this election. It is no surprise that neither party seems quite satisfied with a debate about the narrow set of metrics we have come to call “the economy.” But in the debate they are drawn to instead, conservatives must take a broader and deeper view of what they are defending and why. They stand not so much for the individual against the state, but for a vision of American life that consists of more than individuals and the state. They stand for American society​—​citizens, families, communities, civil society, a free-market economy, and a constitutional government. They stand for a way of life now increasingly endangered, and well worth preserving and modernizing​—​a way of life that is decidedly not better off than it was four years ago.

Yuval Levin is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and editor of National Affairs.

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