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Why Left and Right Make Sense

And why “defined contribution” matters.

8:27 AM, Jan 6, 2011 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Ryan Streeter, editor of the very interesting and useful new website, ConservativeHome, had an excellent Q and A with Yuval Levin earlier this week. Read the whole thing here —and then read some of the fine articles in the new issue of National Affairs, which Levin edits, here.

A couple of key excerpts from the interview:

Yuval Levin: "I think left and right mean more in American life today than they ever have before"

January 4, 2011

RS: You've got a keen sense of how politics and policy affect each other and unite or divide people. Beyond the usual right-left divides in Washington, what are the major sources of difference and disagreement you see between today's major political ideologies or factions.

Yuval Levin: I’m actually always struck by the way in which our left-right divide encompasses a broad array of not only political but also cultural, social, and economic differences. On the face of it, the division of our politics into two camps seems peculiar and paradoxical—we’ve got one party that combines social conservatives with economic libertarians and another that combines social libertarians with economic statists. The tension between libertarian and communitarian impulses clearly divides each party internally. So why shouldn’t we have a party of social and economic communitarians and another of social and economic libertarians? But I actually think the coalitions we have make a lot of sense—both philosophically and (more importantly) as a response to the circumstances of American history and American life.

At the level of ideas, Western politics has long been divided (in very general terms of course) along the axis created by the response to the radicalism of the French Revolution, and then sharpened and clarified by the response to the radicalism of communism. The radicalism of the French took the form of an assault on what they perceived to be irrational traditional mediating institutions like the family, religion, and local ties in pursuit of a pseudo-scientific technocratic mastery of human affairs that was thought to offer the promise of more rational, just, and effective administration. The radicalism of the communists accepted that aim and added to it an assault on what they perceived to be irrational and unjust market economics in pursuit of a pseudo-scientific technocratic command economy that was thought to offer the prospect of greater economic efficiency, justice, and equality. The left wing of modern Western politics emerged to advance these two sets of views, with varying degrees of radicalism in various countries at various times. The right wing of modern Western politics emerged to oppose these views, and so to defend first traditional mediating institutions and practices, and second the market economy.

Americans, in this regard as in most regards, have been less extreme than our European cousins. Our left wing, therefore, has for the most part not consisted of communists or radical anti-family atheists (though we have had our share, to be sure) but of more mundane technocratic reformers and social activists who view traditional institutions (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) as oppressive and unjust. And certainly in our time, with the left all over the world reeling from the collapse of communism and the growing decay of the welfare state, the left is on its heels a bit. But our political debates are still, to a great degree, defined by the debate between organic or traditional mediating institutions on the one hand and technocratic expert management on the other. That distinction is at the heart of the health-care debate, for instance. It is at the core of many of what we call the social issues in our politics. It is the essence of our economic policy arguments. And it is still what divides left and right.

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