Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Hollow Republic

Published in National Review on August 6, 2012


Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.


President Obama must surely wish he could undo the campaign speech he delivered in Roanoke, Va., on July 13. That was where he offered up the view that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen.” It is a line that could haunt him right to November, revealing as it does an unwillingness to credit success and a hostility toward the culture of entrepreneurship. But the remark came in the context of a broader argument that was just as telling on a different point, and no less troubling.

After laying out his plans to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, the president said this to his audience:

You know, there are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me, because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, Well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, “You know what, there’s some things we do better together.” That’s how we funded the GI Bill, that’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet, that’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president, because I still believe in that idea: You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

This remarkable window into the president’s thinking shows us not only a man chilly toward the potential of individual initiative, and not only a man deluded about the nature of his opponents and their views, but also (and perhaps most important) a man with a staggeringly thin idea of common action in American life.

The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between—and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.

But most of life is lived somewhere between those two extremes, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the middle ground—the family, civil society, and the private economy—to thrive in relative freedom. Obama’s remarks in Virginia shed a bright light on his attitude toward that middle ground, and in that light a great deal of what his administration has done in this three and a half years suddenly grows clearer and more coherent, and even more disconcerting.

Again and again, the administration has sought to hollow out the space between the individual and the state. Its approach to the private economy has involved pursuing consolidation in key industries—privileging a few major players that are to be treated essentially as public utilities, while locking out competition from smaller or newer firms. This both ensures the cooperation of the large players and makes the economy more manageable and orderly. And it leaves no one pursuing ends that are not the government’s ends. This has been the essence of the administration’s policies toward automakers, health insurers, banks, hospitals, and many others.

It is an attitude that takes the wealth-creation capacity of our economy for granted, treats the chaotic churning and endless combat of competing firms (which in fact is the source of that capacity) as a dangerous distraction from essential public goals, and considers the business world to be parasitic on society—benefiting from the infrastructure and resources provided by the genuine common action of the state. Of course, the state’s benevolence is made possible precisely by the nation’s wealthiest citizens, but the president seems to see that as simply an appropriate degree of “giving something back.” His words and his administration’s actions imply that he views the government as the only genuine tribune of public desires, and therefore seeks to harness the private economy to the purposes and goals of those in power.

This intolerance of nonconformity is even more powerfully evident in the administration’s attitude toward the institutions of civil society, especially religious institutions involved in the crucial work of helping the needy and vulnerable. In a number of instances, but most notably in the controversy surrounding the Department of Health and Human Services rule requiring religious employers to provide free abortive and contraceptive drugs to their employees under Obamacare, the administration has shown an appalling contempt for the basic right of religious institutions to pursue their ends in accordance with their convictions.

It is important to recall just what the administration did in that instance. The HHS rule did not assert that people should have the freedom to use contraceptive or abortive drugs—which of course they do have in our country. It did not even say that the government facilitate people’s access to these drugs—which it does today and has done for decades. Rather, the rule required that the Catholic Church and other religious entities should facilitate people’s access to contraceptive and abortive drugs. It aimed to turn the institutions of civil society into active agents of the government’s ends, even in violation of their fundamental religious convictions.

The rule implicitly asserted that our nation will not tolerate an institution that is unwilling to actively ratify the views of those in power—that we will not let it be and find other ways to put those views into effect (even though many other ways exist), but will compel it to participate in the enactment of the ends chosen by our elected officials. This is an extraordinarily radical assertion of government power, and a failure of even basic toleration. It is, again, an attempt to turn private mediating institutions into public utilities contracted to execute government ends.

When pressed to defend its constriction of the rights of religious institutions, the administration recast the basic definition and purpose of such institutions. The final HHS rule defined a religious employer exceedingly narrowly, as an institution that primarily serves and employs people of its own faith and has as its basic purpose the inculcation of the beliefs of that faith. This leaves no room for most religiously based institutions of civil society—no room for hospitals, for schools and universities, for soup kitchens and homeless shelters, for adoption agencies and legal-aid clinics. Religious institutions may preach to the choir, but otherwise they may not play any role in society. Especially when they disagree with those in power, they must be cleared out of the space between the individual and the state.

Indeed, the president and his administration don’t seem
to have much use for that space at all. Even the family, which naturally stands between the individual and the community, is not essential. In May, the Obama campaign produced a Web slideshow called “The Life of Julia,” which follows a woman through the different stages of life and shows the many ways in which she benefits from public policies that the president advocates. It was an extraordinarily revealing work of propaganda, and what it revealed was just what the president showed us in Roanoke: a vision of society consisting entirely of the individual and the state. Julia’s life is the product of her individual choices enabled by public policies. She has an exceptional amount of direct contact with the federal government, yet we never meet her family. At the age of 31, we are told, “Julia decides to have a child” and “benefits from maternal checkups, prenatal care, and free screenings under health care reform.” She later benefits from all manner of educational, economic, and social programs, and seems to require and depend upon no one but the president.

A similarly creepy lack of boundaries can be found in a surprising number of the Obama campaign’s appeals to voters. On June 21, the campaign sent supporters an e-mail purportedly from Michelle Obama, which read in part:

For the first 10 years of our marriage, Barack and I lived in an apartment in my hometown of Chicago. The winters there can be pretty harsh, but no matter how snowy or icy it got, Barack would head out into the cold—shovel in hand—to dig my car out before I went to work. In all our years of marriage, he’s always looked out for me. Now, I see that same commitment every day to you and to this country. The only way we’ll win this election is if we can rely on one another like that, all the way to November 6th.

The nation is thus seen as one big woman married to the president. The family is nothing that the government cannot be.

This attitude toward mediating institutions is by no means novel or unique to the Obama administration. It has been essential to the progressive cause for more than a century, and indeed has been an element of more radical strands of liberalism for far longer than that. As far back as 1791, Thomas Paine, in defending the French revolutionaries, complained of the distance that traditional institutions established between the citizen and the regime, which he described as an “artificial chasm [that] is filled up with a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which [the citizen] has to pass.”

Conservative voices have defended these mediating layers precisely for creating such barriers, which can guard the citizen from direct exposure to the searing power of the state. Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated America’s bewildering array of associations, institutions, and corporations of civil society for their ability to offer individual citizens some protection from the domineering sway of political majorities.

Edmund Burke, Paine’s great nemesis, argued that such mediating structures also express in their very forms the actual shape of our society—evolved over time out of affectionate sentiments, practical needs, and common aspirations. “We begin our public affections in our families,” Burke wrote. “We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill.” To sweep them away and leave only the citizen and the state would rob society of its sources of warmth, loyalty, and affinity, and of the most effective means of enacting significant social improvements.

This difference of opinion about mediating institutions is no trifling matter. It gets at a profound and fundamental difference between the Left and the Right. The Left tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it enables the application of technical knowledge that can make our lives better, and that this knowledge can overcome our biggest problems. This is the technocratic promise of progressivism. The Right tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it has evolved to channel deep social knowledge through free institutions—knowledge that often cannot be articulated in technical terms but is the most important knowledge we have. For the Left, therefore, the mediating institutions (and at times even our constitutional forms) are obstacles to the application of liberal knowledge. For the Right, the mediating institutions (and our constitutional forms) are the embodiment of liberal knowledge.

The Left’s disdain for civil society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the mediating institutions in society—emphatically including the family, the church, and private enterprise—are instruments of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, and resistance to change, and that in order to establish our national life on more rational grounds, the government needs to weaken and counteract them.

The Right’s high regard for civil society, meanwhile, is driven above all not by a disdain for government but by a deeply held belief in the importance of our diverse and evolved societal forms, without which we could not hope to secure our liberty. Conservatives seek mechanisms and institutions to bring implicit social knowledge to bear on our troubles, while progressives seek the authority and power to bring explicit technical knowledge to bear on them.

The president’s exceptionally revealing description of America in his Roanoke remarks thus points to a key dividing line in our politics, and to a central issue of contention in this election year. It’s not a surprise that it turns out to clarify a broad range of the Obama administration’s most troubling and peculiar policy choices.

Mitt Romney has chosen to respond to the president’s remarks largely by defending the honor of individual achievement and initiative in business. This is certainly understandable, since Obama’s statement on that front was an astonishing insult to America’s tens of millions of business owners and entrepreneurs (including Romney himself). But he should also take the opportunity the president has handed him to offer a defense of American life—with its dense array of forms of common action, only a few of them political—against a cold and listless technocratic vision that promises to smother the drive and energy of our republic and leave the citizen defenseless against the whims of government officials.

To ignore what stands between the state and the citizen is to disregard the essence of American life. To clear away what stands between the state and the citizen is to extinguish the sources of American freedom. The president is right to insist that America works best when Americans work together, but government is just one of the many things we do together, and it is only rarely the most important of them.

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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