The Real Debate

Published October 8, 2012

The Weekly Standard

Everybody knows that this election is supposed to be all about the economy. Employment, income, growth, and America’s credit rating are too low, while spending, borrowing, deficits, poverty, and gas prices are too high, and voters must decide whether President Obama is responsible for all of that or whether Mitt Romney could do better. Polls certainly suggest that these questions are highest on voters’ minds.

And yet, even as both parties acknowledge the centrality of the economy, both seem also to be powerfully drawn toward another, deeper kind of debate. That debate has mostly been evident when each party’s politicians have assumed they are talking to their supporters and friends​–​in the non-televised early hours of their conventions this summer, in off-the-cuff remarks after a long day of campaigning, or at a fundraiser they did not know was being recorded. In those kinds of moments, both Democrats and Republicans seem to want to have a debate about the individual, society, and government in American life.

Each party is pulled into this debate by what it sees as the deeply misguided views of the other. Democrats listen to Republicans and hear a simpleminded and selfish radical individualism​–​or, as President Obama has put it, “nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism.” They hear people who think that being successful and rich means you’re smarter than everyone else or work harder than everyone else, and who therefore have no regard for those in our society who are in no position to start a business or get a loan. They hear people who have benefited from the privileges of being lucky in America and imagine they did it all by themselves. And they seek to teach these people that there is no such thing as a self-made success. This was what President Obama was getting at when he went off his script in Roanoke, Virginia, in July and made “you didn’t build that” an instant classic. He was accusing his opponents of idolizing individual achievement while ignoring the preconditions for success made possible by the larger society​–​which he identified more or less exclusively with the government. Numerous speakers at this summer’s Democratic convention similarly equated society and government, arguing, for instance, that (in the words of the convention’s opening video) “government is the one thing we all belong to,” and that (in the words of Rep. Barney Frank) “there are things that a civilized society needs that we can only do when we do them together, and when we do them together that’s called government.” Republicans, they suggested, don’t believe in government because they don’t believe in doing things together.

Republicans listen to Democrats, meanwhile, and hear a simpleminded and dangerous radical collectivism​–​or, as Mitt Romney has put it, a vision of America as “a government-centered society.” They hear people who think that no success is earned and no accomplishment can be attributed to those who took the risks to make it happen. They hear people who think there is no value in personal drive and initiative, and who would like to extend the web of federal benefits as far and wide as possible to shield Americans from the private economy and make them dependent on government beneficence and on the liberal politicians who bestow it. And they seek to teach these people that private initiative is how prosperity happens, how dignity develops, and how America was built, and that dependence is pernicious and enervating. That was what speaker after speaker at the Republican convention had to say, often drawing on personal experience of entrepreneurship and social mobility. And, in a more confused and hapless way, it was what Mitt Romney was getting at in the now-infamous remarks he made at a fundraiser in May about the growing numbers of Americans receiving federal benefits.

Republicans accuse Democrats of ignoring individual achievement and overvaluing government achievements; Democrats accuse Republicans of ignoring government achievements and overvaluing individual achievement. It is not a coincidence that this unusual debate should be happening as the public is asked to render its verdict on the Obama years, but because that is the context in which it is happening, the debate often misses a crucial point.

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.

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

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