<< The Body Politic

The Hollow Republic

Monday, August 13th, 2012

Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, has a characteristically smart essay about how the Left and the Right understand civil society and its relation to the state. President Barack Obama’s controversial remarks about business and individual achievement, Levin argues, reveal “a key dividing line in our politics, and to a central issue of contention in this election year.” He writes:

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.

Read the whole thing.

AEI