A Conservative Governing Vision
An alternative to the basic nature of the liberal welfare state, not just its size and cost.


Yuval Levin

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is part of YG Network’s new essay collection, Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class.​

As Americans attempt to adjust to the challenges of 21st-century life, our government has too often been getting in our way rather than helping us along. Many families now face stagnating wages, excessive tax burdens, rising health and higher-education costs, barriers to mobility and work, disincentives to marriage and childbearing, and an economy increasingly held back by over-regulation, cronyism, institutional sclerosis, and mounting public debt. All of these burdens have left Americans uncharacteristically pessimistic about the country’s prospects. And in each case an overreaching, hyperactive, unwieldy, and immensely expensive federal government lies near the root of the problem.

This has often led conservatives to appeal to the public by calling first and foremost for restraining that government — restricting its reach, reducing its scope, cutting its cost. These are surely essential goals, but a failure to put them in the context of a larger vision of the proper role of government risks leaving the public with the impression that what conservatives want is less of the same: the liberal welfare state at a lower cost. This is in fact how many on the left would like Americans to understand our public debates.

But the size and cost of the liberal welfare state are a function of its basic character, and it is that character that is really at issue in most policy debates between liberals and conservatives. The fundamentally prescriptive, technocratic approach to American society inherent in the logic of the Left’s policy thinking is a poor fit for American life at any scale. The liberal welfare state ultimately cannot be had at an affordable price. It is not the architecture of one or another particular program that makes it unsustainable. It is unsustainable because the system as a whole must feed off of the innovative, decentralized vitality of American life, yet it undermines both the moral and the economic foundations of that vitality.

This is in part because the Left tends not to see the decentralized, boisterous character of American society — with its uneasy but constructive tension between moral traditionalism and economic dynamism — as a great good to be protected and nurtured, but rather as at best an unruly source of material wealth and at worst a barrier to the achievement of important social objectives. The means of the liberal welfare state are centralizing and consolidating mechanisms intended to bring order to this chaos. And liberals rarely offer a defense of that managerial outlook. They take both its means and its ends for granted and defend the welfare state as though it were identical to the broad social objectives it purports to advance.

They therefore treat attempts to alter or eliminate liberal programs as attempts to abandon the most general objectives of those programs — to provide a safety net for the poor, say, or a foundation of economic security for the elderly and the vulnerable. Even alternatives that would achieve those goals in less heavy-handed ways and at a lower cost are assumed to be less committed to the goals, and so are taken to be steps in the wrong direction. It hardly seems to matter how well the Left’s favorite programs actually work: What matters is that they exist, and must not be undone.

Criticisms aimed purely at the size or cost of those programs only contribute to this baleful dynamic. Conservatives must instead help the public see that the agenda they offer is rooted not just in fiscal concerns but in a political, moral, and social vision much better aligned with the realities of American life and the character of Americans’ aspirations.

At the core of this difference of visions are quite different ideas of just how human beings prosper and thrive and therefore of the proper relationship between American society and its government.

To begin with, the Left’s social vision tends to consist of individuals and the state, so that all common action is state action, and its purpose is to liberate individuals from material want and moral sway. The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state — the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy — and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.

Progressives in America have always viewed those mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the government with suspicion, seeing them as instruments of division, prejudice, and selfishness or as power centers lacking in democratic legitimacy. They have sought 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. This clearing away has in some cases consisted of crowding out the mediating institutions by taking over some of their key functions through direct government action. In other cases, it has involved turning elements of civil society and the private economy into arms of government policy — by requiring compliance with policy goals that are foreign to many civil-society institutions or consolidating key sectors of the economy and offering protection to large corporations willing to act as public utilities or to advance policymakers’ priorities.