Reflections on the Cooke Manifesto

by Yuval Levin

You don’t need me to tell you that a book by Charles C. W. Cooke is worth reading, but I’ll tell you anyway, by telling you what his Conservatarian Manifesto left me thinking about. 

I’m not a “conservatarian” — I’m a conservative, and there are certainly places in the book where I didn’t agree with Cooke on one or another particular issue. But it is, throughout, both superbly well written and argued and deeply insightful. I found it particularly so on what I take to be the overarching policy implication of Cooke’s argument: the need for localism and decentralization to serve as core principles of the Right’s approach to the role of government and its case for limits on that role. This is a timeless truth that is nonetheless especially timely in 21st-century America. 

Conservatism inherently points in this direction for reasons that are anthropological, sociological, and epistemological (if you’ll pardon my street slang). We conservatives tend to see the human person as an incorrigible mass of contradictions: a fallen and imperfect being created in a divine image, a creature possessed of fundamental dignity and inalienable rights but always prone to excess and to sin and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation. This gives us high standards but low expectations of human affairs and makes us wary of utopianisms of all stripes. It also causes us to be more impressed with successful human institutions than we are outraged at failed ones, and so to be protective of our inheritance and eager to build on the longstanding institutions of our society (rather than engineer new ones) to improve things because they are likely to possess more knowledge than we can readily perceive — and more than any collection of technical experts, however capable, is ever likely to have. 

This anthropology informs our sociology. The conservative vision of society is moved by a low opinion of the capacity of individuals to address complex problems even as it is informed by a high regard for the rights and freedoms of those individuals. It therefore seeks for social arrangements and institutions that counterbalance human failures and encourage individual moral progress while respecting human liberty and dignity. And it finds these in the mediating institutions of a free society — families, communities, civic and religious groups, markets, and more — that stand between the individual and the state.

And this regard for mediating institutions is reinforced by our sense of the limits of human knowledge and power. Because we think the human person is a fine mess, and because we think societies and their members flourish through the mediating institutions, we are very skeptical of claims to rational control and technocratic management. We think large social problems are too complicated to be amenable to centralized technical solutions and instead require decentralized, bottom-up, local, social solutions. Societies evolve and improve and solve practical problems not by jerks of authority from above but by diffuse, decentralized trial and error from below. Allowing society’s institutions and members the freedom for such efforts is more likely to make society smarter than allowing technical experts to manage large systems. 

Libertarians frequently share that latter view, and at times also share the two former ones, while progressives generally stand opposed to all three in practice and (to the limited extent they now articulate their views of things) in theory or principle. This has a lot to do with why conservatives and libertarians often agree, and it also helps explain some of the instances in which they don’t. 

I think our agreement about the power and importance of decentralization is particularly significant now, because American society is changing in ways that make our approach to addressing society’s problems especially important. America in the decades after World War II—nostalgia for which now utterly saturates our politics—was populated by two generations of citizens (those who grew up in the Depression and the war and their children, the baby boomers) peculiarly formed to have great trust in big institutions, and it was dominated by just such institutions: big government, big business, big labor, big media, big universities, mass culture. But in every area of our national life—or at least every area except government—we are witnessing the replacement of such large, centralized institutions by smaller, decentralized networks. 

Younger Americans are growing up amid a profusion of options in every realm of life, with far more choice but far less predictability and security. Dynamism is increasingly driven not by economies of scale but by competitively-driven marginal improvements. Our culture is becoming a sea of subcultures. Sources of information, entertainment, and education are proliferating. 

This is not all for the good; not at all. But it has some enormous benefits along with real drawbacks. The failure of our politics to confront these changes—good and bad—explains a lot of the dysfunction of our government today, and much of our frustration with it. Successful lives in the postwar era involved effectively navigating our large institutions and making the most of the benefits they offered. Success in the coming era will increasingly involve effectively navigating a profusion of smaller networks, and a government that wants to help people flourish will need to retool—focusing more on enabling bottom-up, incremental improvements and less on managing top-down, centralized systems. Both empowering individuals and offering them security will look rather different in this era.

Progressives are horribly ill-suited for adapting to these changes, because consolidation has always been the core principle of their approach to policy and politics. Conservatives and libertarians are better suited, because decentralization has long been a guiding principle for us. 

It will take a lot of work, but before that it will take a recognition of the need for that work and of the resources we can bring to it. Charles’s Conservatarian Manifesto does a very fine job of pointing the way on both fronts. Do read it. 

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