Postmodern Conservative

Reformiconapalooza

The Burkean Wisdom of Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin has penned a beautiful essay over at The Modern Age, “The Roots of Reforming Conservative.”  RTWT, but here are some highlights. 

Today’s conservatism sometimes gives the impression that until fairly recently the organizing principles of American life were obvious to everyone and embodied in the nation’s political practice. If this were true, then conservatives would be defenders of a threatened status quo and so would not have to work very hard to show Americans what we stand for. But it is not true. In fact, the organizing principles of our national life have always been hotly contested. American politics has involved a Left and a Right at each other’s throats almost from the first. And the Left has, in some important respects, been the dominant force in these arguments for at least the last third of the nation’s life. Progressivism has largely defined the status quo, in the process perverting the constitutional system to which conservatives point as the proper ideal.

A-men!  This was a major point, made in a somewhat different way, of my essay about America’s five fundamental conceptions of liberty.  It makes perfect sense, of course, to see a Thomas Paine scholar like Levin making the point about the Left having always been with us.  The key to understand Paine and his relevance to contemporary debates, he says, is this:

Thomas Paine was one of the earliest exponents of the view, now common on the Left, that society needs to be understood as consisting merely of individuals and government. 

By contrast:

The sociology of conservatism, which understands society as “spun out” of the family, the community, and the array of mediating social structures, suggests that justice in principle and practice needs to be pursued through our evolved, traditional institutions rather than around them…

These are solid condensations of wisdom, flowing out of Levin’s deep engagement not simply with Paine, but with Edmund Burke.  Highlights of his essay include his sharing what he thinks might be the most important passage in Burke, and his pointing out Burke’s own love of the word “reform.”  Burke was the original ”reformicon!” I do highly recommend Levin’s book comparing Paine and Burke and the broader ideological contest between them that came to mean so much for the politics, in the critical decades of the 1770s, 80s, and 90s, in America, France, and Britain. 

There’s many other gems in the essay.  Try this one:

Conservatives, especially in America, are not fatalists, and indeed we are often fairly cheerful about America’s prospects. But we are cheerful and hopeful precisely because we start out with low expectations—because we believe in the capacity of American society to improve itself over time in this dynamic, diffuse, decentralized, and incremental way even while we doubt the capacity of consolidated technocratic management to improve it all at once by following a plan.

While that description does not really fit yours truly, given my innate Eor-ish tendencies and recent “Late Republic” musings, I still know just what he means.  On many sorts of issues that the proggies really get themselves down about, such as environmental ones, I can affirm the dismaying character of the data-points they’re upset about—at least when they’re in the ball-park of being accurate-enough–while still feeling things will work out, in that fairly-low-expectations-to-begin-with sense.  That is, they will work out as long as our republican system holds together.

Since the essay mainly stands to provide Levin’s articulation of stances at the heart of reform conservatism, here are a couple passages that convey that best:

To avoid thinking about public policy altogether and argue only that there ought to be less of it is to let the Left define the role of government in accordance with its own ideas of the human person and society while the Right merely bargains over the size of the errors we make.

A conservatism committed to the future of the free society…would seek to give our mediating institutions more freedom and power to help them recover their strength, so that America may do the same. Every plank of the policy platform of today’s reforming conservatism seeks to do exactly that: to inject greater and more meaningful power into the space between the individual and the state, and so to help American society address practical problems in a way that also reinforces its capacity for liberty.

Now over at Powerline, Steven Hayward highlights a debate about the “Reform-icons” found in the pages of the Claremont Review of Books, and quotes William Voegeli, who I’m sure you know is a most impressive analyst of contemporary progressivism’s key tendencies and premises. Voegeli goes after the reformicons in this don’t-dismay-the-base vein:

If [reform conservatism] concedes, instead, the legitimacy of the New Deal and Great Society to-do lists for government, and confines its critique of liberalism to the use of bad means for achieving good ends, many conservatives are going to go AWOL rather than fight for those circumscribed goals. 

Hayward links to responses from Pete Wehner and Ramesh Ponnuru on this, but I’ll note that Levin has something of a response already present in his Modern Age essay, in the form of a quote from Friedrich Hayek:

Liberty in practice depends on very prosaic matters, and those anxious to preserve it must prove their devotion by their attention to the mundane concerns of public life and by the efforts they are prepared to give to the understanding of issues that the idealist is often inclined to treat as common, if not sordid.

So conservatives have to engage in detailed policy debates and not leave them to the Left.  To get a sense of what Levin has in mind, you really need to check into the journal he edits, National Affairs.  The important “How to Fix Disability Insurance” essay by Scott Winship in the most recent issue is a good example of the attention to policy details, and the engaged-yet-adult concern for Americans who depend on government aid, that are central aspects of his reform conservatism, and of his journal’s mission.  I’ll leave it there, as like Hayward I have sympathies with both sides of the CRB debate, although you can surely detect my deeper sympathies with the reformicon side.

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