The Fractured Republic is a 2016 book by conservative author Yuval Levin that has been lauded by the likes of Paul Ryan as something between scripture and a handbook for a better America, so I read it.
Levin believes that the Achille’s heel on both the left and right is a nostalgic love for the decades following WWII that has warped their respective political agendas as they try to recapture the best of those years for the future. It’s not a bad premise but for two things. First, while carefully parsing the varieties of conservative thinking, he plasters over liberal diversity by assuming they all think and believe the same things, which are about taking away personal liberty and making the federal government bigger and badder. Second, as he works toward plotting a fresh course into the future, leaving nostalgia behind, he proposes a romanticized non-specific agenda that wallows in it. You’ll have to read it for yourself to see what I mean, but in essence he has a strong faith in what he calls the mediating institutions of society: family, church (generically), work, and voluntary civic organizations that he says have been stripped of their traditional roles by centralizing them in the federal government. By turning our backs on centralization of federal power over all aspects of life, and turning toward revitalized mediating institutions, we can apply the principle of subsidiarity to the solution of the nation’s problems in more creative, locally responsive and democratic ways that would surely please De Tocqueville. He never says so, but it left me imagining Norman Rockwell’s paintings brought to life all across the country.
The left, he assures his readers, has been committed to centralizing power in the federal government ever since Roosevelt, both of them. The right has gone along, and shame on them. As a result, fewer and fewer decisions about public policy are left to states and localities, where, by the authority of subsidiarity, better decisions would be made. Even better than local and state governments, things we now look to government to handle would be dealt with through the mediating institutions. Wholesome intact families would be encouraged through what? Public pressure, restrictions on divorce, limits on contraceptives, what? However they would be encouraged, they would raise healthier children less likely to get into trouble and more likely to become hard working productive citizens. Churches, meaning all kinds of places of worship – in the Judeo-Christian tradition – would again become the accepted arbiters of what is moral and good. His limitation to Judeo-Christian religions is never overtly stated, but strongly implied, as is the idea that state and local laws could be used to help make that happen. Finally, much of what we now call welfare would be better handled through charity provided by local voluntary organizations. Moreover, connecting charity to the dignity of work would strengthen the moral fiber of those whose moral fiber needs strengthening. Paul Ryan calls this insightful and original, the very thing needed to navigate the fragmented world in which we live. I don’t think Mr. Ryan cares what I call it, but original it is not. However, it is not without insight. There is no doubt on the left about the importance of families in the raising of children, the value of churches in speaking to the nation about what is moral and good, the worthiness of charity and charities, and the dignity of work - hard work. The left has a lot to say about the dangers of using the coercive power of government to encourage them, even as it has been accused of using that power to usurp them.
It would have helped if he had been more honest about centralization of legislative and regulatory authority in the federal government as a reality impelled by economic and social conditions that are national in scope, flowing as they will across local and state borders, requiring resources available only through a national government. We don’t live in a society of villages and villagers who are in limited relationship with one another. We don’t even live in a confederation of independent states. We gave that up in 1789, sealing it at last in 1865. We are more aware than we once were that the rights and privileges of American citizenship cannot be compromised by local decisions to limit them in any way. The solution to pollution, in all its environmental and sociological forms, is not dilution, especially when we trash that which flows into another’s home. More today than ever, the economy is married to corporate entities that have no loyalty to locality or nation. Funds flow around the globe in such volume and velocity that only national governments have any hope of managing it for the protection and welfare of their people.
The idea that by appealing to subsidiarity we can return to a time when none of this will be true anymore is unrealistic nostalgic romanticism at its height. But it does reveal something that needs fixing.
Centralization of public policy decisions at the national level has also resulted in too many laws and regulations that don’t accommodate regional differences. A very long time ago I played a small part in an effort to help members of congress understand that a bill designed to protect a particular eastern hardwood forest would endanger western softwood forests. It’s a small and very old example, but it’s an indication of how hard it is for congress to build needed flexibility into laws. It results in onerous regulations required by the laws themselves. The federal government is good at raising and disbursing the huge amounts of money needed to address many issues. It’s good at making broad policy decisions on behalf of the whole nation. it borders on incompetent when it micro-manages implementation in so many places where conditions are so different. Experience with state and local governments suggests they suffer the same weakness. There is nothing wrong with government as such; it has to do with elected representatives who are reluctant to trust those at lower levels to do the right thing unless they are told precisely how to do it. The idea that goals and performance standards could be set, audits made rigorous, and otherwise those who know best left to do best in whatever way works best, is just too risky to try. And don’t blame politicians for having flawed genes or something. The same problem exists in business at every level, even more so in large corporations. One of our greatest weaknesses as a society is that, at every level and in every institution, we don’t really trust subordinates to be responsible persons, even as we criticize everyone except you and me, and I’m not sure about you, for having lost their sense of self responsibility.
Even Levin, trying hard to avoid the trap, falls into it. Without saying so out loud, he leaves readers to clearly understand that once conservative social values are imposed on the unwilling, especially those on the left, in some locally democratic way, all will be made well again. Speaking of Levin, toward the end of the book he finally gets around to taking potshots at the usual welfare state suspects in the usual generalized terms alleging their awfulness on the assumption that decent right thinking people will agree without asking too many questions. He offers subsidiarity as the solution. If that seems a little vague to you, see my previous article on deconstructing the federal government.