Subsidiarity and Creative Solutions

I used to think that it was better for people, when speaking politically, to avoid talking about their underlying philosophy, to just focus on solutions. This probably stemmed from my belief that most Americans ultimately want similar things – an end to poverty, a more solid footing for our entitlement programs, a good job for everyone who wants one, a dynamic and innovative economy that serves the interest of every American, safe communities with good schools in which to bring up our kids, a high-quality and financially sound medical system available to all… I just used to think that everyone had different ideas about how to get there. 

But this thinking has evolved as I grapple with the extreme language that is coming from both sides of our current debate. I’ve evolved to think that it’s important for everyone to think deeply about the means and ends of a society, how that relates to the individual and how the individual can best thrive within that society. Obviously this goes a bit beyond public policy, but it has become important as the implications of these different viewpoints becomes more clear. 

This philosophical investigation would certainly take up an entire book or more if it were handled with the rigor it deserves. Here I’d only like to discuss the implications for the future of public policy and how our country must grapple with these differences, which brings us to Yuval Levin’sThe Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. Mr. Levin’s penetrating insight shows us the roots, nature and implications of these differences in underlying philosophy, and what that could mean for the future of America.

Levin starts with a diagnosis of American idealized perceptions of the “mid-century moment,” his term for the middle decades of the 20th Century from the 1950’s up to the 1970s. There is a tendency, passed on to us by the baby boomer generation, to believe that this moment in our history is something that we need to recapture or recreate. Today’s liberals applaud the economic communitarianism of the New Deal and the Great Society, while simultaneously yearning to continue the individualist tendencies of the feminist or gay rights movements. Conservatives, on the other hand, miss the patriotic communitarianism that the shared experience of World War II and our once-dominant civil society fostered, while on the other hand arguing for an expansion of Reagan-era economic liberty. We see this in the advanced ageof most of our political leaders. And there are many booksthat advocate policiesthat wold do precisely that. 

Despite all the great things about the “mid-century moment,” Levin argues that trying to return to it (or a return to the Reagan era, as many conservatives advocate) is not a good idea. The world we now inhabit is so much different than that world in so many ways: a new digital economy, globalization, climate change, and a rising global middle class (and the implications this has for the end of American diplomatic and economic dominance). But most important for Levin is the accelerating trend of consolidation of government power mixed with a diffusion of societal norms and explosion of economic freedoms, trends which have only accelerated over the past 20 years. In his view, these trends will force us to come up with new ideas. The problems of the future cannot be solved with the same ideas from the past. 

Levin then takes us on a journey through the evolution of political ideas through the 20th Century – from the Progressive Movement through the deep polarization we see today. He labels the early 20th Century a period of consolidation and cohesion, as the country saw a centralization of government and economic power and a culture which emphasized conformity. The trend can be seen in the expanding government bureaucracy, the rise of a new mass media, and the emergence of large industrial employers. This trend accelerated as the two World Wars required sacrifice and became a common cultural reference for most Americans. It also further entrenched the “factory job” archetype that provided many Americans with a stable and well-paying job regardless of their background.

But after the World War II, these forces abated and a new trend developed: the radical liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As the baby boomer generation came of age, they formed new ideas about the meaning of liberty and pushed the limits of what was considered socially acceptable. The civil rights movement, the feminist revolution, and postmodernism all took hold of the popular consciousness. These movements resulted in what are for Levin (and for me) public goods: a more inclusive society, more rights for Americans of color, and new opportunities for women that hadn’t existed in the past. Americans were more free to celebrate what made them unique rather than what made them part of the group, to celebrate their individualism in new ways.

This new wave of social revolution was followed by economic stagnation that paved the way for the Reagan revolution, which in turn led to an explosion in economic vibrancy in America. Suddenly strong economic growth and greater consumer choice became the talk of the times. And, contrary to the conventional liberal argument, economic outcomes for all improved. This era also saw the resurgence of religious fervor in America. Thus we can see the roots of the present-day archetypal conservative ideals of less government regulation, emphasis on moral and social values, low-tax economic dynamism, and an assertive foreign policy. Although the 1990s saw what many political scientists see as the beginnings of political polarization through the political opportunism of Newt Gingrich and the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, Levin sees this period as the peak of governmental cooperation to cap off a remarkable century.

And then, we reached the turbulent 2000s.

After 9/11 and the 2008 Housing Crisis, the fragmentation trend took hold of the popular consciousness. 2008 was a watershed moment both because of the housing crisis that took hold, but also because that was the year that Barack Obama was elected president, which sparked a conservative backlash to what many thought would be an oppressive onslaught of liberal policies. The emergence of the Tea Party, the 2010 congressional elections, and the rise of Trump all bear witness. But as we have seen more recently, with the rise of people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the poles are sprinting away from each other in opposite directions.

So here we are. Levin’s adept descriptions of where we been are not quite matched by prescriptions toward the end of the book. There is a lack of technical specificity in his ideas that a hardcore policy wonk may find frustrating. Yet where this more specific and technical detail lacked, Levin puts forth his ideas about the possible structure of American political institutions given the social trends that he just outlined. In effect, he doesn’t tell us exactly what needs to change from a policy perspective, but ways in which we can structure our institutions moving forward to help us find those solutions.

Listening to a couple interviews Levin gave ahead of the release of this book, Levin makes it clear that he doesn’t claim to know the specific answers. Rather he proposes that we embrace a more fractured manner of making policy to match what has happened culturally since the post-war years:

“[We must] seek to treat the excesses of individualism not through greater centralization of our institutions, but through greater decentralization of them, and to mitigate both over-consolidation and hyper-individualism by revitalizing the mediating layers of society.”

Yuval Levin

Levin proposes a more federalist method of policy making, one that emphasizes bottom-up problem solving. While he freely admits that this won’t be the most efficient way to solve problems, it will certainly result in more creative, and more tailor-fit solutions for different local situations.

If we emphasize a more decentralized problem-solving model, this will also take some of the heat off of the federal government. Less power in the federal government would mean more political problem solving at a lower level, which can result in a more creative and less rancorous process. Thus, the state governments will “take up the slack” even as gridlock grips Washington.

Levin argues that as the mediating institutions of our country recede, as churches and synagogues, boy scouts and youth sports teams, and other service clubs of varying ilk seem to be on their way out, the federal government keeps growing by leaps and bounds, with no end in sight. And many of our friends on the left want to drastically increase the role of the federal in their rush to provide near-to-hand solutions to what are problems that no government can solve. The keys to human flourishing that research shows we humans need are increasingly being crowded out by the growth of the federal government. A centralizing policy will only accelerate the tendencies that have already drastically changed American life for the worse.

A very interesting article full of cherry-picked data and disingenuous measures of the argument shows just how tone-deaf to these real problems our friends on the left really are. While their may work fine for the Nordic countries, their relative cultural homogeneity provides a bedrock situation that the United States clearly lacks. It’s also not obvious that things are all wine and roses in Northern Europe, either. Regardless, their solutions are not our solutions. We must come up with a uniquely American solution to our problems, and Levin’s “subsidiarity” would be a great place to start. It provides not only a way out of our tendency to yearn for policy solutions from the last century, but also a uniquely American path rather than a cut and past solution inspired by countries with drastically different cultural and societal idiosyncrasies. The emphasis on creativity is what ultimately matters here, and if we rely on American ingenuity, how can we go wrong?

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