The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?

Arnold Kling reviews Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism:

Levin rejects the binary choice between strong central government and pure individualism. Instead, he extols what he calls the mediating institutions of families, local government, religious institutions, and charity. His idea of paradise would be a nation in which these institutions are allowed to experiment with a variety of ways of trying to help nurture and educate citizens who are capable of exercising freedom.

If Levin is right, then it would help to have the federal government back away from many of the responsibilities it has taken on over the past fifty years. Instead, more authority and responsibility should be left to these mediating institutions.

For me, Levin offers an appealing vision. However, I wonder if it can ever attract broad public support. In 2016, it appears to me that Americans do not value freedom as much as they used to. If President Obama represented the nostalgia for the era of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, then currently his party seems to be moving even further to the left, with many believing that some form of socialism is the answer. On the Republican side, it seems ironic that the candidate who gained ascendancy by promising to wall off our southern neighbors would appear to wish to run the United States like a Latin American strongman. And on college campuses, many students and administrators prefer “safe spaces” to free speech.

I worry that mediating institutions have lost their effectiveness. The broad middle class has given way to a bifurcated society, with the highly-educated and the less-educated no longer attending the same churches or sharing similar life experiences. The close-knit neighborhood has given way to the anonymous city, where local government is mostly responsive to powerful public sector unions and favor-seeking businesses. Perhaps this means that Levin’s vision is nearly as unrealistic as those that he criticizes. Restoring our mediating institutions might be yet another exercise in trying to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube.

I share Kling’s pessimism. Not only will the left not allow government to back off, but even if government were to back off, it would be too late to rescue liberty in much of the country. In my commentary about David D. Friedman’s pro-anarchy tract, The Machinery of Freedom, I observed that the America of two or three generations ago

would have done quite will without government because its inhabitants — even the rich and powerful and best and brightest — were largely bound by common customs and common sense. [The America of today] — riddled as it is with dependency on the state and the divisions arising from the politics of “social justice” — has neither the collective will nor the wherewithal to resist the dictatorship or warlordism that surely would follow in the wake of the (extremely unlikely) replacement of government by anarchy.

Dictatorship or warlordism wouldn’t follow the restoration of constitutional governance in the United States, but neither would liberty blossom. For the reasons adduced by Kling and me, the partial vacuum left by the shrinkage of the central government would be filled by many a State and local government — at the behest of majorities of their government-addicted constituencies.

To find liberty, a person would probably have to move to a village, town, or small city in one of the States that has been solidly “Red” for a decade or more. But many such locales would eventually succumb to the influx of refugees from big-government, high-tax jurisdictions. Those refugees usually are fleeing the tax and regulatory consequences of the very programs that they support — and will continue to support because they don’t seem to understand that it is the programs they support which yield the high taxes and draconian regulations that they detest.

Liberty in the United States has been the victim of economic illiteracy and cupidity. Liberty might be rescued — temporarily — by the (unlikely) shrinkage of the central government. The permanent salvation of liberty would require eternal vigilance, accompanied by a strictly enforced ban on the promulgation of anti-libertarian ideas and anti-social practices. License granted in the name of liberty subverts liberty.

It is no coincidence that economic progress, which depends greatly on mutual trust and respect, has faltered badly since the arrival of the Great Society and the rise of the counter-culture. It is bread and circuses all over again.

The barbarians are within and at the gates.

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Related posts:

On Liberty

The Interest-Group Paradox

Rethinking the Constitution: “Freedom of Speech, and of the Press”

Well-Founded Pessimism

America: Past, Present, and Future

IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition

The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union

“We the People” and Big Government

The Culture War

The Fall and Rise of American Empire

O Tempora O Mores!

Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America

1963: The Year Zero


How Democracy Works

“Cheerful” Thoughts

How Government Subverts Social Norms

Turning Points