Great letter from Yuval Levin, one of the essayists in Room To Grow, the reform conservative book you can download for free here. I post it with his permission:
Many thanks for the post today taking note of “Room to Grow,” and taking up David Brooks’s thoughtful discussion of it. I write, though, to take issue with how you characterized the approach of that book (I am one of its authors and editors). I agree very much with the two concerns you raised as a general matter, but I don’t think they’re properly directed to the book and its approach. On the contrary, I think you’d probably find the book congenial to your approach on both fronts.
On the first point, about giving working families more control of their own resources to address the problems they confront, one quick specific point and one general one: You rightly complain about the complexity of the tax code and the difficulty of doing your taxes, and the tax proposal in “Room to Grow” would make the code far, far simpler (in the process eliminating provisions that essentially transfer income upward by providing larger benefits to people with larger incomes), and it would combine that with a significant tax cut for families with children under age 18 in the home. That cut would not only reduce people’s income-tax liability while they are raising children but also their payroll-tax liability, which is the tax that most burdens working families and yet one that both Republicans and Democrats have tended to leave out of their approaches to tax relief. It would do this to offset the excessive burden (and in some respects double taxation) that our tax and entitlement system now places on parents. And benefitting from it would not require families to deal with any additional complexity or paperwork or bureaucracy.
There already is a per-child tax credit in the tax code, which people do not leave on the table because it just requires them to note how many children they have. Increasing its size wouldn’t make it more complicated, and it would provide the families you’re describing with more money in their pockets to meet their needs. I don’t think it’s fair to say that people couldn’t handle that.
But I think there is a deeper problem with the description you offer, which is that it implicitly accepts the radical individualism of today’s progressives and libertarians and explains the proposals in the book as devolving power simply to individuals. But what these proposals are about involves using the institutions of civil society, the market economy, and local and state government to address problems from the bottom up rather than expecting the federal government to be able to do so from the top down. I think we should be very careful not to adopt the progressive assumption that anything that is not a national program is an individual responsibility and leaves people on their own to take care of themselves. Most of American life happens in the space between the two. And while Brooks is certainly right that this space has been enervated and cleared out by the liberal welfare state for decades (and therefore that just pulling the federal government out of that space and expecting things to function well is not enough), surely a key step in beginning to reverse that enervation must be to put power back into that space—to make it an attractive place for capable problem-solvers to enter.
That doesn’t mean people living in terribly chaotic circumstances are expected to just help themselves. It means that people who are within actual human reach of those in need are given the authority, the means, and the incentive to attempt different ways of helping them and to keep those that succeed. I think that’s a much more realistic way of thinking about how human beings deal with problems than the expectation that paternalism on a national level can succeed.
Surely that is not one of the things the federal government has shown itself capable of.
And this connects to the second point of Brooks’s which you raised and quoted. I entirely agree that it is a dangerous thing to be naïve about greed and about the human capacity to mistake self-serving arrangements for just ones. But again, how does persisting in highly centralized administration address that problem? The fundamental problem Brooks points to is the problem of concentrations of power in our society. Some degree of such concentration is obviously unavoidable, but the question is whether government policy puts itself squarely on the side of the concentration of power or on the side of the diffusion of power. The latter certainly seems more likely to counteract (a little) the sort of problem Brooks rightly points to.
His concern, which you cite and agree with, only points toward more federal power if we expect the federal government to use its centralized power to offset the power of large, consolidated institutions in American life. But that is obviously not what has happened since the Second World War, and especially in the last few years. We have instead seen the federal government put itself behind the cause of consolidation in one area after another of American life, and put itself at odds with every decentralizing and diffusing tendency in our economy, culture, and politics. That needs to be resisted and counteracted to some degree, which can really only happen if we pursue public policies motivated not by a desire to just have less of the liberal welfare state but by a desire to have a government that is in better accord with the character, inclinations, and traditions of American society.
I’d close with a thought about how all this relates to what’s happening in American culture at this point. At the core of the argument for the particular kind of decentralization of administration proposed in many of the chapters of “Room to Grow” is a vision of American society which is very much contested between the left and right. It is, again, a vision that consists not just of individuals and the state but of a vital expanse between the two in which Americans really live their lives and in which we are formed for liberty, properly understood. Progressivism, from its outset, has viewed the institutions that occupy that space with great suspicion (viewing them as vestiges of backwardness and prejudice, or power centers lacking in democratic legitimacy), and has sought either to co-opt them to the cause of national policy or to crowd them out with such policy. We see both on display in spades in our own time, and they are particularly employed to put pressure on religious institutions that occupy that space, and that are being compelled to choose between becoming arms of government policy of which they disapprove or becoming far less relevant to the life of the nation.
The fights we are now having about religious liberty are extensions of this broader struggle between a centralizing, flattening tendency in our politics and a more traditional view of American society in which the complex social topography of our society is the source (and in key respects the point) of our freedom. The preservation of that space between the individual and the state, and the reinforcement of the institutions that occupy it and of the vital work they do, is essential to the preservation of the vitality of our culture—including our political culture. The idea that we can collapse that space and effectively replace what happens there with competent technocratic administration was always a preposterous fantasy. And the notion that the damage wrought by attempts to do that means that we can no longer resist and reverse such attempts strikes me as an underestimation of the capacity of our society, in practice, to revitalize itself over time.
The effort to undertake such resistance and revitalization obviously must not be naïve about either the competence of individuals or the ubiquity of human sinfulness. It is, I would venture, precisely the progressive experiment from which we hope to help the country recover that embodies both of those forms of naiveté. And while it is true that some forms of libertarianism can exhibit that same combination in a kind of mirror image, I don’t think that the conservatism you would find in “Room to Grow” could fairly be described as evincing it. The vision that motivates that book is in significant part a reaction against radical individualism (and its inevitable consequence, technocratic statism).
Above all, though, any effort truly free of that naiveté has to be humble about its own potential, and we certainly seek to be so. Incremental, bottom-up problem solving can only work very modestly and gradually. Its advantage over today’s welfare state is not that its promises are grander (or as grand) but that its means and ends are more plausible and better suited to human nature and to the country’s circumstances.
I hope you’ll have a look at the book and see if it is in fact a promising start along those lines. I think it is; but surely it is just a start. You’ll also find that, while this note has had to be rather abstract, the book is very concrete and practical—directed to helping American families deal with the particular problems they confront here and now.
Again, download the book here. Thanks to Yuval for such a thoughtful letter.