America’s families face stagnating wages, excessive tax burdens, rising health and higher education costs, barriers to mobility and work, disincentives to marriage and childbearing, and an economy increasingly held back by over-regulation, cronyism, institutional sclerosis, and mounting public debt. And each of these problems has been greatly exacerbated by a federal government that is overreaching, hyperactive, unwieldy, and immensely expensive.
Some conservatives have concluded that the best we can do is restrain the growth of this government, to ensure that the liberal welfare state doesn’t grow any further or do any more harm. Yuval Levin argues that while restraining the growth of government is essential, it is not enough. Conservatives must offer an alternative to the fundamentally prescriptive, technocratic approach inherent in the logic of the liberal welfare state. While the Left seeks to impose order on the chaos and complexity of a free society through the use of centralized government programs, the Right seeks to protect, defend, and revitalize the space between individuals and the state. This is the space in which families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and private businesses are constantly finding new solutions to new challenges, and it is the space that is most threatened by the growth of government.
For conservatives, the role of government is to enable and sustain markets and other arenas of common action, ensuring competition, aiding the development of physical infrastructure and human capital, protecting consumers and citizens, and allowing the poor and vulnerable to participate along with everyone else. In practice, this means avoiding centralized programs that impose wholesale solutions from above in favor of those that enable a bottom-up, incremental, continuous learning process.
The conservative reform agenda aims to replace a failing liberal welfare state with a lean and responsive 21st century government worthy of a free, diverse, and innovative society. The following chapters are an attempt to show what such a government might look like, and how it could help the poor to rise, lift burdens off the shoulders of working families, end cronyism and special privileges for those at the top, and prepare America to flourish again.
Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs, and the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.