By Jason Reese
Not since William F. Buckley assembled the first stable of writers at National Review has the intellectual ferment on the right been so vibrant. Not since Russell Kirk completed his great work, The Conservative Mind, has conservatism been so well restated for the needs and anxieties of a new age. This time the roles of Buckley and Kirk are being filled by one man, Yuval Levin.
Mr. Levin is the ringleader of the highly influential group known as the Reform Conservatives, or “Reformicons,” which have filled the pages of National Affairs and produced policy-laden books such as A Time for Governing and Room to Grow.
Mr. Levin is back at it with an essay in Modern Age, “The Roots of a Reforming Conservatism,” which serves as a sort of a basic apologia for the movement. The central thesis of this essay, and of the Reformicon movement more generally, is that after a century that witnessed the administrative state ushered in by Wilson and transformed into the welfare state by FDR and LBJ, the need for conservatives is not merely to pare back the size of the state, but rather to rethink the very structures of the modern state. In other words, the Right cannot merely be a cheaper version of the Left.
The Reformicon agenda as articulated by Mr. Levin seeks above all to reinvigorate what social scientists call the “mediating institutions” of society; that is, the institutions between the individual and the state that mediate between the two and serve as breathing space. Lest we fall into the Progressive trap of abstraction, let us consider the policy proposal that best exemplifies the Reform Conservative approach: school choice.
School choice relies above all on the mediating institutions of society. The parochial system relies upon the Church. Charter schools rely upon the kind of localism that used to characterize public education in its earliest manifestations. Independent private education relies upon the American genius for association that so fascinated Tocqueville. This is so because school choice avoids the false choice of statism and libertarianism. Government can focus on what it can do effectively (sometimes too effectively), namely transfer payments, and leave administration and vision to those with a greater stake in the outcomes.
Okay, very well and good, but why is Mr. Levin’s contribution needed? The answer is that while conservatism from Burke on has been built on these ideas, the language used to communicate these ideas has taken the form of markets—and rightfully so. Conservatives do so because market-language allows them to frame their goals in addressing public-policy problems as attempts to “(1) allow different service providers to try different ways of meeting the need in question; (2) enable recipients or consumers of those services to decide which approaches work for them and which do not; and (3) thus provide clear evidence for which approaches should be kept and which should be dumped.”
On the other hand, progressive policy avoids these three goals. “Administrative centralization and regulation proscribe experimentation; beneficiaries of services are not the ones who decide what is working and failing; and special interests grow around existing programs, making it hard to eliminate failures.” Just ask Mayor Emmanuel of Chicago about that last point.
School choice is decentralization in action. The history of education in America from Horace Mann to the very recent past is one of decentralized creation and then forced centralization, first by state government, and later by the Feds. The trend is now in the other direction. Charter schools, private schools, and even more so, homeschooling, are distributions of power from the center.
After more than a century of progressive governance, punctuated only by small periods of conservative retrenchment, the time has come for a Conservatism that returns to its Burkean roots and focuses on reform. Failing to do so would be to buy into the status quo—a Progressive status quo that is not working. The state of America’s schools (with the exception of much of higher education, where many of the principles of school choice are already in place) is proof positive of this assertion. Mr. Levin’s approach to policy is best seen in education but is applicable clear across the spectrum of public affairs. Just for a moment imagine a reform-minded Right in the years that led to the creation of Obamacare rather than a Right merely focused on a cheaper status quo. Here’s hoping conservative policy makers have some imagination.
Guest blogger Jason Reese (J.D., University of Oklahoma) is a partner in the Oklahoma City law firm Meyer & Leonard and a former staff attorney for the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He currently serves as president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the Federalist Society. His views are his own.
By Jason Reese