Yuval Levin argues that the president’s Roanoke speech illustrates a broader belief that doing things together means doing things through government. The mediating institutions between the individual and the state thus get short shrift in his worldview. This difference of opinion regarding the role of civil society represents, in Yuval’s view, a fundamental divide between the left and the right:
The Left tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it enables the application of technical knowledge that can make our lives better, and that this knowledge can overcome our biggest problems. This is the technocratic promise of progressivism. The Right tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it has evolved to channel deep social knowledge through free institutions — knowledge that often cannot be articulated in technical terms but is the most important knowledge we have. For the Left, therefore, the mediating institutions (and at times even our constitutional forms) are obstacles to the application of liberal knowledge. For the Right, the mediating institutions (and our constitutional forms) are the embodiment of liberal knowledge.
Earlier in the article Levin provides some interesting perspective:
This remarkable window into the president’s thinking shows us not only a man chilly toward the potential of individual initiative, and not only a man deluded about the nature of his opponents and their views, but also (and perhaps most important) a man with a staggeringly thin idea of common action in American life.
The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.
But most of life is lived somewhere between those two extremes, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the middle ground — the family, civil society, and the private economy — to thrive in relative freedom. Obama’s remarks in Virginia shed a bright light on his attitude toward that middle ground, and in that light a great deal of what his administration has done in this three and a half years suddenly grows clearer and more coherent, and even more disconcerting.
This attitude toward mediating institutions is by no means novel or unique to the Obama administration. It has been essential to the progressive cause for more than a century, and indeed has been an element of more radical strands of liberalism for far longer than that. As far back as 1791, Thomas Paine, in defending the French revolutionaries, complained of the distance that traditional institutions established between the citizen and the regime, which he described as an “artificial chasm [that] is filled up with a succession of barriers, or sort of turnpike gates, through which [the citizen] has to pass.”
Conservative voices have defended these mediating layers precisely for creating such barriers, which can guard the citizen from direct exposure to the searing power of the state. Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated America’s bewildering array of associations, institutions, and corporations of civil society for their ability to offer individual citizens some protection from the domineering sway of political majorities.
Edmund Burke, Paine’s great nemesis, argued that such mediating structures also express in their very forms the actual shape of our society — evolved over time out of affectionate sentiments, practical needs, and common aspirations. “We begin our public affections in our families,” Burke wrote. “We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill.” To sweep them away and leave only the citizen and the state would rob society of its sources of warmth, loyalty, and affinity, and of the most effective means of enacting significant social improvements.The second article mentioned here expresses conservative sentiments as follows:
Slapping down multicultural nonsense and relativism will be an essential part of restoring the ability for self-government.Conservatives do have solutions. Our answer is not “no government”; our answer is a government that is more natural. Choice and diversity, if entrusted to people, require — and create — economic freedom. Conservatives need to learn the language of the environmental and civil-rights movements, not only because it is more marketable, but also because it more accurately reflects the organic liberty and self-government we cherish.
Our theme, our brand, our identity? How about this: Republicans are the not the party of a decaying, old, static, industrial-age, top-down government in Washington. We are the communications-age party of genuinely democratic, dynamic government — of, for, and by real people. We want to get money and power out of Washington and into the hands of the people — not because we want no government, but because we believe people who live in liberty create the best government when they are trusted to govern themselves. Ours is a purpose-driven populism, determined to change Washington, because if we do that, Americans can achieve anything in the world.
Fellow conservatives, let’s learn to say it: We need more government, lots of it, but we need the kind that actually works: Bottom-up self-government by a mature people. And we need that government in our hands — because it is not natural, efficient, or beneficial to leave something so powerful in the hands of anyone else.
The most poignant assessment of the remarks are here as provided by Virginia Postrel:
By trampling on bourgeois liberty and dignity, rhetorically and otherwise, the President has done more damage than he knows. He has also revealed something important to anyone paying attention.Although his supporters pooh-pooh the controversy, claiming the statement has been taken out of context and that he was referring only to public infrastructure, the full video isn’t reassuring. Whatever the meaning of “that” was, the president on the whole was clearly trying to take business owners down a peg. He was dissing their accomplishments. As my Bloomberg View colleague Josh Barro has written, “You don’t have to make over $250,000 a year to be annoyed when the president mocks people for taking credit for their achievements.”
“Bourgeois Dignity” is both the title of a recent book by the economic historian Deirdre N. McCloskey and, she argues, the attitude that accounts for the biggest story in economic history: the explosion of growth that took northern Europeans and eventually the world from living on about $3 a day, give or take a dollar or two (in today’s buying power), to the current global average of $30 -- and much higher in developed nations.
That change, she argues, is way too big to be explained by normal economic behavior, however rational, disciplined or efficient. Hence the book’s subtitle: “Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.”
Something bigger was at work. McCloskey’s explanation is that people changed the way they thought, wrote and spoke about economic activity. “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” she writes, “a great shift occurred in what Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘habits of the mind’ -- or more exactly, habits of the lip. People stopped sneering at market innovativeness and other bourgeois virtues.” As attitudes changed, so did behavior, leading to more than two centuries of constant innovation and rising living standards.
There had always been enough capital. What was different, she maintains, is how people thought about new ideas. Creative destruction became not only accepted but also encouraged, as did individual enterprise. “What made us rich,” she writes, “was a new rhetoric that was favorable to unbounded innovation, imagination, alertness, persuasion, originality, with individual rewards often paid in a coin of honor or thankfulness -- not individual accumulation restlessly stirring, or mere duty to a calling, which are ancient and routine and uncreative.”
McCloskey’s book is not only a useful survey of how scholars answer the biggest question in economics: What causes growth? It is also a timely reminder that prosperity depends on more than effort or resources or infrastructure or good laws. Attitudes matter, too. You don’t build a wealthy society by deriding bourgeois enterprise -- or the people who take pride in it.