High standards but low expectations

Nice little summary from Yuval Levin of the small-c conservative political philosophy, with a little libertarianism thrown in.

Conservatism inherently points in this direction for reasons that are anthropological, sociological, and epistemological (if you’ll pardon my street slang). We conservatives tend to see the human person as an incorrigible mass of contradictions: a fallen and imperfect being created in a divine image, a creature possessed of fundamental dignity and inalienable rights but always prone to excess and to sin and ever in need of self-restraint and moral formation. This gives us high standards but low expectations of human affairs and makes us wary of utopianisms of all stripes. It also causes us to be more impressed with successful human institutions than we are outraged at failed ones, and so to be protective of our inheritance and eager to build on the longstanding institutions of our society (rather than engineer new ones) to improve things because they are likely to possess more knowledge than we can readily perceive — and more than any collection of technical experts, however capable, is ever likely to have.

This anthropology informs our sociology. The conservative vision of society is moved by a low opinion of the capacity of individuals to address complex problems even as it is informed by a high regard for the rights and freedoms of those individuals. It therefore seeks for social arrangements and institutions that counterbalance human failures and encourage individual moral progress while respecting human liberty and dignity. And it finds these in the mediating institutions of a free society — families, communities, civic and religious groups, markets, and more — that stand between the individual and the state.

And this regard for mediating institutions is reinforced by our sense of the limits of human knowledge and power. Because we think the human person is a fine mess, and because we think societies and their members flourish through the mediating institutions, we are very skeptical of claims to rational control and technocratic management. We think large social problems are too complicated to be amenable to centralized technical solutions and instead require decentralized, bottom-up, local, social solutions. Societies evolve and improve and solve practical problems not by jerks of authority from above but by diffuse, decentralized trial and error from below. Allowing society’s institutions and members the freedom for such efforts is more likely to make society smarter than allowing technical experts to manage large systems.

Libertarians frequently share that latter view, and at times also share the two former ones, while progressives generally stand opposed to all three in practice and (to the limited extent they now articulate their views of things) in theory or principle. This has a lot to do with why conservatives and libertarians often agree, and it also helps explain some of the instances in which they don’t.

I think our agreement about the power and importance of decentralization is particularly significant now, because American society is changing in ways that make our approach to addressing society’s problems especially important. America in the decades after World War II—nostalgia for which now utterly saturates our politics—was populated by two generations of citizens (those who grew up in the Depression and the war and their children, the baby boomers) peculiarly formed to have great trust in big institutions, and it was dominated by just such institutions: big government, big business, big labor, big media, big universities, mass culture. But in every area of our national life—or at least every area except government—we are witnessing the replacement of such large, centralized institutions by smaller, decentralized networks.

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