Yuval Levin, who was an aide to Newt Gingrich and to George W. Bush, is one of the most prominent intellectuals on the center-right, and his new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, is characteristically brilliant.
The book is both a diagnosis and a prescription.
In the diagnosis department, the book insightfully faults both conservatives and liberals for excessive nostalgia for the supposed golden age of the late 1950s or early 1960s. He traces this to the dominance of the Baby Boom generation: "our political, cultural, and economic conversations today overflow with the language of decay and corrosion, as if our body politic is itself an aging boomer looking back upon his glory days."
He reads the 20th century as divided into a first half featuring "excessive centralization" and a second half featuring "excessive individualism." He concludes that we "cannot go back to midcentury America" but instead should ask, "how can we make the most of the opportunities afforded by the dynamism and the freedom set loose by America's postwar diffusion while mitigating its costs and burdens, especially for the most vulnerable among us?"
He's refreshingly sensible on income inequality: "Wealth is not a social problem, but poverty is….[T]he end is not combating inequality as such, but combating immobility."
And he adds his voice to the increasing number of those denouncing what he calls "the oppressive array of licensing and professional-certification requirements in many states."
In the prescription department, Levin recommends a focus on revitalizing what he calls the "middle layers" between the individual and the federal government—the family and local communities and institutions of all sorts, including churches, charities, local governments, and small businesses.
There are parts where Levin gets it wrong. He blames the Reagan tax cuts for producing short-term "large budget deficits," and he faults the 1980s for their "public displays of wealth."
I think he has immigration wrong, too, decrying the lack of assimilation by Latin American immigrants while somehow failing to mention the counterexamples of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. He's much more pessimistic than I am about the potential of immigration to aid American economic growth. The treatment of immigration is probably my biggest quarrel with the book.
There is a throwaway reference to "the implications of in vitro fertilization technologies for the commodification of life" that I also found objectionable. What about the implications of banning IVF, as some social conservatives would apparently prefer, on the lives of infertile couples, or on the lives of the 60,000 or 70,000 Americans each year who are born that way and who otherwise would not exist at all?
As a Jewish reader, I found this to be a very Jewish book. It begins by saying, "life in America is always getting better and worse at the same time," an observation that reminded me of Saadia Gaon's statement in The Book of Beliefs and Opinions that, "all well-being in this mundane world is bound up with misfortune, and all happiness with hardship and all pleasure with pain, and all joy with sorrow." Levin's effort to locate a space between the extremes of statism and hyper-individualism struck me as a classic Maimonidean mean.
Levin doesn't show much leg, or even ankle, in the Jewish department, leaving readers only with the sentence: "There are many social conservatives who aren't religious, or who are adherents of religions other than Christianity (like me)."
Worse than the reticence is his claim that "the Judeo-Christian moral vision is not, at its deepest and most fundamental level, a political vision, so its enactment does not require (and in some ways is surely even undermined by) control of the commanding heights of society." What that means for the modern state of Israel is unexplored, as is the consequence of melding the arguably distinct Jewish and Christian moral visions into a joint "Judeo-Christian moral vision."
But these comments are intended as friendly peer review. Thomas Sowell has usefully reminded us of the damage wrought by intellectuals. If more of them were like Yuval Levin, the country would be in better shape.