Russ Roberts

Yuval Levin on The Fractured Republic

EconTalk Episode with Yuval Levin
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The%20Fractured%20Republic.jpg Yuval Levin, author and editor of National Affairs, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in his latest book, The Fractured Republic. Levin argues that both major political parties suffer from a misplaced nostalgia--a yearning for a time when things were better even though the policies that created those good times are no longer as relevant to today. Levin argues for a strengthening of the intermediate institutions--institutions between the individual and the government such as religious communities and other non-profits as a way toward a better life for Americans.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: June 16, 2016.] Russ: Now this is an ambitious book that tries to analyze where America has been, where it is now, where it might be going. I found it very thought-provoking. Let's start with where America is now. You argue that both Republicans and Democrats suffer from a nostalgia for the past. Explain. Guest: Well, that's right. So, the book begins from the intense frustration that is overwhelming our public life now in America. And it's so evident in our politics in so many ways. One of the things you'd want to do to understand that kind of frustration and its sources is really to listen to how it's expressed in our politics. When you listen, you find that our political life is just drenched in a kind of nostalgia--in a very widely shared sense that America is not what it used to be; that's another way of expressing a lot of the slogans you hear in our politics--and that we've lost ground fast from a peak that a lot of Americans can still remember. And exactly where you put that peak does vary some from Republicans to Democrats. For a lot of people on the Left, that peak is really mid-century America, in that moment when we had enormous confidence in large institutions, in big government, in big labor, in big business to solve the kinds of challenges we have alongside a liberalizing culture. There are some people on the right who miss that time, above all, also: the New York Times in April asked Donald Trump, 'When was America great?' And he started talking about the 1950s, the early 1950s. For some people on the Right, of course, the time they miss was the 1980s, which was a kind of resurgence of something of that mid-century America but with more of a market orientation and more dynamism. But in both parties on all sides of our politics there's a powerful sense that the recipe for revival is a recipe for return. And very often we find our elections presented to the public as a choice among nostalgias: Should we go back to the economy of 1965 or 1981? Should we take the country back to the Great Society, or to the Reagan revolution? And of course, that makes it difficult for us to confront some 21st century realities. And it strikes the public as disconnected. Because in a lot of ways it is disconnected. So, it's not that there's no place for nostalgia in political life. I certainly think there can be. But the trouble is that our kind of nostalgia is so intense that it blinds us to some of the ways that our country has changes since those times that we miss so much. Russ: Yeah. We could debate where the nostalgia plays out in the most way, you know, given the Democratic nominee being Hillary Clinton--she's going to sell some nostalgia for the 1990s, when growth perhaps was more equal-- Guest: Yep-- Russ: Or times were better. That's a natural political idea. It takes some ideas that we know worked in the past. Maybe they'll work again. I think that sells well with the electorate regardless of how nostalgic they are. But you argue--and this is what's at the heart of the book--you argue that the conditions that made the policies--forget the attitudes toward the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, 1990s--you argue that the policies that worked well in those times are poorly matched both by Republicans and Democrats, they are poorly matched to the culture and the economy that we have now. [?], and you talk about both. Which is what makes it such an interesting book. So, what has changed since the 1950s, or the 1980s, and maybe even the 1990s that makes those old-style policy ideas likely to be failures? Guest: Yeah. So, in a sense this is why the book is called The Fractured Republic, because what our nostalgia, what the particular kind of nostalgia we tend to be subject to causes us to miss, or to be a little blind to, are some of the most fundamental ways that our country has changed since those times that we miss. And it seems to me that at the core of a lot of that is fragmentation--is the fracture of what was in the middle of the 20th century a very cohesive and consolidated American society. We don't think enough about how unusually cohesive and consolidated America was coming out of the Second World War, after the experience of the Depression; but even more than that, half a century of industrialization, of mass media, of progressive politics left American life intensely cohesive and consolidated and focused on national unity, on solidarity above individual identity and individualism generally. And what's happened since that time is the breakdown of that consolidated culture--the liberalization, we would say in a positive sense, or the breakdown in a negative sense--the culture has become much more fragmented; we have a lot more options, a lot more grooves and channels but much less of a single consolidated culture. Our economy has become much more fractured and fragmented; or in a positive sense, much more specialized--which is really how you build wealth in a capitalist economy. That's a good thing; and we have built a lot of wealth. But it means that there is, as people on the Left notice, much more inequality: that there is, as people on the Right tend to notice, less economic stability, less security. And that's in a sense the price of progress. The kind of ironic truth that it's so hard for everyone in politics to accept, that the book begins with, is that a lot of the problems that we have, the deepest problems we have in 21st century America are at the opposite sides of the coin of the greatest strengths that we have, the things that we like most--they are the price of progress. And so, we can describe our society as diverse and dynamic--and that's true. We can describe our society as fragmented and divided--and that's true, too. But what's really striking is it's all the same truth: we are describing the same thing. We are describing a society that was intensely cohesive and has grown more diverse and more fragmented. And that basic reality is what our politics should be dealing with: the question that our political life should ask itself is: How do you use the strengths of this diverse, dynamic society to address the weaknesses of this fractured, fragmented society? And we're just not asking that question, because we are so nostalgic.
7:29Russ: So, I want to get you to elaborate on this a little bit--the 'fractured and fragmented' idea--because, you are conservative; and the words 'fractured' and 'fragmented' have a--somewhat, or quite negative connotation. You concede many of the good things. Let me paint a rosy picture for a minute, and let you talk about why I'm over optimistic. So, I don't particularly think of cohesiveness or unity as a strong value. I'm more of a libertarian. And I think liberals have a little bit of a--they are torn between the value and the negative of these things. But let me paint it as a rosy one. Sorry for the long intro. So, since the 1950s, we're a lot more tolerant. We're a lot more open to individual expression. And that's mostly been an overwhelmingly good thing. There's much more opportunity for minorities, for women, for all kinds of different kinds of expression that were repressed in the 1950s and 1960s. And as you concede in the book, a lot of the social movements since the 1950s are a response to that cohesion that you are trying to describe. So, isn't that all good? What's the negative of all this freedom? Which it really is, at the individual level. What's bad about that? Guest: Yeah. Well, absolutely. I try to get across in the book that I absolutely agree, that these are good things. And I think more than that: our economy has a greater market orientation which has made us wealthier, has given us lots more options in every realm of life--which is a good thing. The people who missed the 1950s are not thinking about how constricted our cultural and social lives were in those times. The trouble is there is a back side to these same trends. And so, while it's true that there is less constriction, there is less social pressure to conform in American life, there is also less social order. There has been family breakdown that has tremendously dire consequences for too many Americans. There is less economic security, as we've had more economic dynamism: so, there's less stability, there's less of a chance for kind of lifetime employment of the sort that people talk about when they talk about what they miss about mid-century. So, the good and the bad have come together. And in a lot of ways, the bad is the price we pay for the good. And we don't want to give up the good. So, reversing course, even if it were possible, is not something we would actually want to do. My problem with nostalgia for mid-century or even for the 1980s is not so much that it's impossible to go back--though it probably is. It's also that we wouldn't actually want to go back--that there has in fact been very real progress. And to simply talk about going backward is to deny the reality of that progress. But as we say that, we also can't deny the reality of the price that we've paid. The price that we've paid in the kind of social stability and in the kind of social order and in the kind of economic security--and in the kind of national unity, which I do tend to value more: I'm a conservative. That certainly has been a price we've paid for all of this. And so the question is, how do we, as this society, as a society as diverse as we are, as a society that is as fragmented as we are, how do we address those challenges now? And I think that's the question that our politics has just failed to ask itself, both on the Left and the Right. Russ: Okay; we're going to turn to that in a little bit.
11:06I want to stick for a little bit with the analysis of the past, though. When I look at the Republican/Conservative policy positions of the last 25 years, I see--it's not so much a nostalgia for the past as a lack of imagination of what might go forward. Guest: Yeah. Russ: So, Republicans talk about smaller government; never do anything to implement it. Their nostalgia, policy-wise, is for lower taxes or lower tax rates in a world where government's getting bigger--which I view as irresponsible and a bit of a sham. Because I believe, as Milton Friedman did, that if you keep making government bigger, you are raising taxes. Period. You are just raising them in the future, because you are borrowing to close the gap today, and you are misleading people when you cut rates. There may be some supply-side effects--I think those are real--but they are small relative to the rest of the story. At the same time, I see--and I think you agree with this--that the Republicans/Conservative groups have lost the moral high ground. They've become the party of No. And they can't articulate a positive vision other than, 'Oh, we just need lower tax rates.' Am I being too uncharitable to the Conservative Movement in the last 25 years or so? Guest: I wish I could say you were being much too uncharitable. I think you are only being a little too uncharitable. It does seem to me that it's helpful to understand how we've come to this place by thinking about it through the lens of nostalgia in the following sense: that a lot of what conservatives have been doing over this period is offering Reagan's prescriptions over and over, without thinking about why those were the prescriptions he offered in the 1970s and early 1980s. And of course the reason they were is they were tailored to a specific set of problems, including high tax rates that seemed to stand in the way of growth; including hyperinflation. And the particular challenges we had--over-regulation of a particular sort, over-regulation of the kind of infrastructure of the economy--specific problems that we had in that moment, that if you were going to apply the general principles, the kind of vision of the good that conservatives bring to bear on public life to those problems, the agenda you would offer might look like Reaganism. The problem is, circumstances have changed. And so, if conservatism is the application of enduring principles to changing circumstances, I think where we've failed in our time is to take cognizance of the changing circumstances; and instead we're offering not enduring principles applied to changing circumstances, but an unchanging agenda that over and over is said to be the solution to whatever is the problem we might have. And over time of course it becomes less and less the right solution. And so to simply try to repeat it and replay it is not the right answer. And it does seem to me that there's a powerful element of nostalgia in the sense that: This is what worked; and so, to offer this again, this is what would work again. You find a lot of conservative politicians including some who are much too young to actually be nostalgic for the 1980s. I think of Ted Cruz in this respect. I have a lot of regard for Ted Cruz, but he did in this election just offer a very vague kind of appeal to the memory of Reaganism as a substitute for a policy agenda for 21st century America. And it's not effective, for one thing, which is important. But it's also just not right--it's not well-suited to the challenges the country faces. And so a 21st-century conservatism would look different. Russ: Yeah; you are really saying that you've got to diagnose the disease correctly before you put forth a cure. Guest: Exactly.
14:56Russ: Let's--I want to give you a chance to pick on the Left a little bit. So, you suggest that for the Left, the 1960s were in many ways the policy high point: The Great Society, the additions of various--really the underpinning of the current welfare state that we have in America came from either the 1930s or the 1960s. And it continues to be the case that the Left advocates for new national programs that give money or transfer resources in certain ways in certain situations, either because they are poor or they are ill or they need education. What's wrong with that? The Left would say, 'It's been working; we just need to do more of it.' Why is their solution outdated? What's inappropriate about that cure for the current set of illnesses we face? Guest: Well, again, I think that an enormous part of the problem here is a failure to contend with how the country has changed. And so the argument that this kind of centralized model of one-size-fits-all solutions, which is really built, I think you'd have to acknowledge, on the model of a kind of industrial economy approach to public policy, is not a good fit for our post-industrial economy and society. And the core problem with it is that it does not work--that it doesn't work in its own terms; that it's a horrendously inefficient way to achieve the ends that it holds out for itself. And very often it just simply fails to achieve those ends. So it seems to me that what you find on the Left is--in some ways even more obviously a function of nostalgia, where the economic argument of the contemporary Left very often comes down to: The economy has been failing middle class and working class people for 40 years, and what's required is a return to a period before the greater market orientation that we started to see in the 1970s. It's striking the way that they really say that the combination of economic arrangements of the 1960s is the recipe, is the secret sauce for success in America. And that was a highly regulated economy--regulated in a different way than we now think. In some respects the regulatory state is bigger now than it was then, but the economy was regulated at that point in such a way that the fundamental infrastructure of it--transportation, communication, the financial system was tightly controlled at the same time that unions were quite strong; and you had the beginnings of these large social programs that tried to apply in a fairly crude way a kind of recipe from Washington for addressing large social problems. And when liberals today turn to solving problems, they just want to do it again. So, when you turn to the challenges of the inefficiency of the contemporary health care system, a lot of which, by the way, is actually a function of Great Society programs--of Medicare and Medicaid--the solution is literally: Let's find just the right MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), let's make sure he gets just the right definition of health insurance, and then let's require everybody in America to buy what he's selling. That is, to put it mildly, not a 21st century solution to a serious problem we confront. So, you have this sort of desire to return to what was the model the last time the public had a lot of confidence in the Left's way of thinking. I would say, though, in terms of both the Left and the Right one important thing to understand about why we miss those times is that those periods offered a stable backdrop for liberalization. So, what you had in the 1960s was a very cohesive, stable backdrop for social liberalization, in particular, which matters to the Left I think much more than anything else at this point. You had a kind of social infrastructure that was very strong coming out of mid-century--strong families, high marriage rates, low divorce rates. And it created a stable backdrop for social liberalization--for the Civil Rights movement and the Women's Rights movement. And in a sense it's that stable backdrop for liberalizing that the Left now misses. And similarly, the Right--what we miss about the 1980s is the stable backdrop for economic liberalization--for driving our economy in more of a market direction. And of course, you can't return to that. You can't undo the liberalization that has changed the underlying society. But it's not hard to see why we would miss all that. Russ: Well, that liberalization interacts with the culture and there's these feedback loops that I think both the Left and the Right conveniently ignore. To pick on the Right for a minute--I have conservative friends who bemoan the state of the family, the state of marriage; but they are mainly talking about innovation liberalization. They don't seem to have noticed that traditional marriage is almost dead in America. It's at least endangered. I think the numbers that you quote are over 40% of children are born outside of marriage today. Guest: Right. Russ: I mean, that's a social change, it's a social experiment, or however you want to call it. We're going to find out how, we might find out, at least, what the impact of that is. But that's a revolution. That's a silent revolution in a key part of our society and culture that we're going through. And conservatives are worried about the constitutionality of gay marriage--I think they are missing what's really going on. Guest: Well, yeah. I think that in a sense there's a lot of dealing with symptoms, and not thinking about the much deeper causes. In a sense the arguments made about the vision of marriage, the idea of marriage that's presented by the argument for gay marriage is an argument that has to be taken up with--as you say, changes in American life that are half a century old. The beginnings of no-fault divorce--signed into law by the way by Governor Ronald Reagan in California in the late 1960s--already offers you a vision of marriage as basically just a contract; and you might say a lot of the social changes we've lived with since may have been a function of that. But surely if we think about those changes and the costs we've paid for them, we have to think about them as a product of a very long process of really transforming the way we think about some of our key social institutions, a process that people have wanted, very much, for various reasons--that's why it's happened--but at the same time has come with costs. And we do have to confront those costs in their implications.
21:48Russ: So, I want you to talk about those costs for a little bit. I'll start with what I see as--well, forget the introduction. When I look at what's wrong with the centralized federalized solution, the centralized nation government solutions to poverty, I see them focused very much on material things--income. And you'd say, 'Well, isn't that what poverty is about?' And the answer is, 'Partly.' But I think when people don't have a job, their lives are very different from when they do have a job, when they have a job that's rewarding, not just financial, their lives are very different than when they just have a job that they hate but that pays the bills. And I think the Left has ignored that. The Right doesn't pay much attention to it, either. But the Left has explicitly ignored that in its focus on minimum wage, universal basic income. And similarly, when I think about the changes in the family that we're talking about, on the surface they seem great. What's the big deal? To me, it's like the flip side of the poverty thing: 'We're going to fix it; we're going to give people money. So, we used to have this terrible stigma about divorce, about children being born out of wedlock. We've fixed all that.' What's the downside? Guest: Yeah, and look, I think it comes down to, ultimately--and this is part of the reason that it divides the Right and Left in the particular way that it does--a vision of how you understand society. Of how society has flourished. And ultimately it comes down to anthropology, to how you think human beings flourish. And so it seems to me that poverty, especially entrenched poverty, is unavoidably a function of a combination of economic and social forces. And getting out of entrenched poverty is a matter both of money and of a kind of social order, social structure: it requires stronger families; it requires functional communities. It certainly requires more material resources. The trouble is when you try to solve these problems centrally--when you try to solve them at a national level in a society as vast as ours is--you are going to fall back on purely economic, or that is, purely financial solutions. Because what government can do is send checks. And when it tries to do more than that--when it tries to manage and micromanage--it does it very, very poorly. So that a centralized approach to fighting poverty is either going to consist of just checks, or it's going to consist of very poorly-run social programs. And that's why it seems to me that when we think about poverty, when we think about how to fight especially deeply entrenched intergenerational poverty of the sort that too many Americans confront, we have to think in terms of solutions that work from the bottom up. We have to think in terms of the institutions that are not just the isolated individual and are not just the national government, but stand between the individual and government. Like the family, like the community, like the church and school; like the union, too; and like associations of business people. And like the private economy as a whole. That's how we solve problems in our country. That's how we solve complex problems. And it's much too simple to think you can solve those complex problems by moving money around in a centralized way. Ultimately it requires ways of helping people flourish. And that's why to me those centralized solutions are just not likely to be the answer. Russ: Say something about the family. What's wrong with the family getting a little more liberal--liberated? Less controlling? We get rid of [introduce?--Econlib Ed.] no-fault divorce so people aren't stuck in these dismal marriages; kids aren't growing up homes where parents hate each other. What's bad about it? Guest: Well, first of all it's important to acknowledge that there's a lot of good about it. Right? And so, that it's happened for a reason; and that when you enforce a certain model of the family, you do pay a price for that. And people pay a price in terms of their freedom, in terms of the opportunities that they have; and sometimes there's real oppression that happens; and there's no denying that. At the same time, the family is also the core, fundamental institution of society, the institution that provides us with the kind of security and stability and support and loving guidance that is just essential for people to thrive--especially in a free society where we don't just tell everybody what to do: we expect them to choose to do the responsible thing. Well, how do people come to choose to do the responsible thing? They are formed to become responsible free citizens of a free society, especially and above all, in the family. And so, when family begins to break down, when families don't have the capacity, don't have the resources to provide their members with the kind of support and guidance and moral formation that we ask of the family in our kind of society, then people don't have what they need. They don't have what they need to thrive. And you can measure that economically, where the best predictor of whether you are going to rise out of poverty is whether you live with married parents. You can measure it psychologically; you can measure it socially. There is no question that the breakdown of the traditional family has been an enormous problem for Americans at the bottom of the income scale, and makes it very difficult to get up from the bottom of the income scale. Now that fact does not negate the other fact, which is that the liberalization of family life in America has had positive consequences for many people, too. And so the question is: How do we live with the costs of the kinds of changes that we've wanted? Some of that requires a recovery of a more traditional model of the family. Some of that requires a recovery of the rest of our mediating institutions, finding ways to live with some of the problems that are created by the breakdown of the family. There's no simple formula. But I think we have to be aware of the costs, and aware of the problems. Russ: So, let me look at two areas where I think both Liberals and Conservatives confuse correlation with causation. So, as you pointed out, married families--children brought up in married families tend to do better than those who don't grow up in those families. I would think that encourages people to try to subsidize marriage. Which I think is a misunderstanding of what causation is, there. And similarly, people find that lower-income people have worse health; and they hope that, 'Oh, we'll give them money and they'll be healthier.' And that correlation isn't causal either. There's other things going on underneath. So, ironically, I think the Left looks at money--which is just weird--as a way to fix things; and the Right looks at culture. And I don't think either of those is going to work very well--either of those policies is going to work very well. Guest: Well, I would say what you are describing are both examples of looking at money. So, if the answer to the breakdown-of-marriage culture is to subsidize marriage, you are still looking at money. And it suggests that the reasons people don't get married when they might, have to do with economic incentives and that rearranging those economic incentives is going to cause people to change the kind of decisions they make about that. I think that's just very likely untrue. The evidence we have does not support that view. And we've had some tests of it. In the Bush years there was a pretty significant investment in these kinds of incentivizing-marriage programs of different sorts. I think it was a worthwhile experiment in the sense that it provided a very instructive null result. It achieved nothing. Essentially nothing measurable by social scientists. And it seems to me that a decision about whether to get married is not a decision that you make on the basis of the kinds of economic incentives that you see out of the corner of your eye, that might be changed a little bit by a little bit more money here or there, or changing some of the structure of the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit). I think those kinds of decisions are shaped by culture, in the sense they are shaped by your understanding of what the natural choice is to make in the situation you are in. Which you form by seeing what other people do, seeing what people who you respect and regard do in such situations; by hearing what it is they say to you about what a good life looks like. It requires functional communities; it requires a functional moral order. And that's why it seems to me that to the extent that there is a role at all for public policy in addressing these kinds of problems--and I do think it's going to be a limited role--it has to play out in a bottom-up way. That is, through the institutions that compose our society, not instead of them or around them. Because it's through the ways we live with these institutions that we make decisions like that in our lives. It's not ultimately about explicit economic judgments.
30:46Russ: Talk for a minute about feedback loops--interrelationships between some of these problems. So, when the welfare state gets bigger, the private ways we help each other gets smaller. That would be charity; and the family. The incentives to get married get smaller if you don't need a spouse to thrive, economically. And so, to what extent are some of our problems self-created? As an economist, I try to look at underlying economic forces, market forces, either cultural or economic, and the dynamism of our economy--which is mainly a very good thing--unleashes a lot of policy responses that I think often make the problem worse and then create a further demand for why I think we need to "do something". Our education system is a failure, beyond a failure. Aren't these really the root of the problem and almost everything else is just a symptom? Guest: Well, yes; I think so. I would describe the root maybe a slightly different way. It seems to me that a lot of the forces that operate on our society just by virtue of its being a free society are forces that encourage us to think of ourselves as isolated individuals. And so that discourage a way of thinking that understands human flourishing as a kind of social order and thinks instead of the flourishing of the individual. Now, there is a lot of truth in that. And it's really a lot of why our society is as wealthy and successful as it's been. But it can also be a dangerous misunderstanding, especially when it comes to people whose lives are not going well, people who need help, people who are in trouble. Our welfare state has a strong tendency to encourage that kind of isolation, because it unavoidably treats citizens as isolated individuals, and thereby encourages them to become more isolated by creating disincentives to marry, as you say, oftentimes to work. And so really to become integral in larger communities. And so I think there's no question that our welfare state has in some important respects, and this has been well documented for many decades of course, reinforce the kinds of problems that it was actually intended to solve by essentially misdiagnosing those problems, misunderstanding those problems as having to do exclusively with money. But I think there's a deeper issue here that's also been diagnosed for a long time and that really at least as far back as Tocqueville has been a part of how perceptive analysts of American life have thought about society, which is that the tendency to see ourselves as isolated individuals encourages us to think of our society as consisting of individuals and a national government and little or nothing in between them. And that of course creates enormous incentives to increase the size and the power and the role of that national government. That when we confront a problem, we think: How do we solve problems that we can't solve on our own? And the answer is the national government. That's essentially the logic of the second volume of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote it in the 1830s. And it has really played out in American life in the last century, where a certain kind of Progressive vision of American life has encouraged people to think of our society as consisting of individuals and the state; and government is the name for the things we do together, as Barney Frank famously said. And so we lose sight of those mediating institutions; and when we lose sight of them, we also weaken them. And our individualism and our centralization, which would seem like they are opposites, actually end up reinforcing each other and especially reinforcing one another's worst facets.
34:46Russ: Let's turn to those mediating institutions because I think most people might not know what you are talking about. So, when you think about--I think you are talking about family; you are talking about the workplace; you are talking about community; you are talking about religion. Guest: If you think about society as consisting of a kind of series of concentric rings, where at the center of it there are individuals, who form families; and working out from there, from the family, you have communities, you have religious congregations and institutions, and you have economic ones like labor unions and business associations; you have the larger free economy in general; you have the states, you have assorted kinds of regional affinities, and you have the national government. And each one of those concentric rings protects and secures the space for the one before it. And so makes possible for people to thrive in that smaller, closer-to-the-ground institution that precedes it. And so then actually government ultimately is there to protect the space in which that whole vision of society exists--to protect the space for people to thrive in those institutions between the individual and the state. That vision of society, that social vision that I would attribute to Edmund Burke, but that's been part of what we might think of as the conservative intellectual tradition at least since the 18th century--that seems to me like how a free society works. And if that's the case then those institutions in the middle--the family, the community, schools and churches, civic groups, the non-profit sector, the for-profit sector, various kinds of associations; and then government--those institutions are essential for our society to thrive. Particularly because it is a free society. Those are institutions where we do things together by choice: not because we are compelled, not because we are ordered, but because we choose to. And that's really where we live as free people. So it seems to me that the health of those institutions is necessarily for the health of the larger society. Russ: So, I couldn't agree with you. The question then is: Aren't you falling prey to the same nostalgia you are criticizing? Guest: Right. Russ: Which is: It would be great to have a world where labor unions, families, churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, etc. were thriving cooperative places that we joined willingly. Those are all dying. We've got a public school system, you've got to be in the neighborhood you live in and the entry price is the price of a house, which is really expensive for a good one, which is a disastrous way to organize the education of the next generation. Our families, we've already talked about. Work is much less secure. So, my relationship with my employer is very different than it was 50 years ago. You want to try to get that back? I mean, I'd love to. I'd much rather have those institutions empowered than the centralized government; and I certainly agree that the increase in the centralization has harmed all those institutions. With other factors, of course. How are we going to get there from here? Or, is that where you want to go? Guest: So, I--rather than wanting to get those back, it seems to me that that's where we want to move forward from here. And the difference between the two is that you have to begin by recognizing the character of our society. It actually seems to me that when you think about the structure, the nature, the character of contemporary society, those kinds of institutions offer a much better path to solutions than the kinds of centralized institutions that people on the Left tend to have as a goal, as a vision. The Left lives with the sense that greater centralization, social democracy, is the future. It is the wave of the future; and when you are on that side, you are on the side of the future-- Russ: That's where Europe is-- Guest: you are not-- Russ: That's the future by definition. Guest: Exactly. So, always, that seems to be where we ought to be headed. It seems to me that that is a particularly anachronistic way of thinking about the future. It's how the past used to think about the future. And the fact that the kinds of changes America has gone through have taken the form of greater fragmentation or greater diversity means that solving our problems now would better function by enabling a great diversity, a great multiplicity of problem solvers in different parts of our society rather than just hoping that one problem solver at the center is going to get things right. So, in other words, I think of subsidiarity or of Federalism or of this kind of decentralization as a form of modernization for America, not as a form of going back but as a form of adapting to how our country has changed in the last century but particularly in the last half century. It's not the case, it seems to me, that mid-century moment that people miss so much was actually a great peak for civil society in America, for the kinds of mediating institutions that I talk about. And if you read the sociology of mid-century America, Robert Nisbet is a great example here. So, Nisbet's wonderful book, The Quest for Community, a kind of call for a revival of these institutions, which feel so current to us now--that book was written in 1953. At a time when we would think of as the peak of those kinds of institutions. And what he says is: No. A half-century of Progressive politics, of centralization of everything, has crushed these institutions; and now they are also threatened by a kind of outbreak of radical individualism that threatens them from the other end. And he was right. I think that's a lot of what's happened. But that's why when we seek solutions--when we seek solutions to the practical problems that we have, how do we address the high cost of health care? How do we think about improving American education?--I think we have to seek those solutions through the mediating institutions. To revive them not by imagining that they are just sitting there waiting for us in the same shape they were in in the 19th century and we can just walk back in, that's certainly not the case. They've been badly damaged and terribly undermined. But in order to solve the kinds of practical problems that we have, the sorts of things that we expect policy to deal with, it seems to me that we need to work through those institutions in ways that will revive those institutions. And so we need a much more decentralized approach to public policy, a much more bottom-up approach to solving problems. I think that's better policy; I think it would be better for the soul of our society. I think it's also just more--it's better grounded in epistemology. We are just more likely to find answers that way than we are by trusting centralized expertise. And so for all these reasons it seems to me that our 21st century challenges really call for a politics of subsidiarity, not as a way of going backward--though certainly we should learn from the best of what America has done and did in the past--but as a way of going forward.
41:53Russ: It's hard to think about that, though, for me, because I think of that as a cultural problem. And I don't think we have a very good understanding of how to change culture. One way to do it is to write a book, of course, as you've done. I'll just take a couple of examples. A person in an unhappy marriage used to feel courageous going forward, for the sake of the children. And now I think that person feels like a sucker, or a fool. The natural impulse is to think about my own happiness, say, one's own happiness. I'm happily married, by the way--just not worried about my happiness; I think I'm doing good. And similarly, I happen to lead a religious life; but I can't remember a time when saying that felt awkward. So, when I say that on this program, listeners sometimes write me and say, 'I thought you were really smart. Why do you lead a religious life?' And I often respond, 'Either I'm not as smart as you think I am, or leading a religious life is something you don't know fully about.' When I say things like, 'Isaac Newton was religious,' they say, 'Well, he wouldn't be now. Because he'd be smarter. He'd know things that we didn't know.' And I think there's an incredible, among the elites, among the educated, there's a disdain for religion I've never sensed before. There's a disdain for staying unhappily married. And I think these cultural forces are very strong. Maybe there will be a backlash against them. But as someone like yourself as someone who wants to see those attitudes change, how do you start those in process? Guest: You know, in a sense my hopefulness on that front is rooted in my pessimism--in the following way. I think that a way of life that rejects that understanding of what is good, that understanding rooted in family, in faith, and in community, ultimately leads to dissatisfaction--and a kind of dissatisfaction that ultimately is rampant in American life now. I don't think that most Americans today would say that things are going great and they are simply satisfied. When you seek to better understand why and the particular ways in which people who are not satisfied are not satisfied, I think you run into something that's in very general terms could be described as isolation. Or loneliness. I think loneliness is the characteristic difficulty of contemporary American life in something like the way that being hemmed in or constricted or forced to conform was the characteristic anxiety of American life in the middle of the 20th century. And that anxiety led to the liberalization that we're now living with, the liberalization that I've been describing here. It was a response to that sense, that things were too tight, they were too constricted. I think we now live with the sense that we are too isolated. And too far apart from one another. And the way to make it apparent to our neighbors that there is an answer to that problem, it seems to me, especially above all, is just to live that answer. And to live it in thriving communities that are appealing and attractive to people who are looking for something. Now, not everybody is looking for something. A lot of people really are satisfied with their lives as they are, and that's great. I don't think they have to change if that's the case. But a lot of Americans--that includes people who are living in genuine despair and situations of tremendous difficulty and entrenched poverty or other sorts of problems, addiction--but it also includes people who are not but are just unsatisfied. I think that the kind of thriving community life rooted in family, also rooted also in faith that we're talking about here would appeal to a lot of those people as a kind of solution, partial solution, to the sorts of problems, the sorts of anxieties or frustrations that they confront. And so, in a sense, it's because I have a certain amount of confidence that the core vision of the good that seems to me to have made the free society possible is actually true, that I think that it will be appealing, that it will be attractive. If it's not attractive, it's not attractive. But it seems to me that it's not been given an opportunity to show its best self in the situation we're in, because of this century of centralization and then individualism. And because of a politics that is not attuned to the kinds of problems it ought to be trying to solve. Russ: I love that vision, of course. I don't see how the political process interacts with that in a positive way. I see it very negative. So, as there's a push for centralization, as you point out in the book, these intermediate institutions are struggling to survive. Just to take a silly example: When government is lecturing me about taking drugs, it makes it less of a market opportunity for a religious institution or the family or others or some non-profit to make that case; and instead it's always the nanny state that's in loco parentis, that's in the role of the parent telling me what to do. One size fits all. I just think it's a terrible thing. Guest: Exactly. So, it seems to me that changing that is the way in which public policy could play a constructive role. Not that there's a better way to run the Great Society: There's a better way to think about public policy than the Great Society. And that better way would argue for allowing what happens at the level of the community to matter much more. So that when you confront the problem of failed school system, the answer is not just to find a new superintendent, spend a little more money on the schools. The answer is to let parents have a say in where and how their kids are educated. That's one specific example of how this way of thinking about solving problems, both interacts with how we think about economics--it's much more of a market-oriented kind of solution--but also with how we think about the ways that human beings flourish and how can empower the institutions--in this case, the family--but also local schools and communities and civic institutions that might start a charter school and might work to give people options. Thinking about how to solve the problem that way--from the bottom up--seems to me is just a different approach to public policy. And moving from our current approach to that approach requires a lot of politics. It requires political action to change our sort of default assumptions about how public policy ought to work. I think something similar is true in welfare and in health care and really in all of what we think of as the major public problems that public policy ought to be dealing with. In a sense, the problems we have is not that we are not running the liberal welfare state in the right way. It's that we are running the liberal welfare state at all. And so, when consumers just focus on the size of government and give the public the impression that all we really want is a less costly version of the liberal welfare state, I think we do ourselves enormous harm. The problem with government is not just its size, or its cost. The problem with the American way of doing public policy is that it understands its purpose in quite a wrong way. And so, the approach I'm suggesting I think would make for much smaller government, and it would cost less. But what's most important about it is that it is that it would go about solving problems in ways that reinforce these kinds of institutions--and just have a better chance of working.
50:03Russ: Yeah. Well, it drives me crazy when people on the Right argue that we need smaller government because we need lower taxes, say, or because we need more freedom. Most people don't feel unfree. You could argue it's important. But it's not compelling. It does not convince the skeptic. And I've argued what we need more of is, when we talk about when government gets smaller, what do we get more of? We know what we get less of. We get less government and less spending and lower taxes. But if that's all it is, no one's going to go to the barricades for that better world, except a bunch of rich people who want to see their taxes go down--and that's just horrifying to almost everybody else. So, we need to articulate the vision that you're talking about; and I think it's the right way to go. We might differ on where it needs to be most important or strongest or whatever. Guest: I think, by the way, I think that's a way of thinking about a lot of different kinds of issues, where, a lot of people on the Right get wrong is that we are very adamant about what we want to say No to; but we are not at all clear--and this is true in the social issues, it's true in economic policy and social policy--about what we are saying Yes to. The kind of large, appealing, capacious Yes, for the sake for which some particular No is required. We do a very poor job--we take it for granted--and so we assume that all that's necessary is a kind of defense against evil. But in fact what's necessary is a case for the good. We should not imagine that our neighbors begin by sharing our assumptions about what would be better and what would be worse. We should explain those assumptions. And explain to them why we find them appealing, and why they should find them appealing. It's amazing how little of that is done by conservatives in American politics. Russ: Well, part of the marketing problem that this view has is that to some extent it's hard to articulate what we'll get more of, because we--almost by definition of why we're in favor of it--we don't know what it is. It's like when people say, 'Well, what will replace those jobs if we let those imports come in?' Well, I don't know. Because we're going to get to spend our money on the things we love, and we're going to have more money to spend when we get to import stuff at lower prices; and what that will be is unpredictable. Which means there's not really--not only is there not a coalition of interests to support it; there's also not much vision for people to get inspired by. Unless they want to study economics for a few years and realize that things happen sometimes that are great that are unplanned. I think our job as economists, and in your case as a cultural entrepreneur is to try to imagine what some of those things might be. It might not be exactly that; and part of that's what you do in your book. But I think we need a lot more of that if it's going to be marketed effectively about how these intermediate institutions are going to make our lives better. Guest: Yeah. And you know, I think it requires also approaching people where they are, and asking people, 'What is it that works about contemporary American life? And what is it that doesn't work?' I think forcing people to think about what's good about the ways we live now would help people see that what we're offering is really more of what's working. By offering people more options, by giving people choices, we open up the possibility of incrementally solving problems. And that's really how we solve problems. But I agree: it's very hard to paint that picture. I always think of the first four or five chapters of Hayek's Constitution of Liberty as just an amazing, eye-opening way. I've had the experience of reading that with undergraduates a few times. And it's an extraordinary way of showing people why this very, very counterintuitive way of thinking about how to improve the world ought to be attractive to us. But it's a great challenge to make that visible to people in a political debate.
54:02Russ: One thing we haven't talked about, and you don't talk about much in your book, is technology. In fact, I'm not sure you talk about it at all. And if all goes as planned, this episode will air after one with Kevin Kelly, which is a discussion of the inevitable forces that are pushing us forward. They make him an optimist. And yet I'd say many of the technological changes that we are in the middle of in terms of our ability to spend time on our devices and to live in virtual reality versus the real world, or to surf rather than to talk. Those are not helping, it would seem to me, some of the issues you are dealing with. Guest: Yeah. Russ: What are your thoughts on that? Guest: Yeah, that's true. I do talk about technology some in the book, but I would say that I actually tried to restrain myself from talking too much about technology on purpose. Because I think we assign too much of the credit and blame for what's going on in American life to technology now. And we look at certain kinds of social forces and we say, 'That thing's driven by the Internet.' Or 'That's driven by the development in bio-technology' here or there, when in fact what we're seeing are deep social forces that have been at work for a long time in a particular way. And then technologies arise that are adapted to them, that are well suited to them; and those become popular. So, I wouldn't want to overstate the role of technology in a lot of these changes. I've tried to think about technology quite a bit in recent years; I wrote a book about the science debates in our politics called Imagining the Future, back in 2008. And in a sense, in this book, I tried explicitly not to put technology at the center of the story, because I think technology serves us and technology takes the forms that we want it to take. Now, it obviously does transform the human experience in ways that, without question, have social implications and can set loose their own forces that independently become very, very important in how American life evolves. But I don't think that the changes we're seeing are fundamentally about technology. And so, even to the degree that they are exacerbated by technology for better or for worse, I--it makes more sense to me to think about them in terms of what it is we want and what that means we ought to do. Which basically is what politics in a free society is all about. And it's almost cheating a little bit to think about these things in terms of technology as if they are inevitable and we are just observers in the unfolding of our own fate.
56:34Russ: Without going too deeply into the current political campaign--we are taping this in June of 2016, just before the political conventions get under way--I find the current state of politics in America deeply depressing. Guest: I do, too. Russ: And I don't want to spend any time on the particulars of the current choices. But it does seem to me that your vision of the good life, and a different kind of politics and a different kind of public policy does not have a home right now in the American political structure. And again, I'm going to accuse you a little bit of nostalgia: Maybe in the 1980s, the 1970s, you could have articulated your vision. Nobody seems to be interested in it right now, in the traditional two-party system. You are not alone; there are a lot of really thoughtful, smart people who think that there is a better world to be created by letting people create their own world. But it's not a libertarian vision, yours-- Guest: Right-- Russ: and it's not a Republican Party vision any more; and it's certainly not a Democratic Party vision. So, do you think this is an opportune time for a new party in America? Or do you think that one of the existing parties might come back to a vision more like the one you are articulating? Guest: Yeah. Well, you know, first of all I agree; and I've never been less satisfied with my choices as a voter in America. But it does seem to me that because the vision that I'm offering up is a conservative vision--which, you are right, is not a libertarian vision, and is also not where the contemporary Republican Party tends to be--but because it is a conservative vision, I think that there's a decent chance of its finding some meaningful audience on the Right in America in one way or another. It is certainly not the vision of Donald Trump; and it's not the vision in a lot of ways of the contemporary Republican Party. But I think what we are seeing in this campaign is the kind of cratering of the nostalgic social order that I begin the book with. I think we are going into a campaign where we are going to have two, essentially 70-year old, Presidential candidates yelling at each other. And it's going to feel to a lot of Americans much more like the end of something rather than the beginning of something. And I think that's about right. And the question is: What begins this phase, the kind of baby boomer phase of American political life, comes to a close in the ugly way in which it is coming to a close in this political year. And I think that because the approach that I'm putting forward--and as you say, I'm certainly not alone in doing so, is a modernizing kind of conservatism, one that is at home in the 21st century and I think is particularly well suited to the ways we live now, I think there's a decent chance that it can find an audience among voters whose instincts are conservative. And there are some politicians who have these kinds of instincts, as well. I think of people like a Ben Sasse or Mike Lee, genuinely communitarian-minded conservatives who are younger than our 70-year-old Presidential candidates and who are much more at home in the 21st century; who are not bewildered by modern American life--they don't react to it by just saying, 'I don't recognize my country.' They recognize it; they see the good and the bad. I think there are a fair number of voters like that. And it seems to me that you can imagine a generational transition on the Right that is informed by this kind of vision and so makes some room for it. But obviously I'm not sure about that. The only way to find out is to try. And it's what I and others, some in this kind of circle of people that I refer to as Reform Conservatives, and some among social conservatives more generally, and amongst some libertarians, and others, are trying to give voice to. I think that there is a real chance for it to meet with a welcoming audience; but we can't know in advance.


COMMENTS (36 to date)
nomenym writes:

Levin says that people don't really want to go back. That is, they can't have more economic security without sacrificing some dynamism, we can't have more social solidarity without sacrificing some social diversity, and so on. Levin says that people really prefer the dynamism and diversity, and if they really understood the trade-off, he implies, then they would stop yearning so much for the security and solidarity.

Now, he's surely right that a lot of people mistakenly believe they can have the best of both worlds, and that politicians are all too eager to cater to this misconception. However, if recent events suggest anything, it's that the general public and our economic, social, and political elites don't share a like mind about this. For very many people who are usually disengaged from politics, we long ago went too far in the direction of dynamism and diversity and a major correction is needed in favour of security and solidarity.

What is the correct trade-off? If those with a disproportionate influence over public policy and culture have reliably different preferences from the disenfranchised and less engaged, then we have a recipe for ever increasing anger and resentment until eventually a demagogue comes along who can mobilise an opposition movement.

FredC writes:

I think nomenym is correct, but I'm not so quick to use the term demagogue. Those in positions of extreme power and wealth who have greatly benefitted from the path we've taken use that term to label and deride anyone who even suggests a slow down, much less any narrow reversal of certain policies. Similarly used terms are misogynist, sexist, nativist, isolationist and of course the grandaddy, racist.

Anyway, the guest's book sounds great and I look forward to reading it. I hope that the book more deeply explores potential remedies (more charitable/religious organization involvement, etc) and how to get there, because the podcast was almost over when it got to the fix.

My non-professional economist view is that what we had when things were 'really good' (pick your decade), was lots and lots of good jobs. Stable, good jobs. As long as we have a bad labor participation rate, high turnover, job insecurity, and idle people, we will have malaise and discontent at ugly levels.

We need an American economy that is focused as much on producing jobs, as it is on producing (actually, "making available" is probably a better term) lots of cheap "stuff."

When people are working and can see a future, the other things (involvement in churches/organizations, stronger families, optimism, security, the ability and willingness to try to help the rest of the world) largely fall into place.

Some of the fixes, I fear, will result in name calling that few want to subject themselves to.

Jeff W writes:

Great episode! This is something very much on my mind and is a frequent topic of discussion within my family.

I would have love to have heard a compare / contrast of Levin's work v. Robert Putnam's observations in "Bowling Alone." From what I understand these authors are talking about the same phenomena, except Putnam is approaching it from the left. It would have been great to cover the existing literature briefly and then have Levin talk about points of agreement and differentiation.

Maybe that's too much to ask for in an hour-long podcast.

I think an interview w/ Matthew Desmond (Evicted) would be a fantastic followup to this episode. Evicted examines the trends covered here at the micro-level following the lives of several low-income families in Milwaukee. Now that EconTalk had an episode covering macro-level trends such an episode could illustrate what it all means for some of the most impacted families.

Phil writes:

Very interesting guest. Much to think about.

A minor comment: Levin's interpretation of Burke is very much that of a modern American conservative. Burke would certainly not have emphasized the voluntary participation of the individual in the institutions of family, religious community, etc. On the contrary, for Burke, individual rights and choice are subordinate to the rights of society and the community.

Todd Kreider writes:

Russ: Yeah. We could debate where the nostalgia plays out in the most way, you know, given the Democratic nominee being Hillary Clinton--she's going to sell some nostalgia for the 1990s, when growth perhaps was more equal-- Guest: Yep--


If one looks at post-transfer inequality as measured by the gini coefficient (OECD), there was no rise in inequality from 1993 to 2004:

1993 .37
1994 .37
1995 .36
1998 .36
2001 .36
2003 .37
2004 .36
2005 .38
2007 .38
2010 .38
2013 .39 (last year in table)

The difference between the Clinton years .36/.37 and recent Obama years at .39 doesn't seem large enough to make a case if someone looks at the numbers - and it also makes the current administration look worse than the Bush administration on inequality.

Jose writes:

Local institutions seem like a good idea.

But, the author does not answer the question of how are we to encourage these?

Right now, anyone can start a local church/mosk/synagogue. In fact, they are tax-free. In every city we have everything from small local one-room churches, to mega-churches that house fitness centers and Starbucks inside them. They provide not only religious services, but also daycare service, mission trips, Summer camps, Sunday school, substance abuse programs, etc.

Similarly, if you want to start a free medical clinic you can, and as a non-profit it will also be tax-free. All cities have many free medical clinics staffed by local MDs, and others, who donate their time. You are free to join them.

So, we have made them tax-free. They are flourishing. What more does the author think we can do?

Is he suggesting we reduce, say, Medicaid, so that more poor people will need free medical care, the lines will grow longer at the free medical clinics, and so there will be more of them?I don't think that will work. The number of doctors+staff that volunteer their time is not proportional to the demand. People volunteer their time because a) they feel its the right thing to do and b) they can (they make enough $ already).


Madeleine writes:

I really enjoyed this podcast! It is refreshing to hear a discussion of social issues that doesn't take a specific cultural side (i.e. pro/anti gay marriage). I think for too long discussions of social problems have been derailed by accusations of moralizing.

I grew up with a lot of the issues that Russ and Yuval have discussed. My family was areligious, divorced when I was young, we were in extreme poverty and had a generally poor social support network. These issues are all part of a toxic feedback loop that really shouldn't be ignored.

I fully support atheists and areligious people, but I do think it is irresponsible to neglect replacing the community fostered by common religion. Maybe we will see a boom in non-religious "church like" groups such as the Unitarian Universalists? I would have liked to hear Yuval and Russ's take on this phenomenon.

Cowboy Prof writes:

@Madeleine,

Interestingly, we did (past tense) see a boom in non-religious "church like" groups solving social problems and acting in a subsidiarity-like manner in the past. David Beito has written about "friends societies"(e.g., Elk Club, Friends of Eagles) in the 19th century that today we recognize only for their goofy rituals (cf. Simpson's Stonecutters episode), but in fact were self-help societies. Many of these clubs provided health services, including monthly visits at the club house by a dentist or doctor. They also pooled funds so as to insure members against accidents. Beito estimated that a very large percentage (possibly 75% or more) of the US population in the late 1800s had these kinds of clubs (or church communities) for them to provide basic social services. Many of these friends societies served ethnic immigrant communities. Humanity at its finest.

(Note: The silly public rituals that these groups engage in are often a filtering mechanism to weed out free-riders since such insurance clubs would attract people who want a payout without ever paying in - cf. Larry Iannaccone's work on sacrifice and stigma.)

Sadly, these clubs have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur and now you can see a few of them hosting Bingo Thursday for retired folks. The reason, I would argue, for their disappearance was that they have been increasingly crowded out by "Big Government" services. You can get widow or child support without having to wear a funny moose hat or attend lots of meetings.

I hate to have nostalgia for the past, but this kind of social support network could still easily work today if the institutional incentives were right. I can see many young folks longing for clubs (and not just the "raves").

P.S. You could dig back deeper for many other examples of subsidiarity in action as well.

George Balella writes:

Secularism is growing in America. The divide between the secularist and those of faith is not solved with more religious institutions. The bible- belt and the south have booming institutions of evangelical mega churches and yet they are angrier than ever. The secularist have for their part created record numbers of non-profits and NGO's to help their causes and Janine Rout Because the Prochoice position is far more humane. Can you imagine if vegans wanted the government to force everyone not to eat meat.They'd have IMO a more moral argument than the prolife person does trying to force their position on others. There is a heck of a lot of suffering for factory farms animals and still the fracturing is feels like it's a powder keg set to go off. It feels like pre- revolutionary France. I think history and plenty of social science studies show that one of the most divisive dangerous threats that breaks apart countries and societies is inequality. Not sure it was even brought up in this discussion. Also to me charity as a solution just feels like a tax on the chaitable that only leads to more inequality and more resentment. But alas I am indeed nostalgic for the 40's 50's and 60's when this fracturing seemed non-existent. I think it's far more than coincident that inequality was far less extreme during those decades.

Madeleine writes:

@Cowboy

I hadn't even thought about the Elks! My grandfather was an immigrant and an Elk. It seemed like a very welcoming community, but by the time I was born it really was mostly bingo nights. I have a lot of fond memories of learning to swim in the Elk community pool, but the organization itself never appealed to me -- maybe because they excluded women.

I'm a young person (24) and a member of several community groups to try and fill the void a bit. I use Meetup.org, host people traveling on Couchsurfing, have met real-life friends from political groups on Facebook and Reddit. I also am a member of a few women in engineering social organizations.

I do feel that these are a poor and fragmented substitute for religion, however. Mostly because these groups are all very stratified by social class (a topic of a previous Econ Talk!), which is a problem that I feel like a lot of nonreligious community groups share. Churches and synagogues seem like a way to bridge the gap across various backgrounds -- I think that does a lot for their impact on social mobility and so on.

There seem to be very few interests with thriving communities that are not so stratified. Maybe sports?

Also, the fact that most of these groups originate on the Internet is a high barrier to entry for most people. There is simply an element of trust missing ("no one knows you're a dog on the Internet") and I feel this chilling effect especially in political groups. It is a very real fear that anything you say that is even mildly controversial will be screen captured and plastered across Twitter etc.

For that matter, even an innocent sports misstep or some poor dancing skills are likely to be filmed or photograph, turned into a meme, and circulated endlessly for anyone and everyone to mock. I don't blame people who are just not willing to put themselves "out there" these days.

Ak Mike writes:

Dr. Balella - I can't speak for the 40's or 50's, but your memory of the 1960's as being "when this fracturing seemed non-existent" is radically at odds with my memory of that decade. What I remember is widespread urban rioting, rioting on campuses, numerous political assassinations, rioting at the Democratic convention, civil unrest and murders relating to civil rights conflict, and cultural divides far deeper than any now.

It is always tempting to engulf the past in a rosy haze of nostalgia, and I think it possible that Mr. Levin (and of course not him alone) has yielded to that temptation. Again, my memory does not run back to the period before the early 1960's, but in my view the civil rights movement and the war in Viet Nam created tensions in American society that far outweigh any existing today.

Mike B. writes:

An enjoyable episode!

For a libertarian like me, Levin's notion of individualism seems odd, much like an incorrectly conjugated verb.

For us, individualism is not isolationism, but rather the freedom to experiment with a variety of rich (as well as thin) social networks and institutions.

In fact, I suspect that you won't find many progressives describing their welfare state visions as individualistic: social contract, no man is an island, we have to live as a community, etc.

As Arnold Kling points out on his blog, this episode reminds him a bit of Brink Lindsey's book, Age of Abundance.

Both Lindsey and Levin come from different places, but are dancing around the same camp fire.

Speaking of, it would be great to hear Brink Lindsey again on Econtalk. He's not been on in a while.

Kevin writes:

Interesting discussion. I will need to read the book for more details, but Levin continually commits something close to the epidemiological fallacy as he says we have had some good, but the flip side of the coin is the negative. Almost all his examples involve two completely separate phenomena that have nothing to do we each other. They are the flip side when looking at the US from outer space, but as you get closer you see they have nothing to do with each other and are only connected by theory and very often you can have one without the other, and other countries do all the time. This can become clearer even by forcing Levin to define his terms. These factors are incredibly different by race. What is the Jewish rate of out of wedlock births vs inner city minorities? These matter because it helps us understand the problems are not the side of the coin, they are completely different coins that have been created by policy and changing norms. We can have many of the good without the downsides.

Now marriage is the example where the very small good of freedom to abandon your spouse has wrought many (but not all) the negatives. I think both the guest and the author misstate how we ended up with the marriage laws (was it really what the "people" wanted? can the "people" want something?) and understate their negative impact. Europeans don't get married however they have less fatherlessness than the US. Out of wedlock but with two parents is completely different than fatherless.

However, these genies can never be put back and never have been put back. On the marriage front we can never go back so what changes can be made in the world of no fault divorce and gay marriage to strengthen these institutions.? Like others have said, we have churches aplenty. We need laws that look at our reality and plan a way forward.

1) Abortion is legally a unilateral decision, so in order to make it modern and fair a man should be able to abort his legal ties to children that he would have aborted if he were the woman. For example, if I have sex with a woman and she informs me she is pregnant but keeping the baby I should have the right to abort my legal rights and responsibilities to the child. I don't have legal rights to see or make decisions for the child, but the state cannot ask me to contribute to the life of the child financially. Privately both could be done. That is fair and a more even law going forward in the modern world.
2) The state is involved in divorce because of children. To simplify matters the children should always stay with the primary bread winner (so no child support and no throwing people in jail for child support) or default to joint physical custody without child support. This keeps the state from getting involved in the money and reduces their entanglement.
3) No alimony and no child support (if children are with the other spouse) unless they demonstrate "cause" in the traditional sense. We have no fault divorce, but neither spouse can extract resources from the other just because they were married.
4) No state, federal support to anyone having a child out of wedlock (I would be happy to go with no state support at all for anyone but that will probably never happen). That is actually the policy in other countries. We need to create gigantic social stigma for out of wedlock birth, but also legal/finacial penalties. It is simply a criminal act to have children out of wedlock in the social cost to the rest of us. If there is a social contract, then we need to start enforcing some norms.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

A very interesting podcast. I, however, believe that the "fracture" in the US body politic is permanent and absolutely beyond repair.

I only lived through the 80's and 90's (and have no desire to "go back" politically or socially to them as they were in my view very "meh"). All the previous eras all looked unredeemingly horrible (especially the hippy 60's). I am absolutely nostalgia-free. I look only to the future-- free from the stale archaic State, central planning, and endless failed programs.

The Left has certainly helped to manufacture this "fracture" and so, in my view, they should live with the consequences of their actions. The "diversity" they celebrate so much means that any political consensus is absolutely dead and nonexistent. Trust in central planning, government, and "The State" is dying, hopefully they soon will be a rotten putrid corpse. The national plans and utopian visions of the Left, their bureaucratic and incompetent programs, and not-so-"great societies" should all be dismantled. Barney Frank, as always, was completely wrong-- government is not what "we do together", government is the nasty arena where political factions do nasty things to each other, politics is the treacherous, underhanded and vile.

Unlike Mr. Levin, I do not mourn the loss of the sense of "community" (if it indeed ever existed). I am a libertarian precisely because I want to be left alone. The idea of a "church like" substitute for religion is completely repellent to me. As is membership to any social/civic group of any kind. I want nothing whatever to do with others who happen, solely by accident, to be geographically in close proximity to me. My political inclination is derived quite naturally: I don't want to interfere with the life of others in any way, and I expect them respect me the same way.

Dr. Duru writes:

Thanks, Professor Roberts for this podcast! I find it particularly timely as I finish listening to it in the wake of escalating violence and conflict in our nation's urban areas. While I do not subscribe to Levin's conservatism, I can appreciate elements of his observations.

However, one of the biggest problems I have with (traditional?) conservatism showed up in Levin's interview - a complete lack of language for discussing the elephant in the room: America's troubled history of race/ethnic relations and the current manifestations such as mass incarceration and escalating conflict with the police. From my perspective as an African-American (and my father was born and raised in Nigeria), there is no era in American history that brings feelings of nostalgia. The closest may be the 1950s and 1960s - not because living conditions were good/better then but because that was an era of great civil progress relative to what existed before.

So, where does that leave me and people like me in this fractured society? It leaves us bewildered on the sidelines wondering what exactly liberals and conservatives are pining after. The Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, has demonstrated it thinks its job of racial healing was done with the Emancipation Proclamation. Levin does a good job of critiquing how some policies from Democrats have entrenched some of the very problems they have sought to solve. In limbo, are a trapped underclass that still has so few options for escape.

For example, the problems with the schools can be understood better with a racial or at least a socioeconomic lens. I believe you had a podcast covering some of this. The education system still works pretty well for the affluent. As you imply, the affluent can exercise choice by picking up and buying the right house in the right neighborhood. Such choice is not available to the underclass. What period can the underclass look back to when schools were better and providing opportunity to move up in the world? It was only 60 years ago when America *started* to desegregate schools and America's promise of equitable educational opportunities remains elusive. In fact, I am reading statistics demonstrating an increasing re-segregation of schools as the realities of housing costs further concentrate wealth and poverty.

Anyway, I do not want to go on and on here, but I do wish that conservatives in particular could find a way to confront issues of race/ethnicity in a transparent, honest, and constructive way. Too much of what America has done in structuring society and culture has come as a result of racial conflict, neglect, or other similar malaise starting from the nation's very foundations. I am sure efforts to roll up our sleeves on this conversation would get rewarded with at least a slightly less fractured society. At least we need to try!

Madeleine writes:

@Kevin

Maybe this is my general libertarian inclination, but I can't see surrounding marriage/divorce/child rearing with even more bureaucracy as being a good way to cure social ills. As Yuval and Russ discussed, such top-down approaches don't really tend to do much to help.

You acknowledge that "out of wedlock" does not mean "fatherless" (you bring up Europe, where getting legally married has fallen out of fashion but people are still mostly in "marriage-like" relationships) -- but you do not mention that a kid being born IN wedlock can indeed also be fatherless. I had an absent father years and years before my parents actually legally divorced, the "divorce" in the legal sense had no impact whatsoever on my life.

And we do not have "churches aplenty", many of the more involved church communities have declining membership and engagement. Sure, we may have megachurches and famous pastors, but the small church that ran my town's library and rec center has gone away, and not due to population decline. I suspect this is the norm, but it's hard to find data.

Also, I have to say that my father "aborting" his financial and personal responsibilities toward me absolutely did not help with my life, but I suspect that you already know that such a policy would be beneficial to irresponsible fathers and detrimental to their children.

Likewise, your prescriptions for assigning childcare to the highest earner make little sense. There are many things that go into being a suitable parent and having money is not very high up there on the list.

Rather than a quixotic quest to stigmatize out of wedlock children and forcibly mandate personal decisions from the top down, why don't we try to do as the podcast discussion suggests and try to build moral and civic frameworks to help solve the issues organically? It would be less costly, less totalitarian, and have a higher chance of success (after all, we've tried mandating responsibility and good behavior for a long time with minimal success).

@Dr. Duru

Thank you for bringing up segregated schools. It's my opinion that this has done a lot to lock people (both black and white, but certainly blacks seem to suffer disproportionately) in poverty and dysfunction. I feel extremely fortunate to have gone to a decent school and it has done a lot for me long term -- I graduated from a Top 10 engineering school and now work at a Big 5 tech company. Every child should have such opportunities, no matter who their parents are.

miller writes:

Well, I for one think that this podcast was finally incredibly spot-on. America doesn't really have many mid-level institutions to speak of. And the simple fact of the matter is that much of what we REALLY truly need in this country is a way for people to mix with their fellow citizens again. Or, what de Tocqueville called 'lateral bonds of free association'.

I find it curious that Mark is so individualistic that he can't stand the thought of citizens being real people and doing stuff together. I can't speak for how he came to that temperament, but I sometimes do think that this is a dark side of 'rugged individualism', and I am in NO WAY putting you down, it just makes me wonder how many people there are out there with the same mindset, because of the way us Americans think about the individual vs society.


But, as I have said before, one of America's greatest problems is a lack of public space, but this can mean institutions and actual physical space, but I personally would prefer it not to be found only in churches. To me, that doesn't suffice; it's too restrictive. But if Americans can't meet each other and talk about life in their own cities because of the lack of public spaces, can you really sit there and wonder why our country is so angry when we are trying to solve our problems through the medium of ONE PERSON? And that one person, the president, is being poked and prodded constantly into being more liberal or more conservative at any given time. Of course, we also try and have debates through highly centralized the highly centralized media too. Wherever you look, we have problems with coming to terms with living with each other because we don't have the means to get together and talk to each other effectively.

Anyway, I do, in fact, see more and more and more people coming onto the internet and talking about this kind of stuff, so I am growing more optimistic by the day, and I do appreciate Levin coming on.

Shai writes:

Thank you, Russ, for bringing on the show such an illuminating guest. For me, this is the first time I've heard a coherent presentation of the conservative viewpoint. It is one that I can understand, and see why people buy into it. Personally I find it so deeply abhorrent that it helps explain to me my general distaste for conservatism.

My problem is with these "mid level organizations". I believe there is a reason why they have been in rapid decline -- people don't want them. These organized "warm communities", most often religious, are almost invariably centered around intrusive levels of norm enforcement. Sure, they give services -- at the cost of compliance with their norms. At the cost of not lighting fire on sabbath, fasting on Ramadan, or coming to confession. Even worse, at the cost of rejecting the gentiles, being invisible behind a hijab, or telling those who do not follow the righteous path that they will burn in hell. They are "warm communities" whose cost of entry is selling one's soul.

Personally, I would rather have government provide services in return for taxes. They do so without peeking in my kitchen, or my bedroom, or judging the morality of my actions. I am delighted that GenY and Millenials are abandoning religious institutions in droves and forming online communities to replace them. There is a good economic reason organized religion is dying -- the cost is too high for the service provided. Centralized government has moved to fill that gap.

All your economic efficiency arguments in the podcast were merely arguments of scale. The economic benefits of "mid level institutions" can be obtained by giving more power to local government. I think it is no accident that Switzerland is one of the world's best run countries -- cantons are small, and very autonomous. Elected representatives serve small communities and have actual power. Yet as government officials, they are required to be fair and even handed. Religious institutions are most certainly neither, and involvement with them should not be the cost of having a safety net.

Note that private businesses, REGULATED to enforce fairness, are maybe an even more efficient way to provide "community" services. But they require a regulator, and do not foster a sense of community. I prefer local government.

To many like me, the "small government" argument presented in this podcast seems disingenuous. You, Levin, and many religious conservatives really believe that a religious life is better for everyone, and would dismantle government as a means towards enforcing religiosity on everyone else. That is not economics -- it is norm enforcement.

Gandydancer writes:

Well, the comments are pretty positive, but for me this podcast was a real snoozer. For the life of me I can't tell what, in a concrete way, Levin is advocating for. It was just blah, blah, blah...

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@miller

And the simple fact of the matter is that much of what we REALLY truly need in this country is a way for people to mix with their fellow citizens again.

No offense taken. Perhaps your prescription (a way for "citizens" to mix) above would be advantageous. However, it is an increasingly remote outcome and the trend is moving quickly in precisely the opposite direction.

I am a child of the "multicultralist" movement, raised in a liberal State (New York), and attended an Ivy League school where I was inundated with a Cultural Marxist perspective that I found utterly repellent. I was repeatedly instructed that America is represented by "everything", which, in my view, is the logically equivalent that America represents absolutely "nothing". Throughout my entire life the public arena has been increasingly toxic and politics has become increasingly divisive. I do not see that trend abating any time soon.

I am a libertarian and an atheist in a country dominated by Democrat and Republican partisans and the most religious nation in the Western World. I don't care for American popular culture, I am a sports fanatic but most of my passion is reserved for football (which is played best in Europe and South America, America is a sad almost pathetic backwater). There is no consensus wahtever upon who "we" are, where "we" have been, or where "we" should now go. Upon what basis then would this "mixing" be based? I don't this has anything to do with "rugged individualism" (its' dark side or otherwise), this lack of mixture has more to do with the ease of communicating with likeminded people that exists today (and the difficulty of doing so in the past).

In the distant past (the 50-60's), Americans were intensely insular, largely cutoff from the rest of the World. There were only a tiny number of TV channels, each insular and and stridently nationalistic. Americans watched the same TV shows, listened to the same radio stations, read the same newspapers and books, engaged in similar recreational activities, largely shared the same historical "narrative", and attended church in large numbers (high level of religiousity).

That insular world is gone, and likely for forever. I can now watch any niche program, any news outlet, in any language, from any part of the world in seconds (whenever I want, not at the "scheduled time"). I can exchange views with like-minded (or like-educated) people from around the world with no effort. I am currently writing this in Greece, so I am not tied down to any geographical space to do so. As a libertarian who does not believe politics is the answer, I feel no need to join a "party" or any other political group. As an atheist, I feel no need to join any religious institution (and even if I did have a "faith", I like to spend my Sunday mornings watching football, not meeting with other "citizens"). Again, upon what basis would mixing with the bulk of people, whose politics I may abhor or disdain, and/or whose religiosity I do not share, and/or do not share my interests, tastes, or passions, be based? I can see absolutely nothing.

It certainly cannot be based on the political debauchery that takes place in the sordid public arena. Even at the very local level, the political atmosphere is largely toxic, hostile and divisive. At the national level it is solely so.

I am intensely and proudly individualistic. The only concept of "society" meaningful to me is global in scope yet only an extremely narrow slice of that spectrum. Politics is, however, is extremely broad and largely national, and appears to me as only a venue to be politically and financially expolited by those with political power. Most people in the national scope I am completely alienated towards, distrustful of, and only want to be insulated from their political malfeasance and incompetence. I have no wish to mix with such people whatsoever.

David McGrogan writes:

I enjoyed this episode a lot. In fact it is probably one of my favourites of the year so far.

A little perspective from across the pond: Levin is basically channeling David Cameron, here. Cameron's entire pitch in the run-up to the 2010 election revolved around something he called "The Big Society", which was a genuine attempt to reorient British politics around a small state with, well, a big role for "society" - in the form of local community groups, religion, charities, etc. It never got off the ground because of problems in coalition between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats, and eventually got lost amongst all the controversy over "austerity".

But "The Big Society" idea has never completely gone away and there are still a lot of Tories around who believe in it or something similar. Michael Oakeshott, the conservative philosopher, is the spiritual heart of the idea, and an Econtalk episode on Oakeshott with somebody who knows what they are talking about would be a great counterpoint/follow-up to this.

Rich Berger writes:

The podcast was a bit unfocused, because the subject was very broad. Russ mentioned that when people are made aware that he is a religious believer, they seem to think less of him. I find that casual atheism seems to be the style of the intelligentsia and that religious people are not their kind. I think this represents a failure of imagination on the part of the smart people.

don l rudolph writes:

On the comment that Russ made about being thought less intelligent because he holds religious beliefs. Russ, what would you say to a person who said, I believe in a socialist Utopia. I can't show you an example of one, I can't explain how it would work, I just feel it in my gut that I should devout my life to this cause. Would you give the man a pass and say well I guess I just don't share your vision. Discussion requires a tacit agreement to rely on reason and possibly the scientific method to search for an answer.

For religious institutions to have relevance in the modern world they need to become more like philosopher clubs than god centered miracle cults.

miller writes:

@Mark

Well, fair enough, but I think to some degree, you are missing my point. I'm just talking about if you would like to go outside and talk to your neighbors, (if you so choose), you don't have a whole lot of intermediate ways of doing so between attending church and directly walking up to their doors, besides hopefully maybe catching them at the park? That's the problem. I wouldn't say we need 'institutions', as it were. That implies that people would need to meet together for an explicit purpose, such as accomplishing a goal. It would be nice, (for me), to know what kinds of people are in my city and what they do for a living and how they live in general. For instance, I met a guy at the local radio shack a while back that was quite a unique person. I just wish I didn't have to catch these people only at work or on the off chance they would like to strike up a conversation at the grocery store.

Many other countries have much more open space, including plazas and internet cafes. Look, I'm not entirely a social person, at least 100 percent of the time. I can tend to often be a-social, preferring to stay alone and study over attending a parade, for instance, but when I do, I would prefer to have more means of meeting people on a REGULAR and stable basis just because I do, in fact, like it. And I would explicitly prefer for it to not involve politics. That's all. Since I'm not a hardcore individualist or a misanthrope, what options are there for people like me? I guess I'll keep taking my daily trip to Wal-Mart and reading my specialized sources of news and screaming about stuff on the internet, after listening to my parents talk to me about the evil Obama and whatever else they choose to complain about after watching Fox News. That's life in this country for too many people.

jw writes:

Thoughts:

  • As discussed before, the “graduate high school, don’t get married until after 21, and don’t have kids until you are married” paradigm may be declining, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still valid. It is still the best way to avoid being in poverty.
  • As Murray showed in “Coming Apart”, religiosity also plays a part in the success of the upper class. As Russ pointed out, a religious person is considered a fool in these times, but as I have pointed out before, only by greater fools. The hubris in believing that the science has replaced a need for God shows a lack of understanding of the limits of science.
  • I have no problem blaming the decline in marriage, religion, and wage growth on the dominance of leftist thought in K-grad school schooling, the main stream media and Hollywood. Their values have been entrenched and they are now sowing what they have reaped. It takes a lot of effort to unlearn these shibboleths and most people don’t even bother to question them as it takes a strong character to withstand the acrimony.
  • The current liberal dogma on diversity has predictably failed. Using an analogy to investing, diversity is a great thing to have in your portfolio, as long as each component has a positive expectation of return. Randomly choosing investments does not make for a winning portfolio. Yes, the “total population cannot outperform the total market” tautology holds, but an open border policy is like saying that we want the US to reflect the average world population, which is significantly lower than the US standard.

    Obama’s non-enforcement open border policies and Europe’s struggles with Schengen demonstrate this. In the old days, the theory was that immigrants wanted to come to this country to adopt American values, learn American history and English and assimilate and become citizens (and were free to retain their culture). Now, anyone can come in (unless you are a highly skilled H1B applicant) and live the rest of their lives never even speaking English. They receive nearly all of the benefits of citizenship without ever becoming one (including voting if the Democrats have their way). This uncontrolled immigration has no positive expectancies.

  • Granted, Trump is a sub-optimal candidate. I agree that Sass would be a great President, but he didn’t run. Elections are always a choice between the lesser of two evils. Trump is still the lesser of the two evils by a wide margin. Conservatives quickly need to come to terms with this.
  • I really did not hear any concrete proposals to engender change. Maybe they are in the book. Otherwise, I don't agree that Levin's changes will sporadically happen, as I don’t know how we change the biggest problem in the US, getting people off of the liberal plantation and – the most telling words in the podcast (53ish minute mark) - forcing people to think.
Russ Roberts writes:

don I rudolph,

Speaking for myself, I think of my religious practice as based in reason and a way to explore the sense of wonder and awe I try to connect with as a human being in a complex world. It's not easily explained in a comment or maybe even a book, but I suspect most religious people simply don't see themselves as you see them.

Dr. Duru writes:

Professor Roberts,

I agree with you on religion. I also suspect religious folks do not see ourselves the way atheists do. I for one fully accept the limits of human rationality, intellect, and understanding to comprehend the awesomeness and complexities of this world and our place in it...

Greg G writes:

Dr. Duru,

I am not a theist. I usually prefer to describe myself as a non-believer rather than an atheist. The reason for that is that atheism has become, for some people, another "ism" of the type I left religion to get away from.

I agree with everything in your last sentence and so do all the other non-believers that I know. The limits of human rationality are quite vividly apparent to those of us who see irrational reasoning all around us.

There are a quite spectacular variety of ways that both religious and non-religious people see themselves and the world.

I liked this podcast a lot because it was a great example of the way Russ always approaches the purview of economics in the broadest and most generous possible way. At its most fundamental level, the economic way of thinking is about what it is that you value that is in short supply whether or not that happens to be money. And the first lesson is that all choices involve trade-offs.

I agree that non-governmental institutions and traditions and values have a lot more to do with human flourishing than government. Governments probably tend to get both more credit and more blame than they deserve.

I don't find the Mormon theology the tiniest bit believable. But when I go to Salt Lake City I see a city that works well. And I always find the people friendly and welcoming. The way that city works does have a lot to do with the unifying effects of that religion. There are other places in the world where religion has effects that are quite pernicious.

I think we should generalize less about all these thing a talk more about specific cases. I agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes that "General principles do not decide concrete cases."

jw writes:

To expound on my point above, most people who devalue religion rely on an incomplete understanding of science, especially astrophysics and quantum mechanics. They believe that science has progressed to the point that it has disproved religion, but they don't understand - forgive me for repeating an earlier post - that although God would be an infinitely impossible miracle, the universe is even more improbable.

And given our, as far as we know, unique existence, science can never explain WHY we exist.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

"They are formed to become responsible free citizens of a free society, especially and above all, in the family. And so, when family begins to break down, when families don't have the capacity, don't have the resources to provide their members with the kind of support and guidance and moral formation that we ask of the family in our kind of society, then people don't have what they need. They don't have what they need to thrive."

This is, of course, why it's such a problem that our legal system doesn't recognize a large and growing number of families, such that they can legally hold resources and have the capacity to provide support to their members. Beyond the obvious example, my community has a significant fraction of families which are not based on a two-member romantic relationship, but which serve as the small-end mid-level institution which keeps its members from needing to rely on the government, to the extent that this is possible in the current legal framework.

At other levels, as well, I think that our statistics miss the mid-level institutions which have become important in our society, simply because they're new institutions. The biggest concern I have there is that these are often based on technology that they don't maintain internally, which means that their ability to continue to function in the same ways they have been is hindered whenever Facebook or Twitter changes their sites, and the institutional membership is fragmented based on where people happen to have accounts. Again, people join mid-level voluntary institutions that make sense for their interests (humans haven't stopped being social animals), but the institutions that make sense for modern interests don't get recognized as important entities, even to the extent that the members take steps to ensure their continuity.

Robert Swan writes:

Very interesting discussion and good advocacy for a conservative view.

It occurred to me that while, 40 years ago, there was much more poverty of things, today, there is much more poverty of purpose. Is there some sort of "conservation of poverty" law underlying this -- the New Testament line that "the poor will always be with us"?

Dr Levin's notion of concentric rings of care, though appealing, is wide of the mark. The "rings" have never been concentric, but take in largely independent groups of people. So the hierarchy of security is not as clearly structured as he suggests. In particular, he assigns national governments the outermost ring, encompassing all the others. It's quite apparent that this isn't true. At the trivial level, our caring little community of EconTalk commenters spans many nations. At a more concerning level, where do these Islamic State inspired warriors in our midst spring from?

But that probably gets us back to the poverty of purpose problem that I started with.

Kevin writes:

@Madeline
My solutions are designed to make things as simple as possible. All my proposals were, perhaps wrongly, attempts to remove bureaucracy. My ideal would be the state has nothing to do with marriage and people sign contracts. I am just spitballing ways to make the state less involved. They get involved over money and children, often at the same time. I am thinking of rules that could be followed that remove the constant judge rulings and placing people in prison because they are "irresponsible", but non-violent.

@Shai
The government does not peek into your home in exchange for taxes? Amazing. Because they are involved in every area of my life and I cannot quit them. I can quit mid-level organizations all day long.

Rick G writes:

In a bubble, the instinct to push power down to the local level, if not to entirely divest the state of it, is incredibly logical and appealing. I often argue with my liberal friends that society changes first and foremost through the complex dynamics of culture. However, I think this conversation does a disservice when it cuts out our largest institutions from the positive role they play in that dynamic. This idea was embodied for me in one aspect of this conversation curiously absent: Civil rights, the lasting impact of historical discrimination, and the role of government in helping to create and then sustain a fair playing field.

While localized power can enable communities to better and more efficiently respond to their needs, it also enables local powers to more easily oppress minorities (of any kind) in the interest of sustaining a favorable status quo. Aggregation can create a sufficient mass of shared interests to demand a fair hearing. It is entirely possible that, absent the civil rights act and so forth, that local governments would have passed similar measures as people's views evolved. However, the evidence around us seems to suggest that the more isolated areas of the country, where the influence of broader society and federal government are smallest, have fought tooth and nail against these cultural changes.

To take one example, the ghettoization of northern cities through both informal and formal redlining practices has had serious consequences for our society -- perhaps as much as social as financial. While I don't advocate for reparations per se, it is irresponsible to advocate for pushing so much power down to the local level without at least discussing the history of oppression of minorities in such contexts. And this shouldn't be limited just to the history of African-Americans, but the treatment of any minority individual/population in a context in which capture of political power by an elite is possible -- just ask the poor students trying to learn science and history in Texas.

To look at another, in what contexts have religious communities and/or institutions adopted more what we now widely accept as the reasonable viewpoints (be it regarding science vs. revealed fact, definitions of human rights, etc.)? Have they changed for the better more when left to their own devices or when put in conflict with broader society?

The refrain in this conversation was that localization leads to greater accountability and responsibility. I don't doubt for a second that it is true in many dimensions. I agree 100% of the valuable role of the 'middle space' of civil society. However, it strikes me as equally obvious that localization also encourages stagnation and tribalism. I would have hoped to have heard a conversation more geared to discussing the proper balance of these things in recognition of the societal failures that created (or at least stoked) the demand for greater centralized power.

Robert Swan writes:

Rick G,

I don't think Dr Levin is suggesting that power needs to be taken from the top and pushed down to the local level. He described the rings of society -- individual, family, community, etc. up to the national government -- and I would characterise his position as wanting to reverse the decline of all those intermediate layers.

In any case, I don't agree with you that it's "obvious" that localisation leads to stagnation and tribalism. Firstly, I'm not all that sure what you mean by "localisation". In context, I'll take it you mean it as an opposite of centralised authority (though to me localisation is roughly synonymous with centralisation). Perhaps it can lead to "tribalism" as you say, but I don't think it's a given. Is this tribalism any worse or any more likely than nationalism at the larger scale?

As for "stagnation", I don't see how that comes from decentralised power at all. It seems to me to stem more from too much equality. A heat engine is driven by differences in temperature, an electric motor by differences in electric potential. No difference, no action. It's the perceived ability to improve something that gives individuals, communities, nations the spark to take action.

Better stop there or I'll be getting out my soapbox.

don l rudolph writes:

I don't think of religious people as different from other people in their grasp on reality. I think we all believe in something that we feel is obviously true until we tell someone else who doesn't see it at all. I think religious ideas have a great deal of value as long as the thinker feels free to discard those things that don't feel right. If the reader feels every word in a book comes directly from god we have problems. If the reader ponders the words as food for thought then I have no issue with religious thought.

steve writes:

age 50
about going back to the good ol' days:
a) capitalism, personal responsibility, and free enterprise are trumped by socialism and welfare state

b) today the executive branch follows the laws they choose and not the ones written into law by the legislative branch-immigration to name one

c) today the federal gov't is addicted to spending money without thinking about the future thus the term QE infinity

d) congressmen priority is being re-elected and therefore vote only to be popular without considering future costs

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