How the Constitution Can Bring Us Together (with Yuval Levin)
Jun 10 2024

81ms5laz-JL._SY522_.jpg Can a document unify a nation? Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute and author of American Covenant argues that the Constitution unified the United States at the founding of the country and that understanding the Constitution can help bring the country together today. Listen as Levin speaks with EconTalk's Russ Roberts about how the Constitution not only took into account fractious politics, but also ensured that polarization would lead to a stronger democracy. Topics include the inherent limitations placed on the majority and how that affects policy formation, the vital if misunderstood advantages of the electoral college, and why, despite all the warnings to the contrary, this is far from a dangerous moment in American political history.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.

READER COMMENTS

Bob Lynch
Jun 10 2024 at 11:20am

One of the best episodes this year. Yuval Levin is a national treasure.

My input: The Commerce Clause has always been a quagmire but the Administrative State is a serious threat to our Constitutional system of “checks and balances.” Too much power in the Executive.

Tom Gregorich
Jun 11 2024 at 8:52pm

Yes, absolutely! I would vote for Yuval Levin in a heartbeat if he ever ran for office. Very excited to read this book.

Michael
Jun 10 2024 at 12:07pm

I thought Levin absolutely diagnosed the problem (our elected representatives in Congress go there with no interest in working out deals across party lines and are more rewarded by voters for blowing up deals than making them), but utterly failed to offer a solution.

Praising the filibuster was also silly. I can accept the idea that we should have a system that forces people to work together across party lines, but it has become clear that the filibuster is not that.

I think a change in rules that incentivized such coperation would be good, but I’m not sure how to make that happen. Maybe, changing the primary system is actually what is needed.

Ben Service
Jun 10 2024 at 5:10pm

I had two observations from the epsiode.

First is in response to the observation that women are more left and men are more right, I was thinking this was because the only way women got to vote in the first place was by getting the rules changed which is more progressive and less conservative, same goes for black people in America too.  Granted this all happened over 100 years ago now but maybe the thoughts live on from that time in that if you are a woman or a minority that one way you can see things getting better for you is by change rather than things staying the same, I may be misunderstanding what conservatism is though, I am a leftie so I might have my view of what conservatism is wrong.

The second thought is that to get more bargaining a multiparty system that exists in other parts of the world could be more conducive to this in that no party ever has a majority.  I think a lot of people would say though that this system doesn’t work that well in practice though, there are many reasons why it doesn’t.  I have heard before that the founding fathers would be aghast in the way a two party system developed in the USA but then they didn’t put anything into place to stop it, but maybe at the end of the day the constitution wasn’t perfect and they weren’t all knowing.  A good argument (in my view) I have heard for a two party system is the party that is in power the buck kind of stops and it creates better accountability, decision by committee lends itself to a lot of finger pointing and less accountability.  I live in Australia and the progressive party, Labor, has a rule that they will all vote together and have to thrash out the different opinions behind closed doors, this doesn’t lead to very transparent decision making as no one can really cross the floor and vote with the other side, I am not sure the good and bad of this type of political party, maybe it is good but I am not sure at first glance I don’t like that kind of vibe but maybe the sausage making is best left behind closed doors too.

Craig G.
Jun 11 2024 at 7:33pm

Didn’t think I could feel so enlightened listening to an episode centered around the Constitution, but it was genuinely one of my favorite eps so far.

It feels like a productive civics course for high school and/or undergrad could be built around the conversation alone. I’m sure the book will drive that opinion home further. Can’t wait to read the book and share the episode.

Bob
Jun 11 2024 at 11:12pm

Yuval fails to account for the places where the constitution really fails, and the ways are so well known that I have trouble understanding whether he is being obtuse on purpose, or if he is just so detached from the practice of governance.

We just went through a repeal of Roe v Wade, along with nakedly partisan choices from the court. Your gerrymandering is repealed quickly, my gerrymandering is delayed. We don’t have a January 6th trial because they decided to delay it, in ways that I can’t imagine would occur if it was a Democrat that had sent a mob towards congress. And how do we sit judges? With narrow majorities, and stretegic retirements. We have a justice that has taken millions of dollars in gifts, but thanks to said divided government, it’s impossible to make him face any discipline whatsoever. And precisely because the congress is forever divided, the top legislative chamber is the supreme court, as they can make rulings that are divorced from jurisprudence, or what the laws even begin to say, and there’s no institution that can actually disagree.

Of course, the best way today to fix this is for a president to, crazily enough, shoot a few justices. Without a 2/3rds majority in the senate, it’s not a crime, and he gets to sit replacement justices! How could a system where timely assassination has more chances to change a court than an election make any sense?

The system doesn’t really protect competition between branches of government anymore: Parties have won, and they are all over the judiciary too. Our separation of powers is obviously non-functional, because it wasn’t built to handle what the differences where.

And then come the problem of the states, which could take a book, and they are exactly the same problems whether you think the worst governed state is California, Illinois, Texas or Florida: How in the world could we see that, as the decision on abortion was left to the states, fewer people were happier with their legislation than when it was the same for all? When the smaller government leads to more unhappy people, it’s clear that something is naturally broken.

Mark
Jun 12 2024 at 10:02pm

Excellent episode. Three things to add:

1. Yes majorities oppress, and that’s why you want to be cautious with the power you give them. The insight of why you should care isn’t that you may find yourself in the minority, but that you absolutely will find yourself in the minority on some issue somewhere. Everyone is in the minority on something, probably many things. Protections against majorities with absolute power guard all of our interests.

2. I think a big step to restoring balance to the system would be to bring back appointment of senators by state legislatures. The idea was to give states a voice in the federal government. It made state/local elections more important. We should repeal the amendment that made senators directly elected.

3. Is one of our problems that we’ve given too much power to minorities? Special interests dictate much of what’s done, and who benefits from government action. Is the balance tipped too far away from democratic rule?

Brent Wheeler
Jun 12 2024 at 11:33pm

Excellent episode and a refreshing insight into the purpose of the institutional arrangements. Two things I struggled with:

Much easier to understand the arguments that agreement and everyone thinking the same thing as being both necessary and desirable; but,
Much harder to figure what is meant by “acting together” and such acting sitting alongside and as compatible with disagreement.

Maybe an example would help. I’m not sure. Is it simply a matter of cost – when the cost is high enough (e.g. the very existence of Israel versus internal disagreements about domestic political arrangements) we act together in spite of disagreement?

Quite why “big numbers” do not/should not trump “small numbers”. Is this simply that some otherwise undiscovered truth lies with smaller groups or something else? Not that clear to me. is it the “threat” of a demagogue? Or what?

Shalom Freedman
Jun 13 2024 at 4:17am

This conversation is an excellent primer on how the American constitution works.

2)It is about what Levin calls the American Covenant the US Constitution and it has vital lessons for a very polarized American society today. While most critics see the Constitution as the source of many of America’s problems, he argues it can help restore to the Congress and the greater society a kind of civility and respectfully interacting with those whom one disagrees to productive action again together.

3) It is about the wisdom of the founding fathers about putting checks on absolute power everywhere. Most importantly about preserving minority rights while enabling the majority to rule. But also, about putting checks on executive power the power of the large states and federal power in general.

4) It has an explanation of how the electoral system works and why despite the general criticism of it in the broad public it is a truly central feature of the republic.

5) Levin’s great love of and enthusiasm for the American constitutional system are apparent without. He does not believe today’s divided American society is the greatest crisis American democracy has had

6)Nonetheless he does not relate to certain unprecedented phenomena in the divided American society of today. Today we have mobs of American citizens burning the American flag and identifying with declared enemies who would destroy it. We have masses of Americans who openly declare their purpose of denying other American their rights not only to free speech and assembly but of life itself. And we have at the universities which train the elite of our society a kind of total denial of the of true research and inquiry at the heart of a free society. I do not know if the great founders of American society conceived this kind of possibility or whether their teachings can possibly provide a remedy for a part of the citizenry which has become antithetical completely to the first values of American society.

 

 

 

Mike J
Jun 15 2024 at 9:07am

Right now, about half the Republicans in Congress are willing to engage in deal-making with the Democrats.  Every time they do, even to keep the basic functions of government going, right-wing media screams and howls for them to be “primary’d” by someone far more conservative.  And most of the members of Congress Yuval speaks of who treat it like a TV studio are, in fact, right-wing Republicans.  There is only one party, and one side, in this country who is trying to sabotage the intended purpose of Congress.

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AUDIO TRANSCRIPT
TimePodcast Episode Highlights
0:37

Intro. [Recording date: May 16, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is May 16th, 2024, and my guest is political thinker and author Yuval Levin. He is the Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute where he also holds the Beth and Ravenel Curry Chair in Public Policy. He's the founder and editor of National Affairs, senior editor at the New Atlantis, contributing editor at National Review, and a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times.

This is Yuval's fourth appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in March of 2020, discussing his book, A Time to Build. Our topic for today is his newest book, American Covenant: How the Constitution Unified Our Nation--and Could Again. Yuval, welcome back to EconTalk.

Yuval Levin: Thanks so much for having me, Russ.

1:24

Russ Roberts: What are you trying to achieve with this book? It's a very ambitious book at a very, I'd say sophisticated level of thinking about the role of the Constitution in the founding of the United States, and then the role it could play today. What are you trying to achieve?

Yuval Levin: Well, this book is a reintroduction to the Constitution for Americans who know it. And, a lot of Americans, if you follow the news, we feel like we hear about the Constitution all the time. But, I think it's worth stepping back in a moment like this, which is a moment of division and tension in American political life, and looking again at that charter of our government. Because, I think it actually has an enormous amount to offer us for understanding how a divided society can hold together in a challenging time.

And so, the book on the one hand is an attempt to help people just understand the Constitution better. On the other hand, it's also really an effort to help people understand the idea of national unity in a diverse society better. The first chapter of the book is called "What Is the Constitution?" The last chapter is called "What Is Unity?" And, the book is really an effort to answer each of those questions by way of the other.

Russ Roberts: Now, I think we should talk--let's start with talking about unity. And of course, we've recently talked about the Constitution with A.J. Jacobs and his Year of Living Constitutionally. I know you heard that episode.

Yuval Levin: Yeah. A wonderful book and a wonderful conversation.

Russ Roberts: I appreciate that. We'll put a link up to it; but this is in some sense in conversation with that episode, but in a very different way.

Let's talk about unity. I'm living in a country right now, Israel, that is in wartime. There's not that much unity here. You've got a few things: We'd like to get the hostages back and we'd like to end Hamas' role in governing Gaza. But there's a lot of disunity. And, usually you'd think, wow, wartime, everybody pulls together. Certainly in America right now there's not much unity. So, what does that mean in practical and in, more importantly I think, just cultural terms for the country?

Yuval Levin: I think it's very important to ask that question, because we do live with a shorthand misunderstanding of unity that I think plays a big part in how we think about this moment in the United States but in a of the democratic world. There's a sense--a kind of common sense view that what unity means is that we all agree, that we're of one view.

And, that kind of unity is not generally possible in a free society. And, that's not just because modern societies are very diverse in the way we use that word now. That they're culturally diverse or people come from different understandings or religions or the rest of it. That's part of it certainly. But, there's also just the simple fact that free people are free to form their own opinions; and they're going to form different opinions. And, one of the striking things about the generation of Americans that wrote the Constitution, of American leaders, is how intensely aware they were of this.

And so, James Madison in Federalist 10--maybe his most famous writing about the Constitution--in the effort to get it ratified, says this amazing sentence just bluntly. He says:

As long as the reason of man continues fallible and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.

And, I think any of us who have lived in a community with human beings know that's true. Even if we're working on something together, if we're part of one institution that has a clear purpose, you get 10 people together and what they're going to do is disagree about important things.

And so, the challenge is: how can we be a unified society given that reality, given that we're going to be free? There's not a person here who is going to tell us all what to do.

And so, that means that we have to understand unity in a distinct way, which I think is deeply implicit in the American constitutional system.

And that is to say that unity does not mean thinking alike. Unity means acting together. And, it is not only possible but necessary to act together when we don't think alike.

And the question that raises--the simple question of how can we possibly act together when we don't think alike--is the question that the American Constitution means to answer. And, I think it's really the question that any organized regime tries to answer. Given the fact of disagreement and the need for common action, how can we act together when we don't think alike?

A society with a solid structure of institutions has a clearly articulated way to tell itself how we go about this process. And, a lot of what is most mysterious now to Americans and what is most frustrating to Americans about the Constitution is a function of the fact that it's answer to that question. That it's intended to help us act together even when we don't think alike.

6:33

Russ Roberts: But, a lot of politics--I was going to say in America today, but of course it's true through most of history at any democracy. It's certainly true here in Israel. There's a fear that the political process is a zero-sum game. That, if the other side wins, we lose, and we lose in a particularly devastating way.

I'll stick with the United States. I think there's a view in the United States that if the Left wins, the United States will no longer be the United States; and if the Right wins, the Left's view is the United States will no longer be the United States. It'll be some disgrace, some failure of what should be its mission.

And, I often describe that as: there's no longer shared narrative. I don't know if that's a useful way to think about it. But, when a country is divided and each side sees the other side as effectively treasonous, it's very hard, one, to get anything done, which is part of what your book writes about; but it also means there's a cultural failure, it seems to me, and a political failure that go together as you write about in the book. Do you think we've reached that point in the United States, and is your book in some sense an antidote to that disease?

Yuval Levin: I do think that in a sense we've reached that point. I think that reaching that point--I think it's possible to recover from that kind of condition, because our political tradition does give us a lot to work with on this front.

So, I would say that the sense that people have that the stakes are absolute is a function of a misunderstanding of how democracy works.

And, it's a misunderstanding that's rooted in the way that some democracies fail. And, the extraordinary thing about the American Constitution is how aware it is of that danger.

So, democracy is rooted in the sense that majority rule is essential to political legitimacy. I think that is absolutely true. And, the Framers of the Constitution in the United States began from that premise.

There is a democracy at the bottom of everything. Everybody is ultimately accountable to a voting public.

And yet, there is another fact about democracy: which is that majority rule can be very oppressive. And that it creates a fear in minorities. Because, if everything is up to the majority and if whatever the majority does is deemed legitimate, then if you're not in the majority, you're in big trouble. And, an election is a moment when a society decides who is in the majority and who is in the minority. And, that means that if everything is up for grabs at every election, then the stakes are extremely high and therefore it really is a fight to the death.

The American Constitution intentionally creates a set of restraints on majorities even as it empowers majorities.

Now, it has to be said, this is actually what we find frustrating about the Constitution. And, a lot of the critics of the Constitution are essentially majoritarians. And they say, 'Look, a majority of the public voted for this party and yet they can't get anything done because they have to negotiate with these other institutions and with the other party in the institution.'

And, it's true. Everybody who wins an election for President or for Congress sooner or later in the United States finds themselves saying, 'Look, didn't I win the election? Why am I still dealing with these people?'

The reason you're still dealing with these people is that the Constitution is keenly aware that majorities have to be restrained before they are empowered, or at the very least, that in order to be genuinely legitimate, they have to be broad and durable majorities and not narrow and fading or ephemeral majorities.

So, the system creates a bicameral legislature where the two houses are elected in two different ways. It creates these branches of government that are constantly in each other's way. It creates an executive that's elected in a very peculiar way and has to constantly account for himself to the Congress.

All of these things are there to make sure that it's not simply the case that if you're in the minority, then you're screwed. That's not how American life should work.

And, in a way, the competing, interacting majorities that the system creates is a way to make sure that everybody is in the minority sometimes--or at least can imagine themselves being in the minority--and therefore has to worry about how minorities are protected from majority power.

And so, how to balance majority power and minority rights is a challenge that every democracy has to face.

I think the American Constitution is actually distinctly good at doing that, but that's also why it's so frustrating to narrow majorities, which are the only kind we've had in 21st-century America.

11:35

Russ Roberts: But, this fear that everything's up for grabs--that fundamental issues surrounding the nature of the country are at stake--seems to me comes from two forces. One force is the degradation of the Constitution. The inability of the Constitution in 2024 to restrain--I'm not sure it's majorities, but just the power of whoever is in office.

The second is, of course, the role of social media to enrage and frighten people about what might be at stake. Of course, sometimes they're right--those frightened voices or those enraging voices.

But, those two things seem to me to be part, if not the large part, of why we've reached this moment in America. Do you agree with that?

Yuval Levin: I do. And, I think that's part of why it's important to become reacquainted with the fundamentals in a moment like this in our society.

Because, we have had a degradation of the constitutional system, an actual deformation of it in light of an alternative constitutional vision that's very frustrated with how the American system works. And, we also have a culture that is, I would say, objectively mistaken about the stakes.

So, it's actually just not true that the next election is the most important in our lifetimes. That's not true. And, it hasn't been true in 21st-century America.

The ironic thing about this period is that the sense people have of the stakes of our elections has increased and increased, even though we've lived in a period of very close elections. So that, all the winners in the 21st century have been very restrained and constrained by the fact that their majorities have been very narrow.

So, I'll put it this way. I think the next election is important. It does put two differing visions and approaches to American life on the table.

But, whoever wins is going to win narrowly.

And that means that whoever wins is going to have a hard time doing anything. And, they're going to find it very frustrating that they can't do very much.

But, what it means that they can't do very much is that actually, in reality, the stakes of our elections are not absolute. The stakes of our elections are not nearly as high as we imagine.

But we live in a moment of very, very narrow majorities that are persuaded that everything is at stake. I think that is a very broken political culture. Certainly, social media has a lot to do with that. I think in general the fragmentation of American culture has a lot to do with that.

But, we also have to face the fact that some of the reason for that has to do with the kind of frustration with our constitutional system that is unfounded--that is a result of our not understanding the purpose of that system and the structure of that system. And that's one reason to write a book like this in this moment.

14:31

Russ Roberts: But, it seems like there's a paradox: as you write in the book, and many people would agree, that the checks and balances of the Constitution restrain action. And, one complaint, typically from the Progressive side, is that: 'You can't get anything done in America. If only we were like China where we could just--.' It's a horrible thought in my mind. But, that complaint is: we don't get anything done.

My complaint--seems inconsistent with that claim--is that too much gets done. That, too little is restrained. And maybe the way to resolve that paradox--I'll let you have a crack at it in a sec--but it seems to be[me?] the way to resolve that paradox is that certain fundamental institutional aspects of the Constitution are impossible--almost impossible--to change.

That, there's a Legislative Branch, that there's a Judicial Branch, an Executive Branch--so all the action takes place in very narrow areas. How much is spent, tax rates, a few key issues.

But, the more adventurous things--and there are very few restraints on those, on what can be done there, except through majorities in the given institutions. But, the more bolder things that people would like to do are just not possible. But, not actually because of the Constitution, but also because maybe just it's that narrow majority.

Yuval Levin: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this does create a very peculiar kind of irony.

So, I would say that there has been a critique of the American system--at least since the middle of the 19th century, in some ways before that--that says this system is not up to the challenge of modern life. It doesn't let government get enough done. That's what the Progressives said in the immediate wake of the Civil War. It's the argument that Woodrow Wilson makes.

And it's an argument that actually resulted in some real changes to the Constitutional System in--saw a few Constitutional Amendments, for the income tax, and how the Senate is elected. But, more than that to the emergence of the Administrative State, which is a way to get more done through executive power. And which I think in a lot of ways is hostile or at least foreign to the logic of the American Constitutional System.

And yet, at the same time, we are alarmed at the divisions that are now present in American political life.

I think that the question of whether we're getting enough done depends upon our answer to a prior question, which is: What are we trying to get done?

And, the American Constitution is actually distinct from[?] most of the democracies in the world in the answer that it offers to that question. It's not like the European Parliamentary Systems, which are a model for the Progressives. Those systems really do prioritize policy action. So, if you win an election, you basically have all the power in the system until the next election or until you lose your majority in parliament. There are very few constraints on what a ruling majority can do in the British system or in Israel or in most of the parliamentary systems.

In the United States, that's never been the case. And what the Constitution is trying to produce is actually something more like a cohesive political culture. Its purpose is to facilitate greater unity in a divided society by broadening majorities before empowering them.

And, I think that it's true that the system now is not getting done what it's supposed to get done. But I think what it's supposed to get done is not what a lot of Progressives think it's supposed to get done.

So, everybody agrees, for example, that Congress is failing in the United States now. It's in a very bad shape. But, what is it failing to do? There's some people who say it's failing to pass major legislation. I think it's failing to facilitate cross-partisan bargaining. That's its job. And, we're so divided in our politics now because there's just not a lot of cross-partisan negotiation and bargaining. That can only happen in Congress. It's not happening there.

So, that Progressive observer of Congress and I agree that Congress is failing. We don't agree about what it's failing to do. And, it's actually very important that we first come to some sense of what we're arguing about. Because, if what it's failing to do is to pass major legislation, then we need to remove some of the constraints on action in Congress--to get rid of the filibuster, to make it easier for majorities to move. If what it's failing to do is facilitate bargaining and accommodation and deal-making, then we actually need more of those kind of constraints. And then, I would say the filibuster is the best thing about the contemporary Congress--which I really believe it is. It's the only reason there's any deal-making.

So, the question of what our system is trying to do is really where there is disagreement between Progressive constitutionalists and Conservative constitutionalists.

And, I think surfacing that question is very important because we often take it for granted and think we're arguing about the same thing or even that we're agreeing: There's this little community of congressional reformers who all think Congress is failing. But we actually disagree very profoundly about what we're trying to achieve.

And so, to see the purpose of the system in this way can help us understand what has gone wrong and right in the American system. And, I think a lot of the reason why we're at each other's throats now has to do with the fact that the Progressive vision of the Constitution has advanced, has succeeded, rather than with the fact that there's this dispute between the Progressive and the Conservative vision.

19:59

Russ Roberts: The other thing that I think is true is that there are fewer and fewer moderates in either party. Which, we don't have to talk about why that is. That's interesting in and of itself. But, isn't that also a barrier to the kind of negotiation and bargaining and other ways that Congress can make progress in passing legislation? It must be just harder because of the extreme views on each side.

Yuval Levin: I think that's true, but it's worth thinking about what we mean by 'moderate.'

So, I think what we're lacking in our system now are temperamentally moderate politicians--people who are in politics in order to negotiate and who understand their job as negotiating on behalf of their constituents with representatives of people in America who think very differently from their constituents.

A lot of American politicians have lost that sense that that's their job; and they think their job is to express the frustrations of their constituents and essentially stop there. And, that means that the institutions in our system that are meant to facilitate bargaining and accommodation are not functioning in that way.

And again, Congress is really the central example here. Members think about Congress as a television studio. As a place to perform the frustrations of their voters. And, that means that what we have in a divided politics is not a lot of people arguing with each other all the time. What you have are two camps of people, each of which only talks to itself about the other rather than talking to the other. And, that makes the kind of politics that our system requires very, very difficult because that kind of politics requires constant, ongoing negotiations. It's not just that you put two visions before the public; they vote for one, and that one then rules. There's a need for constant, ongoing bargaining.

And, our system right now not only doesn't reward that work, it punishes it. It treats a politician who wants to make a deal with the other side as though that person is weak, as though that person is betraying principle. And that means that all the incentives that politicians confront make it very difficult for them to really do the work that our system requires of them. It's a big part of why that system is dysfunctional.

I do think one way to understand that is to say there aren't enough moderates, but it's really--I would say: there aren't enough people who think their job as politicians is to deal with people they disagree with.

Russ Roberts: But isn't this a problem that extends way beyond the political sphere? Isn't it a problem in our friendships, in our social gatherings, in our colleges, and maybe in our marriages? You know, I just happened to notice a poll that shows that young men are increasingly seeing themselves on the Right, and young women are seeing themselves increasingly on the Left. And, if you don't like to engage intellectually with people who you don't agree with in conversation and discourse, that's going to be a problem.

Yuval Levin: Definitely true. And I think we've seen this in American society in the 21st century in a very powerful way. We've come to understand ourselves as divided in part because we've come to think that the only way to get anything done is to defeat the other side and make them go away. And, a politics that assumes the other side even could go away--let alone that it should--is going to be dysfunctional.

I think--again, this is why it's important for us to recognize that what unity looks like is not everybody agreeing. This kind of simple-minded idea that 'If only people stopped disagreeing with me then everything would be great'--sure, I believe that. If everybody agreed with me, I think the world would be a lot better. But, you have to begin from the fact that that's not going to happen and then work your way toward a functional society. And that means that--a functional society means looking for ways to act together even when we continue to disagree.

I think we've stopped looking for those; because, again, we're looking for some way to make all these damn people go away. And that sure does extend beyond politics, no question about it.

24:21

Russ Roberts: Let's dig into some of the ideas in the book, which are--some very unintuitive, some very novel, some just provocative and interesting. Let's start with the role of competition in the Constitution. I think of politics as being a competitive process, but until I read your book, I didn't really think enough about how the Constitution builds it into so many different aspects of the political process and the legislative process.

Yuval Levin: Yeah. Absolutely. The Constitution has a couple of different modes of action that are just characteristic of everything that it does, and they're all directed in one way or another to helping us act together when we don't think alike. And, the first of these, really, I would say, is competition. So that, what you can do with groups of people or factions of Americans who disagree with each other is put them into competition. Competition means that they have to make themselves attractive. They have to win converts, or they have to win a dispute. They have to be the majority. They have to argue with each other in such a way that ultimately people who are not sure will make a judgment in their favor, not against them.

And, in that sense, competition can be a powerfully moderating force in a divided society. It forces people to put their best foot forward.

And the Constitution does this in a wide variety of ways. The obvious one is there are elections and elections are competitive, and the offices are filled that way.

But, there's also competition between the branches of our government, between the houses of Congress. The system protects the capacity for competition and the underlying society. So much of what the First Amendment protects, through freedom of speech and through freedom of the press, is actually about enabling competition in society.

The idea that Congress has the power to oversee commerce in American society: what it's really protecting there is the capacity for a competitive economy that can facilitate trade and prosperity.

There's just a sense underlying the system that competition is healthy for a free society in ways that are more than the obvious ways. That competition makes us better versions of ourselves. A very modern notion that I think is very important to how the American system operates.

Russ Roberts: And, another innovation--which I didn't appreciate, which is just extraordinary--you write about when the Constitution was being written, quote:

Would the system empower the small states or the large ones? It would empower both and leave them ever struggling for balance. Would the president be a glorified clerk or an elevated head of state? He would be both, and therefore neither. The few and the many, the city and the country, freedom and order, equality and excellence, representation and administrative efficiency--to each of these stark choices the Constitution says yes, both. And as a result, it creates a regime, a democratic republic, that as the very term suggests, lives in constant tension with itself, yet is capable of extraordinary feats.

Endquote. What an interesting idea to see that failure-to-decide as a feature, not a bug.

Yuval Levin: Yeah. This is something that really stands out about the Convention that produced the Constitution.

So, this Convention was called because the system of government the Americans had after the Revolutionary War just wasn't working. And, it consisted of a really extraordinary collection of people. The states--actually because of competition--once Virginia announced who it was sending--a really high caliber group of people--all the states said, 'Well, we got to send our best people.' And, that ended up being a convention of just extraordinary American leaders of that generation.

And, there were fundamental questions about which they could not come to a simple agreement. Very basic questions about the character of the system. And the convention over and over--and you find this in James Madison's notes of the convention, which are very thorough and really interesting and worth your while if you care about these things--over and over, they decided to deal with difficult questions by containing them within the system.

And so, maybe the most divisive question was the tension between the big states and the small states. And so, would Congress give more power to states with bigger populations or equal power to all the states? They argued and argued and argued, and at the end of the day, the Connecticut delegation said, 'We're going to have two houses. Let's just answer yes to one group in one house and to the other group in the other house.' And, what that ends up meaning is that the tension between them continues to drive American politics.

And, all of the major decisions they made at the convention, one way or another, worked in this way. They couldn't quite decide on the role of the President, and so they gave him a role that is inherently contradictory.

And, rather than making things incoherent, that allows the system to shift its weight without losing its balance. There are times when we need a president who is very assertive and leads the country through a difficult war. There are times when we need a president who says, 'My job is just to carry out the laws that Congress passed.' And, those are both correct ways of reading the President's role in the Constitution because the system has this kind of constructive tension inside of it.

One of the things this means--and one of the frustrating things about this--is that sometimes there just is not a correct answer to a deep constitutional question. And, these days we go to court looking for these answers. And, the court says one thing or another; and half the country says that's wrong.

But, it's actually oftentimes not exactly wrong. There are different emphases within the Constitution that can allow us to put the weight in different places at different moments in response to needs we have, and it's a tremendous strength of the system that it says, 'Yes; and,' in places where it might have instead made a stark choice. It doesn't resolve every question. It creates a system in which the questions remain alive.

30:34

Russ Roberts: You write a reasonable amount in the book about the Electoral College, and it's a fantastic example of what we're talking about. I think most people think it's an anachronism.

It's a perfect example, for me, of a Chesterton's Fence: Something that exists; you think obviously there's no reason for it: 'We'll just tear it down.' And, Chesterton said, 'Be careful. You might want to think about why it was there in the first place because you don't understand the consequences of tearing it down.'

And, the Electoral College seems to be grossly inferior to the popular vote. Why not just let the person with the most votes win? So, first, explain how the Electoral College works and why it might be worth keeping.

Yuval Levin: Yeah. The Electoral College really is maybe the most peculiar institution created by the Constitution, and it's an answer to a difficult question that they faced.

The American Constitutional Convention had to create a republican national executive [Note: 'republican' with a lower-case 'r,' not a typo or reference to the later Republican Party--Econlib Ed.]. That is, a democratically-elected executive who would have enormous power--power that was like the power of a King in the European societies of the 18th century--but who would be accountable to the public and even to Congress in some ways.

And, there was really no model for how to do this. The states had governors, and they were all dissatisfied with how their governors operated. They had models of what not to do there. And, the question was, really: How do you establish this executive?

The hardest question was: How do you elect the executive? To whom should he be accountable?

There was a strong argument made by many of the best minds at the Convention that the President should be chosen by Congress. And, that is, really--that is how Prime Ministers in Parliamentary systems are chosen. It's a kind of second-tier democratic election.

But, there is great concern, especially by James Madison, that you don't want to make the Executive too dependent on Congress. Congress was the democratic branch. It would be subject to majority whims. And you wanted the Executive to be a little bit removed from that.

And so, how can you do that but still have a democratic Executive?

The other concern about making the President not too dependent on the public, meant that they didn't want to elect the President directly--by just having a direct popular vote for a national executive. Their fear was this would result in demagogues. Somebody who can just move the public with him is not actually the kind of person that you necessarily want as an Executive.

And so, they created an indirect mechanism for electing the President that works through the states. The way American Presidential Elections work is the voters vote and whoever wins a majority in each state then gets the electoral votes of that state.

The number of Electoral Votes is based on the population of the state, by a very simple formula. It's just the number of members of Congress that state has is the number of electors it has.

And, those electors actually meet in person in each state. The idea at the Convention was maybe they would even confer: they would talk to each other about who would be the best choice. That never really happened even from the very beginning. They voted the way their state voted.

But, what it meant was that the American President is elected through a series of state-based democratic elections. So, that the issues that matter in the different states would matter in Presidential elections. And, very importantly, what we have found in modern times in America--and the reason why I think the Electoral College is actually especially useful in a divided time--is that it forces the election to take place in those states that are divided.

So, if we had just a popular vote, the parties would focus where they're strongest. The Democrats would get every last Democrat in California out to vote. Republicans would get every last Republican in the Deep South out to vote. And, the Democrat would run in California and the Republican would run in the South, and they would not be talking to each other.

But, because of the Electoral College, everybody has to win Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia--states that could go either way. And, that means that our Presidential candidates have to talk to the middle of the country. The only way to win is to talk to the middle of the country. You can be as strong as you want in Texas as a Republican; if you didn't win Michigan, you didn't win the election.

And, that actually forces our politics to be less polarized, less partisan than they otherwise would be.

One other thing I'd say about the Electoral College is: the complaint that's often made about it is that it's not democratic enough. And people point to all kinds of comparative examples. But actually, the way that parliamentary systems choose the chief executive is less democratic than the Electoral College, not more. Right? The British, for example, have had three prime ministers since the last election. How are those people chosen? They were chosen by the parliamentary party. They were chosen by 250 people who all went to the same university. That is not better than the Electoral College from a democratic point of view. They're trying to deal with this same problem.

There's a real danger in having a direct popular election for the chief executive; and the United States is by no means the only system that worries about this. It worries about it by a convoluted, complicated system, but I think it's a system that's actually served us much better than a lot of Americans are aware of.

36:02

Russ Roberts: Well, you point out that all the action takes place in so-called swing states. People who live in California, New York, Texas, Florida complain, 'But they don't pay attention to me,' missing the reality that well, but you get a lot of seats in the Congress because you're really big. And, the flip side is, is that if it was only popular vote states like Wyoming, Rhode Island, Connecticut--it's a long list--would get no attention whatsoever. And, there's an inherent tension. And of course, as you point out, we get both. Both small and large states have different aspects of power within this interlocking system.

Yuval Levin: Exactly right. And, there is this logic in the American system in general that tries to have a regional balance. There was a worry at the convention that the big states would always get the most attention and that states with a concentrated population--states with big cities--would be likely to be culturally dominant and economically dominant.

And so, the Senate, too, is built in this way. That Wyoming has the same number of senators as California--obviously, that is not representative in a simply Democratic way. But, it's rooted in the sense--in the fear--that California is just bound to be more influential in American life than Wyoming, and there needs to be some balance there.

And, I think that, too--the structure of the Senate and the Electoral College has served us well in this way at different moments in American life when debates between the big states and the small states, which we now think of as cultural debates because the small states tend to be more conservative, but they've been economic debates between farm and city. They've been debates about land policy. All kinds of things where New York and California would have just run over the rest of the country if we had a simply democratic system. And the fact that we let this regionalism matter is a great strength of the American system. [More to come, 38:03]

38:03

Russ Roberts: I want to leave the Electoral College with a quote very well said that you have from the book. You write, quote:

The national vote total in an election in which the outcome is decided by the Electoral College amounts to an answer to a question that voters were not asked. It's an incidental byproduct of the actual election and does not describe an actually existing electorate, and so does not tell us more about public opinion than the official result of the Presidential election. An election structured differently would produce a different electorate.

End of quote. As an economist, I always say: 'Well, if you're trying to win the Electoral College, the incentives push you to do a certain set of things. You don't care about the national vote total. It's irrelevant.' And, yet when it does not match, which of course it has a handful of times, it makes people feel like there's been a violation--as if the wrong candidate was chosen. But, of course, had the rules of the game been different, the players would have played it differently and a different set of things would have happened. And you can't compare the two. And you say it very well.

Yuval Levin: Well, it's exactly right. I think of this as a political scientist, but getting at the same question, there's this very counterintuitive fact about democracy, which is that majorities are actually created by electoral systems. There's not just some thing out there as public opinion. People don't just walk around with a view about who should be their senator. There first has to be such an office created. And then there's a political system around it and a party system. And as a result of all of that, you end up with an organized majority and minority in an election. That majority is a product of the political system. And, that means that if we had a different system, we would have a different majority. And so, to say we had an election under one system, but the greater number of people voted for the other person--well, that actually doesn't tell you what you think it tells you. That is not a fact about American public opinion.

And, if we organized our elections, as you say, around a popular vote, everybody would run in a very different way; and who knows?

I often point out to people: the closest thing we have to a popular national vote is the popular vote for the House of Representatives. And, since 1995 and what we think of as the modern era in Congress, Republicans have won the popular vote for the House 11 times out of 15 elections. And, they've even won it in years when the Democrat won the so-called popular vote in the Presidential election. We're just asking people different questions. And we have to recognize that the answer they give us to one question doesn't necessarily tell us how they would have answered a very different question. It's a very hard fact to get your head around in a democracy.

Russ Roberts: In the West, democracy has, until fairly recently, been romanticized and revered. It's under attack to some extent in many, many parts of the democratic world. But, I think it's important to remind listeners, it's a controversial statement that--the United States [?] a very particular democracy. And, most people associate democracy--which is the rule of the people--with majority rule. What could be more than the rule of the people than majority rule? And yet that is not the United States' system. The United States is a republic--a particular kind of democracy where the will of the peoples expressed in very complex ways, as we've been discussing. Do you want to add anything to that? Because I want to read a quote to you of yours

Yuval Levin: Yeah. I would describe the American system as mitigated majority rule. And, the reason it's mitigated is that majority rule is a dangerous thing.

It's hard for politicians to say this to democratic majorities. But, the American system is definitely built on the insight that majorities can be oppressive of minorities. You can't look at American history and not see that that is obviously true in a society where by majority vote, part of our society enslaved another part of our society for 120 years.

So, majorities can be very dangerous. The generation that wrote the Constitution was uniquely aware of this, because in the 10 years after the American Revolution, the American government was very chaotic and did not work well, and the reason was that it was too radically democratic. The states all had elections every year for their legislature. These legislatures had enormous power. And, it was out of control.

And so, the Constitution was written in a very odd moment when there was an unusual awareness of the costs of majority rule, even as there was a commitment to the legitimacy of majority rule. I think we've been very well served by the fact that it was written in that moment so that we get the best of both. We do get majority rule, but we also get restraints that force majorities to grow, to build coalitions, in ways that make them more legitimate.

42:56

Russ Roberts: I'm going to try to re-state something I said earlier that I think it was pretty incoherent. I may not do better this time. But, what restrains the majority in American politics are two things: the necessity of complying with the rules of the Constitution and how legislation gets passed, vetted, signed, and so on, or vetoed--and the Constitution itself, which puts certain things out of bounds. What I was trying to say earlier was I think what's out of bounds these days has gotten--very little is out of bounds. And so, it's the gridlock of the system--which is still part of the Constitution; but it is not what was restraining governmental power in, say, the 19th century.

Yuval Levin: Yeah. That's right--

Russ Roberts: With the exception of slavery, which is obviously a dramatic case. I'm thinking more in terms of economic policy, regulation, and so on.

Yuval Levin: I think an especially important part of that is American federalism, which put a lot of things beyond the reach of the national government. Most of what government does was assigned to the states to begin with and has gradually been overtaken by national power.

And, especially because the role of the national government in regulating interstate commerce has come to be understood as involving everything. Everything is interstate commerce; and therefore the limits that exist on government power have really been degraded over time. I think there's no question that that's part of the reason why our system now has trouble doing its job.

44:29

Russ Roberts: So, here's a quote from you about republicanism--this particularly American version of it. It's a beautiful quote. You say the following:

Republicanism presumes a set of core virtues and ideals that must hold a society together. At the heart of modern republicanism is an idea of the human being and citizen rooted in the highest traditions of the West: that we are each fallen and imperfect, yet made in a divine image and possessed of equal dignity. That individuals are social creatures meant to live together. That living together requires a commitment to pursue the common good, and that this pursuit in a free and therefore diverse society requires of the citizen selflessness, accommodation, restraint, deliberation, and service. These commitments still leave enormous room for disagreement, though not infinite room.

Close quote. It's a lovely quote. I think if we did a poll, Yuval Levin would be one of the supporters of it. But, I don't know how many more there would be, Yuval? That's a very--I would say--unpopular view, both of human beings and what our role should be in our country. Do you agree with that?

Yuval Levin: Yeah. Unfortunately, I do agree with that. I think that--or I'd put it this way. I think that that kind of view is a precondition for a liberal society but is not created by liberal institutions alone. And, it's why our free societies require institutions that are pre-modern, in a sense--that teach us that kind of vision. The family, religion, certain kinds of educational institutions and cultural institutions.

The American system of government does protect those institutions. I think if you look at what the First Amendment protects, for example, it's actually those kinds of institutions. It protects religion. It protects the spaces in which education can happen freely and in which people can make different choices for themselves and their families.

But, the assumption is that if you protect that space, those institutions will fill that space and shape people in the way that you just described.

And, I think part of the problem we confront in contemporary American life--but not only in America--is that that doesn't happen by itself. That takes real work and it takes an actual commitment to that vision, which is, I would say, a traditional vision. And so, requires a traditional approach to modern life.

That's hard to hold together. It is a challenge. And yeah, if we took a vote on all those things, I'm not sure I'd like how I[?it?] would turn out.

Now, I would say if you took a vote on the Bill of Rights, I'm not sure it would pass in contemporary America. Free speech, freedom of religion--I'm very glad we have them and that they're kept out of the reach of majorities, because I am not at all sure what majorities would do if we asked.

Russ Roberts: I'm with you there.

47:29

Russ Roberts: You make a claim in the book that I think is rather extraordinary, and no one else that I read talks about it--and you alluded to it a little bit in what you just said--that, our political institutions--and in particular the Constitution--shapes the character of the citizens. Make that case. It's a very--it's a bold claim.

Yuval Levin: Yeah. This is a classical case that is--it begins with Aristotle, at least the notion that the kind of regime you live under has to do with the kind of human being you are.

And, I think you find it expressed in the modern world in something like national character. Right? There is such a thing as an American in the world. It's hard to see when you're in the United States. But, when you're not in the United States and you encounter an American somewhere, you can tell real quick that this person is an American.

And, part of what that has to do with I think is a set of assumptions and expectations and attitudes that are not separate from our political culture. And maybe especially in the United States, the Constitution is just part of who we are. I mean, kids arguing in the schoolyard will talk about free speech. And, I don't know where they learned about it, but they know that they have certain kinds of rights. That they can sign a petition, that they can do all these kinds of things that are actually real social achievements of our Constitutional order that we take for granted--because we live under that order and we are shaped by it.

And, I think every society's national character has to do at some level with the kind of political constitution that it has.

And, the American national character assumes a level of independence and assumes an idea of rights and of the equality of individuals that has a lot to do with our political tradition. It shapes us in ways that we often don't recognize, but that we can't escape, and that I think in most respects are good for us.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. We talked earlier about competition. I think Americans--there's other reasons than just the Constitution, of course--but Americans, I think in general, have a faith in competition relative to, say, elites making decisions for the masses. And in particular, competition combined with accountability. And, even though it's fashionable among economists to bemoan the lack of understanding that the general public has about economics, I think one thing that is absorbed in American culture is the role incentives play when combined with competition and accountability. And, you just don't see it in other places in the way you see it in the United States, it seems to me.

Yuval Levin: I think that's really true. And, you also see this with respect to very fact of structures for decision-making. Tocqueville jokes in the 1830s that when you get three Americans together, they'll elect a treasurer. And, I think that there's still some truth to that. We just have a way of thinking about how we act together that emphasizes procedure; and that, too, is a function of our Constitutional heritage.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm just thinking: here, in Israel, before the terrible events of October 7th and their aftermath, we were in the middle of an enormous crisis over judicial reform. And, one of the aspects of judicial reform was to change the way that Supreme Court Justices in Israel were chosen. And, it was taken away from basically the equivalent of, say, the American Bar Association and previous justices--that's the way they're chosen here--and to put the choices in the hands of politicians.

Some of my British friends were so horrified by that idea--the idea that a politician would know who to choose for a judge--and of course, I'm thinking as an American, 'But then at least they have to face the voters,' whereas that other group can do whatever it wants, more or less. I mean, there's social pressure on them, of course. But just that mindset is so totally different depending on the system you're used to.

Yuval Levin: Yeah. It runs very deep and we just take it for granted.

51:56

Russ Roberts: Cover of this week's Economist: "Is America Dictator-Proof?" What are your thoughts on that? Are you worried about the stability of the American political system?

Yuval Levin: Well, yes. I think it makes sense to worry about the stability of our system in the 21st century. But, I'm not panicked about the stability of our system. I think we are living in a moment with very low-quality politicians in America and that the system has to do with why that is--the kinds of incentives that creates the kind of people that it invites in.

I think of that as a product less of the Constitutional system than of certain kinds of deformations of it: party primaries and the ways in which we've over-empowered our Presidents. But, I do think that that creates some real dangers.

On the other hand, the United States has very strong institutions. One thing it does have over other democracies is the simple fact that we have had this fairly stable system of government for a very long time. And, things like respect for court decisions and for the timing and structure of elections: for all that we can worry about them--and there have been some reasons to worry about them--actually do run very, very deep in our system.

It's one important thing to recognize from looking at the Constitution: Americans like to think of our country as very young, and, like, we're still getting started. The United States is the oldest of the existing democracies in the modern world. The British have a kind of claim. They can say they have the same institutions they did in 1800. But, none of those institutions do the same thing they did in 1800. The United States really does.

When I was young, I worked as a Congressional staffer, and I used to give tours of the Capitol. And, you'd start those by saying, 'The Capitol building opened its doors in December of 1800 to house the U.S. Congress.' Which it still houses today. In 2024. It's the same institution: does the same work, in the same system. That's a really extraordinary fact.

And, our system has survived moments of instability much more profound than this one--including of course a Civil War, but even apart from that.

So, it makes sense to worry about this moment, but this is not the most dangerous moment it has faced, and I think our system has shown itself to be quite durable even in this period.

54:23

Russ Roberts: Let's go back to the thing we opened with, which is unity. When the United States was established, there were enormous divisions of industrial versus agricultural economic activity; small states, large states; and so on. It's really quite extraordinary that there was a Constitution that was passed and that the confederation became the United States.

A lot of people [?have?] suggested: That was then, this is now. We have different kinds of enormous differences across geographic parts of the United States. Maybe it's time for the United States to be smaller. To be more than one country. To be more--you know, at the same time, of course, Europe is heading in the other direction, becoming more unified or trying to--to be confederated. But, a lot of people suggest that the United States should split off. The South is really different from the Northeast. The West is different from everything else. California should probably be its own country by itself. And that, the way you get unity is to secede, but not over a horrible institution like slavery, but rather a respectful separation in the way a divorce--an amicable divorce. Do you see that in America's future?

Yuval Levin: So, I think about this in a peculiar way. I'm an immigrant. I came to the United States as a kid. So I grew up here. But I am an immigrant, and,--from Israel. And, looking at the United States with a little bit of an outsider's eye, especially when I was younger, the idea that Californians and Texans are so different that they can't be one country is just crazy. Californians and Texans are obviously both Americans. They're so American. Even the way they think about how different they are is so American. They're both so different from even Canadians, let alone the kinds of differences that sometimes characterize different European societies or Latin Americans. We are obviously one country. And, the experiment that was begun in the late 18th century to create one people clearly succeeded.

Now, there are divisions. There are cultural and political divisions. There always have been. Some of them are sharper now than they've been.

There's also more diversity of different kinds now than we've often had in American history. There's more cultural diversity.

But, the United States clearly has a defining vision of itself. It clearly has a sense of who it is that's deeply rooted in its own history. I think we too easily take the down view of the condition of American life. There are certainly real problems here. But, actually, underlying those deep divisions, the strength of the American character is quite strong.

And, I don't think that ultimately when it comes down to it would make any sense for any of those kinds of divisions of the country that people talk about to actually happen. The country wouldn't want to live without California. There are certainly times when I wish we could live without California. They do crazy things over there. But, California is really dynamic and interesting and forward-looking. And, I think Texas needs California, and vice versa. So, to my mind, the idea that we're on the verge of another civil war or that we should be divided is a little nuts.

57:58

Russ Roberts: So, I usually like to end on an optimistic note. That was an optimistic note. But I'm going to add a pessimistic note, coming back to something you said earlier about you're not so worried about the state of things.

One of the remarkable aspects of this 200-plus year thing called the American Republic is the peaceful transition of power. I don't think it's very explicitly written about that transition. There has been, I would say, until very recently--and Donald Trump's loss to Joe Biden--until then, Presidents may have resented the electorate's choice. They may have felt they were cheated, as I think Richard Nixon felt legitimately in 1960--that that election was literally stolen; and there's quite a bit of evidence on that.

But, in 2024, what I'm worried about is the ability of a candidate who has lost to refuse to leave--or 2028, depending on when it happens. And, is able to convince via social media, as Donald Trump convinced a lot of people, that he was the actual winner; when, as far as I know, I don't think there's a lot of evidence for that. And, yet he persisted and probably will persist in arguing that he won that election.

He did leave office. He did vacate the White House.

But, one of the things I worry greatly about, and it's related to your previous book, A Time to Build, and the conversation that we had around that, is that: a lot of norms not written down, not in the Constitution, not in the Bill of Rights--a lot of norms have eroded over time about what one's obligations are. And, many of them are unspoken, unwritten. And yet they're observed. And, if those norms continue to erode, I worry greatly about the future of America.

Yuval Levin: I do, too. I think that is the one place where it is reasonable in this moment to be very alarmed about the condition of the system.

And, I actually think that that is also a reason to go back to the beginning and to remind people of why these things are here. You mentioned Chesterton's Fence before. I think it's a very useful way to think about a lot of what is in our system, which is: You have to understand why it's there before you decide it's time to get rid of it.

Now, you might still decide that, but you have to be able to explain to yourself why we have it.

And, I think that that's now the case with a lot of our Constitutional system: that we have to remind ourselves or to reacquaint ourselves or maybe to acquaint ourselves for the first time with the underlying logic here, which comes from a place of worry about democratic political culture.

The Constitution was written by people who were not sure this could work. And, we should always have somewhere in the back of our minds a concern and unsureness about whether this can work.

And that should lead us to restraint. It should lead us in really crucial moments to prefer social peace over winning the argument. To recognize that the alternative to our winning is not necessarily--that the alternative to the system we have is not our winning: the alternative to the system we have is a collapse of social peace in American life. And we take it for granted because we've always been able to count on it, or almost always. But it is not to be taken for granted. We should prioritize cohesion. We should prioritize social peace much more than we do, and recognize that pushing these boundaries runs real risks.

And, one way to see that is to help ourselves understand why the boundaries are there, why they look the way they do. So, this book is in part, certainly rooted in that concern. Not just in a sense of confidence about the American system, but in some worry about whether it can persist if we forget why it's there and why it is the way it is.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Yuval Levin. His book is American Covenant. Yuval, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Yuval Levin: Thank you so much, Russ.