The real debate in 2012 (that conservatives are forgetting about)

by Ryan Streeter on October 4, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

To see our fundamental political divisions as a tug of war between the government and the individual is to accept the progressive premise that individuals and the state are all there is to society. The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government. The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years—the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves—is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.

That’s Yuval Levin reminding us what the real debate in 2012 is about. The intermediate space between government and the individuals, about which I have written in my books here and here, is too often forgotten in conservative circles. That’s a shame, as the goal of progressives is to shrink that space and make it as inconsequential as possible. Defending family, neighborhood, civil society and private enterprise is what conservatives should be about. Unfortunately, as Yuval points out, conservatives in America today focus too narrowly on the private economy by accepting the left’s government-and-individual framework.

This is a mistake. The thoughtful among us can’t forget that the space between government and the individual needs defending like never before. Here’s why:

The dense and layered network of social fibers that fills the space between the individual and the state makes it possible, among other things, to sustain an idea of earned success in America—an idea that is one of America’s greatest achievements. It is built upon incentives and institutions—patterns of praise and blame and honor and duty—that yield the drive to work and innovate, and that alone make genuine self-reliance possible. The “you didn’t build that” Democrats can see that none of this is truly achieved by any individual alone, but they are mistaken to jump to the conclusion that America’s elevation of the individual achiever is therefore delusional. It is, rather, a function of an arrangement of society’s circumstances, economic rules, cultural mores, and laws that make individual initiative and risk worthwhile and make hard work a plausible path to a better life. Success by this path is neither assured nor evenly distributed. We have not managed to make life fair, and we must help those who do not prosper or rise. But we have managed to make earned social mobility possible, and from that achievement we have derived an amazing trove of initiative, creativity, and gumption that has been an almost indescribably effective engine of both wealth and virtue for two centuries.