Yuval Levin Transcript

Taped July 29, 2014

Table of Contents

I: National Affairs 0:15 –
II: Working in the White House 13:45 –
III: Battling Bureaucracy 
IV: Burke and Modern Conservatism 
V: Political Philosophy and Politics 1:04:26 –

I: National Affairs (0:15 –

KRISTOL: Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. Our guest today is Yuval Levin, policy analyst, policy practitioner, a former White House staffer. And among other things, now editor of the very fine journal, National Affairs. What is National Affairs? Why National Affairs?

LEVIN: Well, thank you. National Affairs is a quarterly journal of essays on domestic policy and political thought – political ideas. It tries to sit at the intersection of policy – concrete policy – and political theory and political thought.

It exists really because in the wake of the 2008 elections, after a series of conversations among people on the right, including you, among others, we came to the view that one of the things that were missing on the right was a venue for people to think out loud in a serious way, both about policy ideas where the policy agenda seemed to be a little empty, and about political ideas about how, about what conservatism should mean in the 21st century and how that might apply to people’s lives.

And we had a clear model. The model really was The Public Interest, which had run for 40 years and which had shut down about five years before that. And so one of the things that kept coming up in conversation was sort of, “Gee, I wish there were something like the PI for us to think this through,” whether it be healthcare, education, or to understand Obama’s approach to public policy. And so it sort of became obvious sitting around those tables, well, if we need something like that, we kind of know what that looks like and how it works. And so we started in the fall of 2009, and it’s published quarterly. We’ve just published our 20th issue. So the fall of this year will be our fifth anniversary.

And the magazine has tried to open up a space for policy conversation on the right, in general. But also to advance a way of thinking about public policy that’s directed to contemporary problems, that tries to be engaged with 21st-century issues and to apply conservative ideas to them, to be a home for a kind of applied conservatism that’s come to be known in some quarters as “reform conservatism.” The idea being really what do these ideas that in 1980 meant supply-side and a certain approach to economic policy and social policy, what do they mean given 21st-century problems? The same principles, the same starting points – what might they mean now?

A lot of what we’ve tried to do in our pages is think through those ideas. Some of what we’ve published has become real policy proposals and legislation, like a tax proposal from Mike Lee or healthcare proposals from Orrin Hatch and others. Some of it is still out there waiting for a champion. And a lot of it is just thinking through big problems, big-think pieces about how we should understand freedom in this moment, how we should think about the family, what conservatism might mean in this way or that way. It’s more explicitly conservative than The Public Interest was, in some respects, but in an open-minded way, it has a point-of-view but not a party line.

KRISTOL: I think it’s been great. As an editor of a weekly magazine, I think we need something like that. Because the truth is, weekly, I mean, you have a lot of pieces, of course, and hopefully, some that are very reflective and thoughtful, but still do tend to much more commenting on the issues of the moment. Or if not, maybe it’s a feature piece. But to have 8, 9, 10 of them in one issue that people can read –

LEVIN: We really push against the logic of the Internet age in opinion journalism. We not only publish only quarterly so that issues are three months apart and a lot happens in the interim. We also publish long essays – 5,000-, 6,000-word essays. To the extent we have anything to look at, they’re going to be charts and not interesting pictures. It’s very simple in the way that it’s laid out, both in print and online.

And we think there’s room for kind of sober, almost boring – but only almost boring – policy writing. And there seems to be an audience for it, obviously not a mass audience, exactly, but a larger audience than we would have imagined, certainly.

KRISTOL: What surprised you about the reaction and about being online as opposed –

LEVIN: Yeah. It’s a way in which we are different from The Public Interest. We really have used the Internet for the beginning, obviously, since we started in 2009. An average essay of ours gets read in the course of, say, the year after it’s published by about 80,000-90,000 people. And it’s a lot for a long essay on public policy. It obviously doesn’t compare to the mass publications, The Weekly Standard and others. But given what we write about and given how we write about it, I’ve been pretty impressed with the number of people who are willing to get to know an issue in that way.

KRISTOL: And substantively in terms of conservatism, I mean, are you cheerful, optimistic, depressed? It’s 5 years in. Is it fresher than – it was kind of exhausting, I suppose, after – near the end of the Bush Administration and the crisis of ’08?

LEVIN: I think one question we came in with was whether we would find writers and find subjects. And there were a mix of views about that, I would say. I spoke for example to James Q. Wilson who had been one of the big players in the PI circle for all those years. And he was very pessimistic. He thought there were no generalists in the academy and that we were going to have to find the right kind of – the right kinds of specialists and then translate them into English. And, of course, that is some of what we do. And it’s true there aren’t generalists like him, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, almost no such people. But at the same time, there weren’t that many back then either. If you want to talk about the great generalists of the PI, you know there weren’t more than 10 of them for 40 years.

So I would say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how many writers there are who want to do this. Especially once the magazine got known a little bit, people come out of the woodwork. There were people doing some interesting work at universities, certainly in the think tank world, which is where we sort of naturally draw on. There are a lot of people doing interesting work who want to write in longer form.

What we offer our writers is access to policymakers. We’re read on Capitol Hill. We’re taken seriously as a kind of source of ideas on the right. And what they offer us is a real engagement with what’s going on in social science, in economics, in the law. So connecting those two worlds, I think, is an important service. And it is something conservatism needed in that moment. And I think we’ve got a lot better at it, even in the course of these five years. There’s a lot more ferment on the right, and hopefully we’ve been some part of that.

KRISTOL: Yeah, I think so. I think a journal like National Affairs or The Public Interest are often ahead of the curve. I mean, they do try to experiment with new ideas and have the luxury of doing so in a way that a sitting politician sometimes doesn’t. And so substantively, what would you say? I mean what has – how is conservatism doing? What are the cutting edges of the conservative agenda? What’s changed in the 5 years since National Affairs began or in the 10 years since you started working at the White House?

LEVIN: I think that part of what we’ve tried to emphasize is an engagement with middle-class concerns. There’s a way in which both political parties now – the Republicans and the Democrats – function as kind of vehicles for checking off items on a checklist that they got from somebody else many decades ago. In many cases, they’ve forgotten why they ended up the list that they have, they just know they have to finish it.

And so conservative economic policy sometimes has this feel to it. Almost everything that happens on the left now has this feel to it. It’s not very well connected to 21st-century realities. And things are changing in some important ways. I think one way to think about that broadly is that American society is going through a kind of decentralization where if 40 years ago you would have thought of American society as governed by large institutions – big government, big business, big labor, big academic institutions, big media – working together. And great success meant navigating these institutions in a successful way.

Now, people think of themselves as belonging to much more dynamic, smaller networks, rather than big institutions. And the large institutions just don’t run the country the way they used to. Our government has not caught up with that.

And in a way, both the left and right still think in the old ways, and not only think in the old ways, but are really driven by a nostalgia for those old ways. What they think the problems are are the ways in which those big institutions have faded away, and they want to get back to some form of that.

I think that’s just a mistake, and it’s especially a mistake for conservatives because this more decentralized way of living is well-suited to how we think about society and how we think about government. It obviously presents dangers and problems, too, especially on the social side, on the side of the state of the family, the state of society, social institutions; all this has to be thought about. But it has to be thought about in a way that’s related to contemporary realities.

And that’s part of we’ve tried to do. I think what’s come to be known as “reform conservatism,” which National Affairs has tried to be a part of, is about that, is new in that it tries to apply conservatism to contemporary problems; it’s not new in that it’s a different kind of conservatism. But it’s just applied conservatism in the 21st century.

KRISTOL: So give me an example of the decentralization. I’m interested by that. I don’t think the big institutions necessarily think they’ve faded away. Harvard or The New York Times or the federal government –

LEVIN: The idea that you would now graduate from a university, get a job and then retire from that company 40 years later is preposterous to anybody graduating college today. No one thinks that way. So no one understands themselves as navigating big companies.

If you think about how research and development works in our country, it really used to be that there was Bell Labs and there was the Defense Department and there were large universities, research universities. They worked together, and I wouldn’t want to describe that as some kind of lumbering, horrible bureaucracy. They actually achieved amazing things. They did innovate but that’s done, that’s no longer how things happen, and it’s certainly not how innovation happens. That system inevitably ossified, and all of that kind of thing now happens in an incredibly decentralized way.

I think even the way people understand their place in society and how they relate to other Americans, a lot of it is different now, it’s much more smaller, dynamic networks of people because of technology, because of the way people think about their careers and their education.

We’re just less a nation of large centralized huge institutions. And that’s good and bad. But our politics has not caught up with that. We still have a government that wants to be the government of that society, and, so, looks at the society that it’s trying to govern as just a mess, just a huge mess that it needs to clean up. And that’s a mistake. We don’t need a government that cleans up the mess, we need a government that let’s us prosper amidst the mess. It’s not going away.

KRISTOL: Right. And liberals, I take it, they’re pretty committed to the model of cleaning up the mess, though, I think?

LEVIN: Yeah, I, I would say so. I mean they’re especially drawn to these large institutions. In part, they have a different way of thinking about how to solve social problems. It’s much more consolidated technocratic way of thinking about society. And so they do want to manage. They want a government that helps them manage society.

And of course, society is becoming harder and harder to manage. And the liberal welfare state shows it. It’s not managing to do some of the basic things it needs to do. The problem with that is that it’s impossible to go back to that state of things. It’s just not where we are and where we’re going to be.

KRISTOL: And I suppose this decentralized, middle-class focused agenda, on the other hand, is somewhat different from a pure libertarian agenda or simply anti-government agenda?

LEVIN: Yes, certainly. It’s different in a few ways. It thinks of society not in hyper-individualistic terms.

And I think in this sense, it’s different from both the left and the libertarians. It is conservative.

That’s what conservatism really means, fundamentally, is to understand society not as just individuals and government, but to think of it in terms of everything happens in between. That huge space between the individual and the state is where society actually is. And that’s where families are, it’s where communities are, it’s where the market economy is.

And all these – all these are going be much better at solving problems that arise than the government standing outside. And conservatives think about government as protecting that space, enabling that space, and allowing people to benefit from what happens there. So there’s a role for government, but it’s a supporting role, it’s not a leading role.

KRISTOL: And this has been well-received, you think, by Republican officeholders, staffers, possible presidential candidates and so forth? I mean, what’s the –

LEVIN: You know, on the whole, yes. My expectations were low, but I think it’s been a mix. It’s been well-received in the sense that – and this was really our instinct from the beginning that the people involved in trying to advance these ideas are not fighting another faction on the right, we’re filling a vacuum, really a vacuum. And that means that there’s a sense among the politicians that they have this vacuum, that when you give a speech, you want at the end of it to get to a place where you’re saying, “This is how I’m going to help fix things.” And there’s not been a lot for Republicans to say lately.

And by the way, there’s not a lot for Democrats to say, either. You know, the Democrats are going to need some kind of reformed liberalism sooner or later because they also need to think about the 21st century.

But what we’re trying to apply conservative ideas in ways that speak to these problems. So, today’s problems are not high marginal tax rates and high inflation. They are cost-of-living issues that have to do with health care, with higher education, with the payroll tax and not the income tax. Conservatives have to think about what their principles mean in relation to what people are actually going through.

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