A Manifesto for Right-Leaning Wonks

Yuval Levin's ambitious statement of purpose ought to be read by every movement conservative in America.

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National Affairs


One knock critics of conservatism occasionally utter is that the right is no good at governing become it isn't interested in making government work, only dismantling it. One thing Yuval Levin has tried to do at National Affairs, his right-leaning quarterly journal, is to take domestic policy seriously, rather than ceding all detailed discussions to opponents who want to expand government.

Sensing this, Jonah Goldberg described the contributors at National Affairs as "technocratic thinkers." I'm pleased to see Levin has corrected him, and in doing so has managed to write what should be a statement of purpose for conservative wonks. It affords a glimpse at what serious, principled conservatism might look like if the Republican Party ever gets its act together.

Here's an excerpt:

It's certainly true that National Affairs often takes up particular policy problems in great detail, which the Claremont Review of Books generally doesn't. An essay about, say, how to fix Medicare or how to modernize the school system which goes into great detail about how certain public programs work and how they might work differently can involve matters that are without a doubt rather technical. But it seems to me that the nature of the solutions we offer to the country's public policy problems (and especially those problems caused by bad public policy, which are most of the ones we have in mind) makes our work not only not technocratic but deeply anti-technocratic. One can understand the technical aspect of these problems without believing that it is the crucial or governing aspect. Our writers generally seek to take institutions that are now built to channel technical expertise and turn them into institutions that instead channel public preferences and social knowledge. That's the basic purpose of turning welfare-state institutions into market systems, and of empowering civil society in place of the federal bureaucracy. It's a function of the idea that governing problems are actually not generally best understood (or truly understood) as technical problems, and therefore that governing is not a technical exercise. Seeing governing as a technical exercise requiring above all the application of technical expertise is what I would take to be the definition of the technocratic viewpoint which, combined with its equal and opposite error of populism, gives form to the progressive worldview.

...to combat progressivism and advance the traditional American vision of government requires of us an engagement not only at the level of ideas but also at the level of public policy. We who defend the American system too often recoil from thinking and working at that level, preferring to defend general principles, perhaps under the mistaken impression that detailed public policy work is itself a kind of technocratic pursuit. But this is a serious mistake. Ceding the policy arena to the Left allows liberals both to dominate policy making itself (and thus define the work of our government) and to masquerade as non-ideological pragmatists just trying to solve technical problems. By making a case for the policy implications of conservatism we can both compete to control the direction of our government in practical terms and show that taking policy seriously doesn't end the debate but rather extends it. Serious policy differences flow directly from serious philosophical differences. Conservatives can read a spreadsheet too, and yet that doesn't mean we think bureaucracy is the solution to what ails us -- quite the contrary... to engage them at the level of policy detail is not to accept their assumptions about what government should do.

There aren't very many conservatives who take this attitude. But perhaps in time there will be many more.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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