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Why some conservatives are rethinking libertarian economics

AEI scholar Yuval Levin discusses what conservatism is and where the conservatism movement went awry on The Ezra Klein Show podcast.

US-VOTE-REPUBLICANS-CONVENTION DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty Images

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the way we often conflate two very distinct things when we assign political labels. The first is ideology, which describes our vision of a just society. The second is something less discussed but equally important: temperament. It describes how we approach social problems, how fast we think society can change, and how we understand the constraints upon us.

Yuval Levin is the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, the editor in chief of the public policy journal National Affairs, and the author of the upcoming book A Time to Build. Levin is one of the most thoughtful articulators of both conservative temperament and ideology. Perhaps for that reason, his is one of the most important criticisms of what the conservative movement has become today.

There’s a lot in this conversation, in part because Levin’s book speaks to mine in interesting ways. One of my favorite parts was when Levin spoke about how conservatives are beginning to rethink libertarian economics, creating space for unlikely coalitions.

Yuval Levin

I think we live now in a moment where much more basic questions are open than were earlier in this century and in the last couple of decades of the 20th century. It seemed at the end of the cold war as though there was a settlement around what broadly we might call liberalism and the question now was how to make the most of it and how to govern it. We now are asking ourselves much more basic questions about how to be a justice society. I think that’s a good thing.

On the right, there are really fundamental debates about whether it makes sense for conservatism to be oriented around a commitment to the market economy or whether instead it be fundamentally grounded in social and moral commitments and religious commitments. I am on the side of those who say that libertarian [economics] should not be the organizing principle of American life.

It is important to see that the arguments that we’re having now are moral more than economic. They’re not exactly arguments against capitalism. They’re arguments about a society that puts economic questions first and foremost. And, to the extent that that is the objection [socialists] raise, they have a lot of allies on the right. There are a lot of people on the right who worry that our society too often puts economics first and foremost, and instead believe we should think about human flourishing first and foremost — about enabling families to start, about enabling communities to thrive, about allowing people to organize their lives around basic moral principles that they understand to be the definition of justice.

We also discuss:

  • The conservative view of human nature
  • Why the conservative temperament is increasingly diverging from the conservative movement
  • The case Levin makes to socialists
  • What theories of American politics get wrong about the reality of American life
  • Levin’s rebuttal to my book
  • The crucial difference between “formative” and “performative” social institutions
  • Why the most fundamental problems in American life are cultural, not economic
  • Why Levin thinks the New York Times should not allow its journalists to be on Twitter
  • Whether we can restore trust in our institutions without changing the incentives and systems that surround them.

There’s a lot Levin and I disagree on, but there are few people I learn as much from in disagreement as I learn from him.

You can listen to this conversation — and others — by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Yuval Levin’s book recommendations:

Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville

The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet

Statecraft as Soulcraft by George Will

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George Will makes the conservative case against democracy