Yuval Levin, the editor of the quarterly National Affairs and a sometime contributor to Commentary, has just published The Fractured Republic, an essay in book form about the political divide in the United States. It has excited more attention in the weeks leading up to its release than any comparable work in memory. I called it “the book of the year” in a New York Post column, and in a review in these pages in May, David Bahr said The Fractured Republic “merges a deep philosophic understanding of the American experiment and a conceptual analysis of American history into a practical basis from which we can examine contemporary American problems with crystalline clarity.” Given the richness of the book, we invited four right-of-center intellectuals to expound upon, and expand on, Levin’s themes and message. -John Podhoretz
uval Levin has named the disease of our age: nostalgia.
Levin’s diagnosis is, on the surface at least, familiar: Both of the major political tendencies in these United States are ensorcelled by nostalgia for the postwar era in spite of having only the most trivial understanding of its realities or its historical context. For the right, the postwar era was a time of return to normalcy: stable community life organized around nuclear families, with respect for and accommodation of what we used to call “the free-market system,” both large-scale commerce and entrepreneurship. The federal authority mainly was focused on its legitimate purposes, with a military budget that was (as a share of GDP) twice what it is today. Levin very insightfully detects that conservatives understood the 1980s as a kind of second coming of the 1950s. The left considers the same set of circumstance and draws a different set of conclusions, seeing the postwar era as one characterized by powerful unions, relatively low levels of income inequality, an assertive federal regulatory apparatus, high marginal tax rates, and what our modern-day corporatists of both parties would call “cooperation” between big government and big business, which the more libertarian-minded would be tempted to call “collusion” instead.
As Levin explains at some length, this brief, alleged, misunderstood utopia was destined to be short-lived, because it was founded upon a horrifying but impermanent situation: the ruination of most of the economically developed world by the war. In the years after the war, not just a great share but the majority of the world’s manufactured goods originated in U.S. factories. The right and the left each likes to tell a story in which that was the result of some American virtue that can be replicated today, but that is not true: The foundation of our golden age was horror, horror that was, like the hated imports that give GM fits, mainly of Japanese and German origin.
If nostalgia is the shadow that renders 21st century reality difficult for us to see, what is the light? Levin considers, intelligently, the question of the division of labor, opening his fifth and most economically rigorous chapter, “The Unbundled Market,” with Adam Smith’s famous lines on the subject. Levin gets as close or closer to what is actually going on than almost anyone else on the scene today, but it is here that he does not quite go far enough. The biological division of labor—among organelles within the cell, among cells in multicellular organisms, among the organs of more complex organisms, between the sexes in sexually reproducing organisms, etc.—has long been taken as a metaphor for the division of labor within society. But consider the possibility that this is not metaphorical, that human beings are in fact colonial organisms, like bees or the individual zooids that make up a Portuguese man o’ war. The division of labor within the family and within small-band society produced cultures in which social roles, and especially sex roles, were ruthlessly enforced (consider that the society of The Scarlet Letter and that of the Saudi mutaween both constitute a gentle refinement from ancient practice) and in which social-welfare functions were assigned to extended family and clan groups incorporated within that same division of labor. Local variations on that situation persisted for most of the 200,000 years during which anatomically modern human beings have existed until the Industrial Revolution enabled a radically larger-scale division of labor. That’s gone now, but it has been only a few hundred years, maybe one-tenth of 1 percent of the human timeline thus far, and we still are catching up to those changes, which are if anything accelerating: The postwar era was dominated by a division of labor that was, despite the volume of international trade, still mainly within, rather than between, national groups. The current turn against “globalism”—which mainly means against international trade—is a daft and nostalgia-driven attempt to turn back the next stage in our social evolution, which is the emerging species-wide division of labor. The question is as much in Charles Darwin’s realm as Adam Smith’s.
Levin’s policy suggestions are familiar enough, and they are good ones: education reform oriented toward the acquisition of economically valuable skills, decentralization of the welfare state, the introduction of competitive mechanisms everywhere possible. But his agenda is in the end unsatisfactory, because the American political project in toto is a minor factor when considered against the scale of change that is actually under way in the world. Levin is a brilliant man and a big thinker, but the relevant forces here are a bit bigger than the ones he considers.