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August 6th, 2012 10:38 am
The Deeper Stakes in This Election

Yuval Levin has an incredibly important piece at today’s NRO about how the Obamites are working to destroy the mediating institutions of civil society.

When pressed to defend its constriction of the rights of religious institutions, the administration recast the basic definition and purpose of such institutions. The final HHS rule defined a religious employer exceedingly narrowly, as an institution that primarily serves and employs people of its own faith and has as its basic purpose the inculcation of the beliefs of that faith. This leaves no room for most religiously based institutions of civil society — no room for hospitals, for schools and universities, for soup kitchens and homeless shelters, for adoption agencies and legal-aid clinics. Religious institutions may preach to the choir, but otherwise they may not play any role in society. Especially when they disagree with those in power, they must be cleared out of the space between the individual and the state. Indeed, the president and his administration don’t seem to have much use for that space at all. Even the family, which naturally stands between the individual and the community, is not essential. … Edmund Burke, Paine’s great nemesis, argued that such mediating structures also express in their very forms the actual shape of our society — evolved over time out of affectionate sentiments, practical needs, and common aspirations. “We begin our public affections in our families,” Burke wrote. “We pass on to our neighborhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill.” To sweep them away and leave only the citizen and the state would rob society of its sources of warmth, loyalty, and affinity, and of the most effective means of enacting significant social improvements….

The Left’s disdain for civil society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the mediating institutions in society — emphatically including the family, the church, and private enterprise — are instruments of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, and resistance to change, and that in order to establish our national life on more rational grounds, the government needs to weaken and counteract them.

The Right’s high regard for civil society, meanwhile, is driven above all not by a disdain for government but by a deeply held belief in the importance of our diverse and evolved societal forms, without which we could not hope to secure our liberty. Conservatives seek mechanisms and institutions to bring implicit social knowledge to bear on our troubles, while progressives seek the authority and power to bring explicit technical knowledge to bear on them.

This president and those of his ilk who are acting in increasingly authoritarian ways are, in short, deliberately trying to destroy the very institutions, and the space for voluntary individual action both within and apart from those institutions, that most Americans have always believed were the very heart of the American idea. The president’s mission, whether he knows it or not, is a species of evil. It must not be allowed to succeed.

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