In his column this morning, David Brooks has a roundup of young conservative voices we should be listening to. He divides them into four groups: paleoconservatives, lower-middle reformists, soft libertarians, and Burkean revivalists. I want to focus on the last, for as is so often the case with Brooks, he gets it wrong—but in revealing ways.
Burkean Revivalists. This group includes young conservatives whose intellectual roots go back to the organic vision of society described best by Edmund Burke but who are still deeply enmeshed in current policy debates.
Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs is one of the two or three most influential young writers in politics today. He argues that we are now witnessing the fiscal crisis of the entitlement state, exemplified most of all by exploding health care costs. His magazine promotes a big agenda of institutional modernization.
It just so happens that I was reading yesterday a piece by Levin from the summer 2012 issue of The New Atlantis (h/t the kind reader who sent it to me; I can’t now find who you are) on the problem of health care and entitlement spending.
After the usual heavy breathing and hortatory throat-clearing that are characteristic of such think pieces on the right—”Our weaknesses and problems, no less than our strengths and advantages, are reflections of the society we are, and so to understand them we would do well to reflect upon the question of just what sort of society that is.”—Levin sets out the boiler-plate, one part Straussianism, two parts bullshit.
The ancients sought virtue, a life of excellence lived in and through the polis; the moderns (Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke) perpetrate “a lowering of aims.” The moderns see “the preservation and protection of life and of health as the primary functions of society.” Motivated by “safety and power,” they care nothing for the higher goods of religion or morality. Instead, they “assert for health a place at the very top of the heap of human goods.”
It’s the usual hash of modern political thought that you find in certain precincts of the Straussian right. What’s interesting about it is how Levin connects it to our health care debate and the market, and whom he draws inspiration from in doing so.
The health care challenge we face, insists Levin, is not merely the narrow economic problem of ballooning costs; that would be too pedestrian. It’s that we have so lost sight of other goods—excellence, justice, and so on—that we are willing to spend every last dime, and our children’s dimes, on staying alive, the world be damned. Because of “our disproportionate and even reckless elevation of health,” we have become the small people—our society the “vessel for self-absorption and decadence”—that we are.
That concern with self-absorption and decadence should tip us off to where we stand with Levin: not under the bright sun of the ancients or the Founders—or, pace Brooks, Edmund Burke—but in the shadow of Nietzsche. (Setting aside the connection between Burke and Nietzsche, which I allude to in The Reactionary Mind.)
In understanding that liberal temptation, our best guide is not Descartes but Nietzsche, who described what could become of us in an age beyond responsibility, an age he believed was the inevitable destination of liberal societies. The degeneration of virtue in such societies, he argues, will atrophy our ability to plan for the future, our drive to work, and our interest in governing. In such a state, people will lack the noble aspiration to a virtuous life, setting their aims far lower, as Nietzsche writes. “One has one’s little pleasure for the day, and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.”
Our regard for health, it seems, can easily coexist with a society that we would not otherwise be proud of. Unbalanced and unmoored from other goods, such regard can become a vessel for self-absorption and for decadence. It can cause us to abandon our commitment to our highest principles, and to mortgage the future to avert present pain.
What makes Levin’s invocation of Nietzsche even more fascinating is that he sees the market as the antidote to this culture of decadence. Where Nietzsche loathed the culture of the market and of capitalism, modern conservatives who walk in his path have found a way around that hostility. They see the market as the proving ground of the heroic self, as the crucible from which a being of ancient excellence and moral virtue—or, if you’re jonesing for a more modern version, a tragic chooser of incommensurable goods—can arise. In Levin’s case, the market is the instrument by which our ravenous desire for health at any cost will be forced to confront the constraints of cost, leading us to prioritize our values—and creating a space, he hopes, for other values to emerge.
It’s not at first clear why Levin thinks such other values would emerge, given that he thinks we’ve lost sight of them, but at the end of his essay he draws what seems to be an unearned distinction between the people and the government, claiming that it’s not the citizenry that’s corrupt but the state. The institutions of liberal democracy can’t make hard choices, tied as they are to the base drives of politicians. But the market can.
After all, markets don’t just make expensive goods cheaper — they are also extraordinarily effective prioritizers, allowing many individual decisions to be made close to the ground. In the case of health care, that would mean having more critical decisions about spending made by patients, by families, and by doctors, and creating a strong incentive for those decisions that have to be made by insurers to be made in ways that will be perceived as fair by their customers.
Market solutions would by no means eliminate all the grave difficulties involved in prioritizing health care. There would still be rationing, there would still be times when being out of money means you are out of options, there would still be decisions made by insurance company bureaucrats that strike patients and doctors as unjust. But there would be far fewer than under a system that assigned rationing decisions to public officials and gave patients far fewer choices and far less control.
In a properly regulated but competitive insurance market, we would have a much better chance of actually prioritizing health among the goods we value. Because while liberal political institutions are unsuited to such prioritization, we liberal citizens are often up to it. Families, which after all are not liberal institutions, can make difficult choices — balancing the needs of different generations and the importance of different needs and wants — in ways that democratic political institutions often simply cannot.
Read that last paragraph carefully: “We liberal citizens are often up to it.” Why? Because we live in “families, which after all are not liberal institutions.” It’s the family, by which Levin means the anti-liberal or illiberal or non-liberal parental authority unit, that makes the difficult choices. So we have the market as the disciplining agent working with whomever controls the finances in the family (and we all know who that is) to create the conditions for a society that cares about something more than its health.
Over the last year, I’ve been working on a project that seeks to explore the elective affinities between Nietzsche and neoliberalism, the hidden dialogue between the German criticism of decadence and the Austrian School’s celebration of capitalism. In the coming months, I hope to be publishing an article about this, but I’ve already given some hints of my views on that connection in various posts on Tumblr.
In the meantime, I urge you to take a look at Levin’s essay insofar as it gives you a good sense of the Nietzschean dimensions of contemporary conservatism, especially that “Burkean” conservatism which gets praised by the likes of David Brooks.