Some of the most considerable challenges we now confront are actually the logical conclusions of the path of individualism and fracture, dissolution and liberation that we have traveled since the middle of the twentieth century. And some of the most considerable resources at our disposal for addressing those challenges are also the products of our having traveled this path. Our problems are the troubles of a fractured republic, and the solutions we pursue will need to call upon the strengths of a decentralized, diffuse, diverse, dynamic nation.
The state of our politics makes it terribly difficult to see any of this or to act on it, however. The structure of our key debates suggests to us that politics must be a choice between collectivism and atomism—between empowering a central government to impose solutions and liberating isolated citizens to go their own ways. These debates therefore often devolve into accusations of socialism and social Darwinism, libertinism and puritanism, and they encourage us to think that we must either double down on dissolution and radical individualism or return to mass consolidation and centralization.
But if we considered the lessons of our postwar history, and the lessons of what preceded and precipitated it, we might come to grasp a truth that some perceptive friends of American democracy have long sought to call to our attention: collectivism and atomism are not opposite ends of the political spectrum, but rather two sides of one coin. They are closely related tendencies, and they often coexist and reinforce one another—each making the other possible. It is when we pursue both together, as we frequently do in contemporary America, that we most exacerbate the dark sides of our fracturing and dissolution.
There is an alternative to this perilous mix of over-centralization and hyper individualism. It can be found in the intricate structure of our complex social topography and in the institutions and relationships that stand between the isolated individual and the national state. These begin in loving family attachments. They spread outward to interpersonal relationships in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, religious communities, fraternal bodies, civic associations, economic enterprises, activist groups, and the work of local governments. They reach further outward toward broader social, political, and professional affiliations, state institutions, and regional affinities. And they conclude in a national identity that among its foremost attributes is dedicated to the principle of the equality of the entire human race.
Our society is thus like a set of concentric rings, beginning with the most concrete and personal of human connections and concluding in the most abstract and philosophical of human commitments. Each ring, starting from the innermost sanctum of the family and the individuals who compose it, anchors and enables the next and is in turn protected by it and given the room to thrive. The outermost ring of society is guarded and sustained by the national government, which is charged with protecting the space in which the entire society can flourish and enabling all Americans to participate in and benefit from what happens there.
This understanding of society, this picture of our social compact, is itself what is most threatened by the fracture and fragmentation of our era. But it is at the same time what holds the key to balancing diversity with cohesion, and dynamism with moral order. The middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face, offer a middle ground between radical individualism and extreme centralization. Our political life need not consist of a recurring choice between having the federal government invade and occupy the middle layers of society or having isolated individuals break down the institutions that compose those layers. It can and should be an arena for attempting different ways of empowering those middle institutions to help our society confront its problems.
There will be no simple or universal formulas for doing that, but there are never simple or universal formulas for revitalizing a complex society. Indeed, the absence of easy answers is precisely a reason to empower a multiplicity of problem-solvers throughout our society, rather than hoping that one problem solver in Washington gets it right.
This book therefore ultimately argues that the frustration that defines our time should lead us not to seek an impossible return to a half-remembered golden age, but instead to work toward a modernized politics of subsidiarity— that is, of putting power, authority, and significance as close to the level of the interpersonal community as reasonably possible. That is what the modernization we now so badly need would look like.
Our country has a long tradition of contending with its vastness and its multiplicity in this way. And our politics has resources for the task as well. Progressives can draw upon a deep reserve of experience in populist community and labor activism, a history of intellectual dalliances with a communitarian liberalism, and a lively elite culture of localist consumerism. But they must also resist their own instincts toward both administrative centralization and moral individualism.
Conservatives can call upon a profound intellectual tradition and a rich philosophy of society rooted in the preeminence of the mediating institutions, a commitment to constitutionalism and federalism, and vast experience with a host of different forms of bottom-up problem solving in the church, the market, and the charitable enterprise. But they must also resist a long-honed inclination to express their objections to centralization in radically individualist terms. And countless Americans of all parties and no party are practical, experienced experts in putting family, faith, and community first and helping one another in hard times.
A modernized ethic of subsidiarity would therefore not yield a radical revolution in American life but an incremental revival. And it would not involve a checklist of public programs and policy steps. It would begin, instead, with an instinct for decentralization in our public affairs, a tendency toward experimentation and bottom-up problem solving, a greater patience for variety in our approaches to social and economic problems and priorities, more room for ingenuity and tolerance for trial and error, and more freedom for communities to live out their moral ideals, and so to each define freedom a little differently.
It would involve greater attentiveness to the near at hand, and so a lesser emphasis on immense national battles—lowering the stakes, and therefore the temperature, of our national politics. It would surely bring much change to the institutions of our entitlement state and welfare system over time, but by enabling salutary competition rather than replacing one set of centralizing assumptions with another. It would not call upon some revanchist fantasy of a pre-modern age of voluntarism, but rather would seek to modernize our public institutions to bring them into line with a decentralizing society where choice and competition are the norm. It would, in other words, work to turn our very fracture and diversity into tools for addressing some of their own worst consequences.