In Praise of Yuval Levin
June 13th, 2013

Galley Friend Yuval Levin was awarded a Bradley Prize this year, making him as the youngest man ever to receive the honor, and one of the most deserving, too. Yuval is basically the platonic ideal of what we hope for in the world of political intellectuals and his acceptance speech is worth reading. Sample awesome:

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

You need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be changed. We should never forget that the people who oppose our various endeavors and argue for another way are well intentioned too, even when they’re wrong, and that they’re not always wrong.

But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom—of ordered liberty—built up over centuries of hard work.

We value these things not because they are triumphant and invincible but because they are precious and vulnerable, because they weren’t fated to happen, and they’re not certain to survive. They need us—and our gratitude for them should move us to defend them and to build on them.

That’s not to say that conservatives are never outraged, of course. We’ve had a lot of reason to be outraged lately. But it tends to be when we think the legacy and promise we cherish are threatened, rather than when some burning ambition is frustrated.

Conservatives often begin from gratitude because we start from modest expectations of human affairs—we know that people are imperfect, and fallen, and weak; that human knowledge and power are not all they’re cracked up to be; and we’re enormously impressed by the institutions that have managed to make something great of this imperfect raw material. So we want to build on them because we don’t imagine we could do better starting from scratch.

Liberals often begin from outrage because they have much higher expectations—maybe even utopian expectations—about the perfectibility of human things and the potential of human knowledge and power. They’re often willing to ignore tradition and to push aside institutions that channel generations of wisdom because they think we can do better on our own.

This can sometimes leave conservatives feeling like we are the brakes on American life, while people on the left hold the steering wheel. Like they push for their idea of progress and we just want to go a little more slowly. But that’s a serious mistake.

The American idea of progress is the tradition that we’re defending. It is made possible precisely by sustaining our deep ties to the ideals of liberty, and equality, and human dignity expressed in our founding and our institutions. The great moral advances in our history have involved the vindication of those principles—have involved America becoming more like itself.

And in any society, the task of sustaining those kinds of institutions for the next generation is the essential task—the irreplaceable precondition for everything else. That is the work first and foremost of families, and of communities.


  1. Joe Sixpack June 13, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    I’ve read his oeuvre. Meh. He’s a big government conservative. That is, he’s a progressive, but uses terms of the right. He advocates government intervention in a slew of areas where government has no business and worse, screws the whole enterprise.

    This is the best “conservatism” has? (It’s not. See: Jonah Goldberg, who wrote the most important book of the last 20 years.)

    So when the last conservative leaves the room, can you please turn off the (energy efficient) lights?

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  3. Joe Sixpack June 13, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    I wish I could edit to add: Giving Mr. Levin this prize is the equivalent of awarding Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m sure he has potential, but his words and actions belie his award for “Defending American Ideals.”

    What a farce.

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  5. Galley Friend L.B. June 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Have you really read Yuval Levin’s stuff, Mr. Sixpack? Perhaps you should read it again, as he’s not even remotely a “progressive.” I’d be curious to hear your examples of where he “advocates government intervention in a slew of areas where government has no business.” He’s been one of the most eloquent and cogent critics of Obamacare specifically and the entire “progressive”/left-liberal thrust of Obama’s presidency more generally.

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  7. AKB1 June 14, 2013 at 11:21 am

    I adore Yuval Levin. He’s got a book coming out soon about Burke and Paine, which I look forward to reading, right after I read What to Expect.