Is it the individual citizen who is more important in a free society, or is it the government? It’s easy to see this as the philosophical choice during this election season: One side seems to favor the liberty of the individual, while the other favors the primacy of the government.
But apparently it’s not so simple.
In a provocative essay in the Weekly Standard titled “The Real Debate,” conservative writer Yuval Levin challenges the individual-versus-government cliché by explaining that “what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government.”
He adds: “The real debate forced upon us by the Obama years — the underlying disagreement to which the two parties are drawn despite themselves — is in fact about the nature of that intermediate space, and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.”
The problem, according to Levin, is that these mediating institutions have become a source of bitter ideological conflict. As he sees it, the bigger government becomes, the more it threatens the health of these institutions that live in the middle space.
“Progressives in America have always viewed those institutions with suspicion,” he writes, and have sought to empower the government to put in place “public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest.”
Conservatives have resisted such a gross rationalization of society, Levin writes, and “insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolving social institutions — from civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, to charitable enterprises and complex markets — will make for better material outcomes and a better common life.
“The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that space between the individual and the government is vital — at least as much a matter of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation. Moral individualism mixed with economic collectivism only feels like freedom because it liberates people from responsibility in both arenas.”
But real freedom, Levin says, is “only possible with real responsibility. And real responsibility is only possible when you depend upon, and are depended upon by, people you know. It is, in other words, only possible in precisely that space between the individual and the state.”
As it turns out, I got a taste of that “intermediate space” last Sunday night in my neighborhood.
The occasion was a community wedding at the Modern Orthodox YULA Girls High School.
Two months ago, members of the YULA community heard that one of their former students wanted to get married but couldn’t afford a wedding.
So, the head of school, Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who always dreamed of using the school’s grounds for a simcha, and the dean of students, Brigitte Wintner, decided the school would “donate” the wedding. (I’m smelling a screenplay.)
Everyone in the community chipped in. Services like catering, flowers, rentals, bar, photographer, musicians, etc. all were either donated or offered at enormous discounts. YULA students, past and present, ran around setting everything up on the big day.
In the courtyard where my oldest daughter spent four years hanging out with her friends, there were now cocktail tables, a bar and waiters passing out appetizers.
In the parking lot where I would park when I had meetings with the head of school, there were multiple rows of folding chairs, a small chuppah and more rabbis than I could count.
On the far side of the lot was a tent covering enough tables to accommodate 250 guests.
Neighbors popped their heads out to discover there was an actual wedding happening on their street.
As I witnessed the ceremony, and saw more than a few grateful tears on the faces of family members, it struck me that maybe this is what Levin meant by the “space” between the individual and the government.
Yes, both the individual and the government are vitally important, but perhaps even more vital is the sacred space between the two.
In the Jewish world, this space is dominated by one word: community.
No matter how compassionate a government is, it could never create this community for us.
This community is created by the teaching of Jewish values and the living of those values in everyday life. One of those values is a sense of obligation toward other members of the community. This is not a theoretical or global value, it’s deeply local.
It’s a value you see on the streets, in thrift shops, when people volunteer to clean the sidewalks, in warehouses that feed the needy on Shabbat, and, yes, even in weddings in schoolyards.
It’s a value that is dependent not on government, but on character.
No matter who wins on Nov. 6, that truth will endure.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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