The right rethought

Yuval Levin's new quarterly journal is more about intellect than ideology.

By Katherine Muhlenkamp
Photography from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life

The economic crisis "seemed almost designed to confirm the worst clichés about free enterprise," writes Yuval Levin, AM'02, PhD'10, editor of National Affairs, in the quarterly journal's spring 2010 issue. "The crisis had it all: reckless investors, careless lending, irresponsible borrowing, wild speculation, charlatan financiers."

Yuval Levin says his journal National Affairs is "neoconservative in the original sense."

But Levin still believes in the free market. In "Recovering the Case for Capitalism," he harks back to Adam Smith, who argued that a free market puts consumer items within reach of the ordinary citizen as it rewards discipline and productive human energy. "The two key moral features of Smith's political economy—its democratic or popular character and its disciplining effect—have been under assault in our time," Levin writes. "The first by a growing collusion between government and large corporations, and the second by a welfare state expanding its reach well beyond the needy. The case for capitalism is nothing if not a case against these two ruinous trends."

Articulating such arguments is National Affairs' reason for being. With long-form essays and a right-of-center bent, the journal tackles domestic policy, political economy, society, culture, and political thought. In 2008, as conservatives in Washington regrouped after the presidential election, the idea for National Affairs was born out of conversations about "what had gone wrong, what conservatives were lacking, what our public life in general was lacking," says Levin, who had worked as a congressional and White House staffer. "It seemed as though at least part of what conservatives lacked was a way to advance the intellectual side of the policy process." The first issue was published in fall 2009, and four issues out, National Affairs has garnered positive reviews from columnists like the New York Times's David Brooks, AB'83. With a print run of approximately 11,000 copies, the magazine also gets about 100,000 readers per month online.

The articles, written by professors, think-tank leaders, and public-policy experts, consider different perspectives while outlining policy solutions. "Striving to be constructive and concrete," Levin says, "we're thinking seriously about problems like the budget crisis and proposing ideas for reform."

Already, several pieces have stirred discussion on Capitol Hill. The second issue's essay on making the tax code more supportive of parents, written by Robert Stein, a former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Treasury Department, prompted several politicians to contact the author in hopes of turning his ideas into a legislative proposal. And the spring 2010 edition included a piece by Chicago Booth finance scholar Luigi Zingales and Harvard economist Oliver Hart, outlining a market-based approach to limit the risk-taking of financial institutions. Their idea has been touted since by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan in speeches, op-eds, and interviews.

Editing a publication that melds scholarship with politics suits Levin well. A native of Israel, he came with his family to the United States when he was eight. After earning a BA from American University, he worked for Congressmen Bob Franks and Newt Gingrich before enrolling in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought.

In 2001 Levin began work on his dissertation, which explores the role of tradition within a liberal democracy through the "question of how liberal democracy thinks about the past and the future," he says. That same year one of his mentors, Leon Kass, SB'58, MD'62, the Addie Clark Harding professor in the Committee on Social Thought, became chair of George W. Bush's Council on Bioethics and asked Levin to work for him at the council. With experience in Washington politics and "a precocious wisdom about human affairs," says Kass, Levin was the first person Kass asked to join the council's staff. Levin accepted, figuring he would write his dissertation in DC. Working his way up to council executive director, in 2004 he joined the domestic-policy staff at the White House.

In 2006 Levin left the White House to become a Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a DC-based think tank that does intellectual legwork on topics at the crossroads of public policy and moral issues, like health care. Unable to write his dissertation while working in the White House, he returned to it in early 2007.

Throughout his time in Washington, Levin has written essays and op-eds for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New Atlantis, and National Review. In 2008 he published Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy (New Atlantis Books), which examines how debates about science and technology—stem cell research, for example—illuminate basic differences in how conservatives and liberals think about the future. In 2009, while still at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Levin became editor of National Affairs (he currently holds both jobs).

National Affairs is a successor to the Public Interest, which ran from 1965 to 2005. A quarterly in the same style as National Affairs, the Public Interest was edited by Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and in its final years, Adam Wolfson, AM'89, PhD'93. The journal often published pieces by Chicago scholars, including Kass, who now serves on National Affairs' publication committee. Kass also contributed an essay to National Affairs' inaugural issue on humanism and its condition within modern American society.

"The Public Interest editors decided that after 40 years the arc of the magazine's mission had reached a kind of natural end point," says Levin. "Our sense in launching National Affairs was that it was time for another arc, moved by a similar mindset but directed to today's challenges and problems."

The Public Interest and Kristol were often associated with the term "neoconservative." Levin calls himself a conservative, but isn't so quick to label National Affairs. The word "neoconservative," he points out, originally described political leftists who shifted toward the right as they came to believe many forms of government intervention were not working. "Over time, the term has become a synonym for a foreign-policy hawk, which is careless and not quite accurate. I would say [National Affairs] is neoconservative in the original sense—in that it tries to be empirical about what works rather than whose ideology we most agree with."


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