Yuval Levin warns National Review Online readers against accepting the argument that conservatives should limit their goals to restraining the size and scope of the federal government.

This has often led conservatives to appeal to the public by calling first and foremost for restraining that government — restricting its reach, reducing its scope, cutting its cost. These are surely essential goals, but a failure to put them in the context of a larger vision of the proper role of government risks leaving the public with the impression that what conservatives want is less of the same: the liberal welfare state at a lower cost. This is in fact how many on the left would like Americans to understand our public debates.

But the size and cost of the liberal welfare state are a function of its basic character, and it is that character that is really at issue in most policy debates between liberals and conservatives. The fundamentally prescriptive, technocratic approach to American society inherent in the logic of the Left’s policy thinking is a poor fit for American life at any scale. The liberal welfare state ultimately cannot be had at an affordable price. It is not the architecture of one or another particular program that makes it unsustainable. It is unsustainable because the system as a whole must feed off of the innovative, decentralized vitality of American life, yet it undermines both the moral and the economic foundations of that vitality.

This is in part because the Left tends not to see the decentralized, boisterous character of American society — with its uneasy but constructive tension between moral traditionalism and economic dynamism — as a great good to be protected and nurtured, but rather as at best an unruly source of material wealth and at worst a barrier to the achievement of important social objectives. The means of the liberal welfare state are centralizing and consolidating mechanisms intended to bring order to this chaos. And liberals rarely offer a defense of that managerial outlook. They take both its means and its ends for granted and defend the welfare state as though it were identical to the broad social objectives it purports to advance.

They therefore treat attempts to alter or eliminate liberal programs as attempts to abandon the most general objectives of those programs — to provide a safety net for the poor, say, or a foundation of economic security for the elderly and the vulnerable. Even alternatives that would achieve those goals in less heavy-handed ways and at a lower cost are assumed to be less committed to the goals, and so are taken to be steps in the wrong direction. It hardly seems to matter how well the Left’s favorite programs actually work: What matters is that they exist, and must not be undone.