No one could accuse Yuval Levin of taking President Obama out of context in a three-page examination of the “you didn’t build that” speech for the latest National Review.

Midway through his second paragraph, Levin quotes the president’s entire riff from the July 13 Roanoke, Va., speech — from his first reference to a “lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me” to the conclusion that “I still believe in that idea: You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”

Even with the proper context, though, Levin says the speech reveals “not only a man chilly toward the potential of individual initiative, and not only a man deluded about the nature of his opponents and their views, but also (and perhaps most important) a man with a staggeringly thin idea of common action in American life.”

By thin, Levin means that President Obama seems to suggest that “doing things together” means “doing things through government.” Rather than recognize the critical roles of the family, civil society, and private economy, Obama “sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.” Later in the piece, Levin contends this ambivalent — even hostile — attitude toward so-called “mediating institutions” has been “essential to the progressive cause for more than a century.”

This difference of opinion about mediating institutions is no trifling matter. It gets at a profound and fundamental difference between the Left and the Right. The Left tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it enables the application of technical knowledge that can make our lives better, and that this knowledge can overcome our biggest problems. This is the technocratic promise of progressivism. The Right tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it has evolved to channel deep social knowledge through free institutions — knowledge that often cannot be articulated in technical terms but is the most important knowledge we have. For the Left, therefore, the mediating institutions (and at times even our constitutional forms) are obstacles to the application of liberal knowledge. For the Right, the mediating institutions (and our constitutional forms) are the embodiment of liberal knowledge.

The Left’s disdain for civil society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the mediating institutions in society — emphatically including the family, the church, and private enterprise — are instruments of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, and resistance to change, and that in order to establish our national life on more rational grounds, the government needs to weaken or counteract them.

The Right’s high regard for civil society, meanwhile, is driven above all not by a disdain for government but by a deeply held belief in the importance of our diverse and evolved societal forms, without which we could not hope to secure our liberty. Conservatives seek mechanisms and institutions to bring implicit social knowledge to bear on our troubles, while progressives seek the authority and power to bring explicit technical knowledge to bear on them.