Paul Ryan has received some praise for a speech he delivered in Cleveland this week. Outlining his vision of society, Ryan argued that “there’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual. Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship – this is where we live our lives. They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.”
Seth Mandel of Commentary observes that this sounds a lot like the sociologist Robert Nisbet. Mandel’s right: the quest for community was Nisbet’s great theme. Fifty years before it became fashionable, Nisbet argued that groups that mediate between the nuclear family and the state, Burke’s “little platoons”, are not merely useful in promoting stability. They are also essential sources of meaning for the people who participate them.
But Mandel doesn’t acknowledge that Nisbet was a bitter critic of the “individualism” that Ryan has defended on other occasions. Indeed, Nisbet’s whole intellectual career can be boiled down to a single argument: that the modern state and the autonomous individual are not antitheses, but two sides of the same coin. Coercion and freedom appear to be opposed. In fact, Nisbet argued, the individual depends on the state to liberate him from the networks of authority, tradition, and duty into which he was born so that he can pursue projects of his own devising.
As I’ve written before, I don’t think that Ryan is a fanatical Objectivist. He claims to be more influenced by Hayek and Aquinas, and there’s some evidence of that in the Cleveland speech. At the same time, I don’t think Ryan or his speechwriters have heard Nisbet’s message. Like the liberal political scientist Robert Putnam, they think in terms of civil society composed of voluntary associations. Nisbet, by contrast, was interested in communities that impose moral and social obligations on their members.
Community in this sense may be impossible in a modern society. But conservatives should not fool themselves into believing that it can be restored if we devote more time to volunteer work or donate more money to charity. We may, in other words, be stuck with individualism. Nisbet taught that this is a fate to be mourned rather than celebrated.