Communitarian conservatives (frequently, though not always, traditionalist Catholics; Ross Douthat is a pretty good contemporary example) often criticize libertarian types for complicity in the “atomized individual” part of the destructive dynamic Nisbet was talking about, or, more practically, for promoting a political message that repels voters who don’t view “altruism” as immoral or who may anticipate needing external help at some point in life. Indeed, you sometimes get the sense that Randians and “traditionalists” hate each other more than their common liberal enemy.
Despite these disagreements, Kilgore concludes that “if you boil off the philosophy and look at actual public policy issues, you have to wonder if this is often a distinction without a difference.” He poses two questions to communitarian conservatives:
(1) whether “private groups” (or, as Republicans often argue, state or local governments) are actually adequate to deal with inequality and poverty and illness and other social problems, even if government chips in with some tax credits or other incentives, and (2) whether empowering these “intermediating institutions” involves risks to liberty that we are all familiar with from their long reign in human history.
To put it another way, if people in need (or indeed, nations in need) can no longer turn to the most efficient means available to meet collective challenges, this thing called democratic government (ideally self-government), then does it really matter if they are then helplessly consigned to the market’s wealth-creators or to the “little platoons” that regard them as objects of pity and opportunities for good works? Isn’t that “dependence,” too?
These are good questions that deserve more extended responses than I can offer today. But here are some suggestions that might help begin the discusion:
(1) The answer to this question depends on the meaning of “we” and “deal with”. Kilgore’s restatement suggests that he thinks the main agent of political life is the nation itself, or perhaps the national government. It also indicates that we should pursue “solutions” to the problems of inequality, poverty, illness, and so on.
But communitarian conservatives dispute both claims. Our argument is that many social problems are actually local problems. As such, they are often more better dealt with by local authorities and institutions than by the national government.
Take education. If we look at aggregate statistics, there’s a serious “collective” problem here. But that’s misleading. In fact, public schools in some states, such as Massachusetts, are excellent. Schools in others, such as Mississippi, are terrible. It’s not clear to me why the low quality of public schools in Mississippi is a problem for citizens of Massachusetts. Rather, it seems to be the responsibility of Mississippians to fix their own schools.
Of course, the citizens of Mississippi may not agree that there’s a problem, or may choose not to to address it in the best way. Having never visited the state, I really have no idea. But leaving decisions to the people who know the most about the situation and are most affected by it is the essence of self-government. Put differently, Washington is not the focal point of American democracy. Read More…
“When I was in school, I studied government and I learned about the anarchists. Now, they were different than the Tea Party because they were violent. But they were anarchists because they did not believe in government in any level and they acknowledged it. The Tea Party kind of hides that. They don’t say ‘we’re against government’; that’s what it all amounts to. They’re not doing physically destructive things to buildings and people, directly; but they are doing everything they can to throw a monkey wrench into any form of government — whether it’s local, whether it’s state, or federal government. That’s what it’s all about.”
Of course, most people will interpret this as a slur against the Tea Party. But it’s also a slur against anarchists, most of whom are quite peaceful. As Bill Kauffman explains in his entry for anarchism in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia:
Perhaps no political term is quite so misunderstood as “anarchy.” In the popular press, it is a synonym for disorder and chaos, not to mention looting and pillage: countries like Haiti are always being “plunged into anarchy.” The anarchist, meanwhile, is frozen into a late-nineteenth-century caricature: he is furtive, hirsute, beady-eyed, given to gesticulation, gibberish, and, most of all, pointless acts of violence. Yet anarchy, according to most of its proponents through the years, is peaceable, wholly voluntary, and perhaps a bit utopian. The word means “without a ruler”; anarchy is defined as the absence of a state and its attendant coercive powers. It implies nothing about social arrangements, family and sexual life, or religion; and in fact the most persuasive anarchists, from Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, have been Christians.
… echoes of native anarchism may be heard throughout American history: in the warnings of the Anti-Federalists about the centralizing thrust of the new Constitution; in the Garrisonian abolitionists who reviled any government that countenanced slavery; in the Populists of the 1890s, with their attacks on chartered corporations and paper wealth; in the Old Right of the 1930s, which saw the New Deal as potentially totalitarian; in the New Left of the 1960s, which denounced the military, the university, and the corporation as dehumanizing; and among contemporary libertarians, especially those influenced by the economist and anti- imperialist Murray N. Rothbard. But except for the anarchist-tinged Industrial Workers of the World, the radical labor union that reached its zenith in the early twentieth century, anarchists have never been adept organizers. For the most part anarchy in the United States has been a literary-political tendency.
So take heart, Tea Party, and don’t be too offended by the senate majority leader. He’s really saying you’re part of a proud American tradition. A tradition that someone who says “government is inherently good” is unlikely to ever understand.
(h/t United Liberty)
With Straussian eminence Walter Berns in attendance—he asks the final question—Jonathan Rauch and Justin Raimondo debate “Is Gay Marriage Good for America?” for American University’s Janus Forum.
Rauch frames his pro-SSM argument as socially conservative, a “Burkean social fabric thing,” in the words of one audience member. Raimondo has a radical libertarian counterblast to that, and he notes the irony that while genetic determinism is frowned upon in discussions of race or sex, it’s invoked as a source of authority by those who argue for same-sex marriage. He calls it “pseudo-science mixed with moralism” and latter-day “Lysenkoism.” Rauch is concerned to protect religious liberties, while Raimondo, foreseeing dire consequences for Christians who refuse to accept a new definition of marriage, warns that “people who are oppressed inevitably turn into the worst bullies” once they have government power on their side.
It’s a debate unlike any other on this issue, inspired in part by Raimondo’s TAC article “The Libertarian Case Against Gay Marriage.”
New York magazine has a disturbing story on relations between Ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of the population in the western part of Rockland County, New York. The Ultra-Orthodox began moving to the area in the 1970s. Since then, they’ve grown to a majority in the town of Ramapo, where they control a local school board.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the Ultra-Orthodox had much interest in secular education. But they send almost all of their children to religious schools and generally see public schools as a burden to be reduced as much possible. So the board of education has closed schools and cut staff and services to the bone.
What’s particularly striking is that the board members quoted in the piece make little effort to justify these cuts, even as a response to the district’s ongoing fiscal crisis. Consequently, they are seen as a deliberate strategy to drive the non-Orthodox residents out of the area. The board members’ view is that they won the elections, fair and square. As the former chairman put it, “You don’t like it?…Find another place to live.”
Contributors to The American Conservative, myself included, often defend local control against the centralized decision-making. The developments in Rockland County illustrate a weakness of that position. Local control is attractive when citizens of a particular jurisdiction have a shared understanding of their interests, which may be different from those in neighboring towns, counties, and so on. It can get ugly when they are internally split between fundamentally opposed goals.
The tension is heightened by the separatist orientation of Jewish community in Rockland County. The New York piece speaks generically of Orthodox Jews. That is misleading because the sects that dominate Ramapo are distinctive in their hostility toward secular society, which includes, in their view, adherents of other forms of Judaism as well as gentiles.
So what’s to be done? Opponents of the board may have a legal remedy if they show that the district is failing to provide the “sound basic education” that the New York Court of Appeals has held to be required by the state constitution. That could be challenging, however, because this standard requires that students be prepared for civic participation, but not that they made be attractive to competitive colleges.
There is also a pending lawsuit that accuses the board of fiscal mismanagement. If successful, it could lead to increased oversight. Another option would to convince the state to take direct control, as requested by a petition by angry residents. But the influence of Ultra-Orthodox voters, who are avidly courted by New York politicians, make this effort unlikely to succeed.
In addition to their practical disadvantages, all these possibilities are essentially centralizing. The challenge for conservatives who are sympathetic to local self-government but concerned about the tyranny of the majority is to find approaches that give students the opportunity to get a decent secular education without surrendering to the state.
That’s where school vouchers might come in. Education reformers often argue that vouchers will improve performance. But the more powerful justification is that they help resolve disagreements about the purposes of education–and of government more generally. Although the situation in East Ramapo is extreme, the tension that it reflects will only become more frequent as our common culture fractures. Rather than fighting for control of a single education system, we should figure out ways to let all students go to schools that best suit their intellectual, religious, and cultural needs.
The libertarian-trending George F. Will seems cautiously optimistic about what an ambitious Rep. Justin Amash could mean for a Republican brand in flux. He writes of the 33-year-old House member, who’s mulling a run to replace Michigan Sen. Carl Levin:
Last month, when [Sen. Rand] Paul was waging his 13-hour filibuster, Amash made his first visit to the Senate floor and was struck by the contrast with the House, which he says is “good fun” and “loud and boisterous.” The Senate would be more so with Amash inside, and Michigan Republicans, having lost six consecutive Senate elections, might reasonably want to try something new. But as Amash undertakes to “tear down the left-right paradigm,” he must consider how the delicate but constructive fusion of libertarians and social conservatives has served Republicans, and the sometimes inverse relationship between being interesting and being electable.
Amash is mindful of two things: 1) that there’s a demand among Republican elites for a more “moderate” face of the party; and 2) that lawmakers in the self-styled liberty movement have a reputation for being the opposite of moderate.
And so Amash surveys the scene and calls himself, well, a “moderate”—because, he tells Will, “the point of the Constitution is to moderate the government.”
Reason’s Brian Doherty appreciates Amash’s rhetorical jujitsu, but doubts it will fly politically:
surely deep down he understands that his libertarian leanings scare lots of voters. He’d certainly be painted by the Democrats as the candidate out to destroy Medicare, Social Security, the safety net, clean food and air, and our national security if the Democratic Party had to fight him for a precious Senate seat.
If “libertarians are the true moderates” turns out to be a flop in the near term, what about the ideological medium- and long-term? Will Amash and co. “tear down the left-right paradigm”? The liberty Republicans see an opposition party embracing, and their own party halfheartedly resisting, a collectivist drift on government spending, civil liberties, and economic freedom. Can Congress’s liberty caucus simultaneously push to restore its vision of limited government and make the Republican once again a national party?
If it does, it will be because both parties will have coalesced around variants of radical individualism. What Amash fails to appreciate, in my view, is the practical interpretation of the Democratic agenda. Where Amash sees collectivism, voters increasingly see a distant and neutral guarantor of personal liberation and self-actualization. Amash sees high taxes, Big Brother, and mass gymnastics; the “coalition of the ascendant” sees government creating “ladders of opportunity” while abjuring moral judgmentalism.
A politics that further marginalizes the Rick Santorums of the world, that elevates individualism at the expense of the party’s waning ethos of communitarianism—and while continuing to frustrate the Koch Brothers’ economic agenda—is not what Justin Amash has in mind.
Yet unwittingly that’s what he’s paving the way for: a shattered left-right paradigm that yields a new left-right fusionism.
I don’t think George Will would find this constructive at all.
Here’s C-SPAN’s video of American Conservative contributor and Daily Caller News Foundation editor James Antle discussing his new book, Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? In his talk, Antle makes the point that Republicans can prevent bigger government and scale back or even eliminate existing programs, if they’re willing to pay a political price for doing so:
The most successful conservative Congress in history, actually, in my argument was the do-nothing Congress after World War II, where Robert Taft was the leader of a very successful long-term movement to control federal spending. They didn’t repeal the New Deal, but where they decided to strike, they struck decisively. They abolished programs, they didn’t trim them. They eliminated price controls and the militarization of the U.S. economy; they didn’t sort of tinker around its edges. They cut military spending. They also prevented the enactment of something that would have been way to the left of Obamacare, a British National Health Service-style of national healthcare that was being supported by the Truman administration. They didn’t have a lot of public opinion on their side, they didn’t have a friendly president, they had a very hostile president in Harry Truman, who was a firm believer in the New Deal consensus, but nevertheless they were successful.
One reason however why their work has not been replicated very often is that politically they were the least successful. Ronald Reagan was re-elected. The Republicans held the Senate during the Reagan years until the 1986 elections. After the Gingrich elections, the Republicans controlled the House until the 2006 elections, so they had the House for 12 years, and the Senate for most of that time period. The do-nothing Congress was voted out in the next election. But in terms of actually saving this country from a much bigger government, and making it possible for us to even have the debates that we were having with Reagan and Gingrich, I don’t think you can argue with their success.
Watch his C-SPAN talk, or buy the book, for more.
This bit from Damon Linker’s review of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming really hit home for me:
If you already live in the heartland, the message is to stay. If you come from the heartland and have left, the message is to return. But what if you’re one of the tens of millions of people who can’t stay in or go home to the heartland because your home — your roots — are in the BosWash corridor of the Northeast or the urbanized areas of the West Coast? I ask because I’m one of them.
Rod responds here with his thoughts.
I’m also one of those people. I was born at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Puget Sound to a pair of officers and moved around a lot as a child, spending five years in Japan before my parents settled in Arlington, across the river from the seat of American power. I haven’t seen my place of birth in more than 20 years and have no attachment to it. Now a twenty-something working in online media after going to a good college, I am one of those placeless cosmopolitan elites.
Ron Paul launched his new foreign-policy educational effort today with this website and a press conference featuring fellow congressman past and present Walter Jones, Dennis Kucinich, John Duncan, and Thomas Massie. The former three are all on the Ron Paul Institute’s board. Massie was there for moral support and to show how the liberty movement is adding to its ranks in Congress even without Paul in office.
As always, Walter Jones was a particularly powerful speaker—he has an Old Testament quality when he acknowledges the guilt he feels for his vote in favor of the Iraq War. Congressman Duncan, meanwhile, is the last of the six Republicans to vote against the war who is still in Congress. Kucinich lauded Paul for his qualities that went beyond partisanship: “The thing that impressed me the most was your love of country.”
Daniel McAdams, Paul’s chief foreign-policy staffer while he was in Congress, described the the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity as rather different from a traditional think tank: it’s a special project of Paul’s FREE organization (the Foundation for Rational Economics and Education) and in addition to the news-and-analysis website a prime focus will educating students about Paul’s views on war and peace. There’ll also be a congressional scorecard, which promises to be invaluable to anyone who wants a foreign policy different from that of George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike.
On the latest Bloggingheads, Betsy Woodruff of NRO and TAC’s own Jordan Bloom discussed Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University, libertarians and the GOP, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and Sarah Palin’s legacy. Check it out here:
Given the unprecedented peace and prosperity currently enjoyed by nearly all Americans, it’s hardly surprising that a symbolic issue such as Gay Marriage has now moved to the forefront of the public debate, not least among the contributors to my own magazine.
Personally, it’s not the sort of issue that keeps me in a state of great ideological agitation, but since everyone else seems to be sharing his opinion, I might as well do the same, if only by pointing to the column I’d written on the subject back in the late 1990s. I can’t say that any of my views have much changed, unlike those of a vast number of American politicians and pundits.
For me, the more important aspect of this current controversy is the insight it provides into the nature of America’s “conservative movement” and the so-called Christian Right. Some of the top leaders of the conservative anti-Gay Marriage organizations of the 2000s have now switched sides and fully endorsed the very practice they had long denounced as a social monstrosity, which is certainly a bit odd from a theological or philosophical perspective. Have the world’s “eternal verities” suddenly been reversed in just six or seven years, or might the cause of their U-turns instead be found in the opinions of their DC cocktail-party friends or the views of the plutocrats who sign their paychecks? Read More…