Home/Articles/Conservatism/Misunderstanding Communitarian Conservatism

Misunderstanding Communitarian Conservatism

Ed Kilgore has noticed the dispute between individualists and communitarians on the Right. Name-checking Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Kilgore observes that:

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.

Education may not be an example of the sort of problem that Kilgore believes to require a collective solution. So consider healthcare. I generally approve of Romneycare, which suits Massachusetts’ political culture and is broadly popular there. It does not follow that a similar program, in the form of Obamacare, should be imposed on Mississippi, whose citizens may not want it despite their generally bad health. If other states want programs similar to Massachusetts’, or even more ambitious single-payer plans, my view is that they should go ahead and implement them, one day perhaps guaranteeing insurance a majority of Americans. That is a concrete policy difference to many libertarians, who tend to reject insurance mandates categorically as unacceptable limits to freedom.

More broadly, however, conservatives of all stripes are skeptical of “solutions” to problems like illness, which look to us like ineradicable features of the human condition. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to help the unfortunate and suffering. But it does mean that we shouldn’t expect too much, particularly from policies designed and implemented at the national level. The failure of the Great Society, which did so much to discredit American liberalism, is instructive here.

(2) Kilgore’s second question presumes that communitarian conservatives are opponents of “dependence” and advocates of “liberty” in every case. That’s not correct, as he might have observed in a remark by Yuval Levin that he quotes earlier in the piece. As Levin puts it, “It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul.” Another advantage of local self-government is that it can restore personal relationships and mutual responsibility to the unavoidable fact of dependence.

Are forms of dependence moderated by personal connections, shared obligations, and some level of accountability different from the dependence involved in market relation? The communitarian conservative argument is that they are because they both reflect and satisfy our need for community, in addition to fulfilling specific social functions. When progressives and some libertarians consider a pastor, philanthropist, or local worthy, they see a would-be boss whose illegitimate power is derived from social capital rather than financial capital. Communitarian conservatives, on the other hand, see authority rooted in place and tradition, and based on enduring cooperation rather than a momentary calculus of interests.

Such authority is a risk to liberty if liberty is understood as individual autonomy. But that is precisely the definition of liberty that communitarian conservatives reject. For communitarian conservatives, liberty means civil freedom tempered by social interdependence and moral restraint. Whether such order can survive in modern America is a different question.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles