Communitarian Conservatism Redux

There are so many overrated “arguments” underway among conservatives these days–mostly tactical disputes about how to sell a common ideology–that it’s refreshing to see a real one, if a very old one, emerge. Consider this post from everybody’s favorite hip new conservative thinker, Yuval Levin, at National Review‘s The Corner yesterday, commenting on a speech to the Heritage Foundation by Sen. Mike Lee:

While I think the argument about dependency gets at a real problem—the ways in which the welfare state undermines personal responsibility—the term dependency and the concept it describes point us toward a radically individualist understanding of that problem that is mistaken in some important ways. We are all dependent on others. The question is whether we are dependent on people we know, and they on us—in ways that foster family and community, build habits of restraint and dignity, and instill in us responsibility and a sense of obligation—or we are dependent on distant, neutral, universal systems of benefits that help provide for our material wants without connecting us to any local and immediate nexus of care and obligation. It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul. Such technocratic provision enables precisely the illusion of independence from the people around us and from the requirements of any moral code they might uphold. It is corrosive not because it instills a true sense of dependence but because it inspires a false sense of independence and so frees us from the sorts of moral habits of mutual obligation that alone can make us free.

At this point, attentive readers may wonder: which authority is about to get quoted here? St. Thomas Aquinas, Burke or Tocqueville?

We reach for the idea of dependency because of the kind of arguments we often respond to from the left—arguments that seem like calls for common action instead of individual action. But we should look more carefully at those arguments. The problem with the “you didn’t build that” mindset, as becomes particularly clear if you read what the president said before and after that line, is not just that it denies the significance of individual initiative (though that’s an important part of the problem, and our culture of individual initiative, which is far from radical individualism, is a huge social achievement in America) but also that it denies the significance of any common efforts that are not political. The president took the pose of a critic of individualism, but in fact the position he described involves perhaps the most radical individualism of all, in which nothing but individuals and the state exists in society. Alexis de Tocqueville saw where this would go long ago.

And there’s your winner! Seriously, though, there’s always been a tension in conservative thought between individualists and communitarians who agree on a policy of hostility to the state, but disagree about the primary victim of state power: is it the autonomous individual, or the “mediating institutions” of church, tribe, family and local community–the “little platoons” that Edmund Burke spoke of as the principal agents of civilization?

The best expression of American communitarian conservatism I’ve ever read was in sociologist Robert Nisbet’s 1975 book, Twilight of Authority, a long meditation on the drift towards totalitarianism allegedly being produced by an egalitarian state in combination with atomized individuals yearning to be free from the bonds of “mediating institutions.” Its essence was distilled in an essay that same year appearing (appropriately) in National Review, written (appropriately) by Robert Bork:

Nisbet’s thesis is that the West is in a state of decline, a “twilight age,” characterized by a loss of social authority and hierarchy, and a decline in attachment to political values, coupled, perhaps not paradoxically, with the spread of an oppressive state machinery. As the state, in the name of equality, attempts to ensure not equality of opportunity but equality of result, and is supported in this effort by a “clerisy of power” (including “the greater part of the intellectual, especially academic, class”), it necessarily becomes an engine of leveling. Private power centers and institutions that mediate between the individual and the state are weakened so that ultimately the state will face only a mass of individuals. In that lies the prospect of tyranny.

Indeed, Nisbet predicts that the future lies with military socialisms presiding over masses of persons unsupported by intermediate institutions, barbaric regimes ruling in the name of equality.

Recognize any contemporary right-wing rhetoric in that brief screed? Sure you do.

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. But 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. Consider the rhetoric of one prominent politician who is forever trying to reconcile his Catholicism with his youthful enthusiasm for Ayn Rand, the 2012 vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party, in a Big Speech honoring Jack Kemp shortly after the most recent elections:

Not every problem disappears through the workings of the free market alone. Americans are a compassionate people. And there’s a consensus in this country about our obligations to the most vulnerable. Those obligations are beyond dispute. The real debate is how best we can meet them. It’s whether they are better met by private groups or by government – by voluntary action or by government action.

The two problems, of course, with this and every other iteration of “compassionate conservatism,” are (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?

Perhaps if the arguments between libertarian and communitarian conservatives would seem more meaningful if they resulted in significantly different policy initiatives, or in a different kind of politics. Certainly the “compassionate” crowd is prone to engage in the same savage denunciations of liberalism as anything Rick Santelli ever uttered, and it’s no accident that the Tea Party Movement is equally rooted in the kick-the-looter psychology of Ayn Rand and in the Christian Right (often finding a common inspiration in the idea of a divinely created Republic in which property rights are eternally absolute). But anything that encourages public discussion by conservatives of their ideology is to be encouraged, insofar as conservative ideology has become and remains the central problem of American politics.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.