In his “Morning Jolt” today, Jim Geraghty of National Review Online highlighted a post from yesterday by Peter Wehner at Commentary’s website. In it, Peter muses on how today’s conservatives in America have strayed from the conservatism of Edmund Burke, which had a strong component of concern for community and social partnership. Peter says this:
The emphasis one hears these days [from conservatives] has to do almost solely with liberty, which of course is vital. But there is also the trap of hyper-individualism. What’s missing, I think, is an appropriate appreciation–or at least a public appreciation–for community, social solidarity, and the common good; for the obligations and attachments we have to each other and the role institutions play in forming those attachments.
It’s not exactly clear to me why conservatives have neglected these matters. It may be the result of a counter-reaction to President Obama’s expansion of the size, scope, and reach of the federal government, combined with a growing libertarian impulse within conservatism. Whatever the explanation, conservatives are making an error–a political error, a philosophical error, a human error–in ignoring (at least in our public language) this understanding of the richness and fullness of life.
Jim Geraghty essays a response (which I reproduce in full, as it arrived via email):
Permit me to offer a theory or two . . .
We’ve always been a diverse country, but I suspect that a lot of conservatives click on the television or web or look at the morning paper or magazine and see a country they just don’t recognize anymore.
The sense of alienation isn’t racial, but it is cultural. How many conservatives look out upon large swaths of their fellow countrymen and feel as if they’re dealing with someone from another planet, someone whose thinking, values, worldview, and priorities are so alien, they simply can’t understand them?
Our political differences and culture wars are a big part of it. But I think it goes even further. How many times can a conservative encounter the low-information voters who don’t know who the vice president is, or watch the folks on the street get stumped by basic questions in Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments, and not lose some faith in the American people as a whole?
For starters, I really have only the vaguest idea who Jodi Arias is. According to cable-news producers, this trial is a really, really, really big deal.
I remember reading the joke, “Far in the future, aliens will come and find the relics of our modern civilization and conclude that Kim Kardashian was our queen.” I really don’t understand why I’m supposed to care about this woman, and I don’t understand why it seems that I’m constantly being told things about her.
I suppose someone could argue that my interest in football or superhero movies or Star Wars is similarly frivolous. But a functioning constitutional republic relies on an informed public to hold its government accountable, and it feels like large swaths of our public have checked out of this whole process, finding all duties of citizenship to be a drag.
Any Americans who worked their butt off through college and did the entry-level, low-pay jobs at the beginning of their working lives look at the Occupy Movement and wonder how the heck someone can begin adulthood with such a ludicrous sense of entitlement. Anybody who’s interacted with the government looks at a takeover of the health-care system as a nationwide slow-motion train wreck happening before our eyes. We saw more of it yesterday: Anybody who watched the Benghazi hearing is left slack-jawed, marveling at the raw cynicism at work at the highest levels of our government.
It’s very hard to be motivated to help “the common good” when you sense that a good portion of the folks you’re being asked to help are exercising bad judgment, unwilling to work hard, unwilling to make similar sacrifices, unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, and so on.
And I do think that’s part of it. You don’t feel “community” with people whose values, character, and lifestyle are actually antithetical to yours.
But there is a basic dynamic at work here which has for decades been slowly amplifying and institutionalizing the cultural divide. That dynamic is what we might call “governmentism.” Governmentism requires that every kind of human interaction be subject to regulation by civil government. Government must not only supervise it, or be a last recourse if we are injured in it; government must set its goals for and manage it. There is to be no such thing as community acting outside of the approval of government. Government tells us what community should be, and how we should be in it.
The American society we see around us, with its entrenched entitlement classes and its plethora of social activists with whom we cannot agree, but by whose lights we are in constant danger of being guided, is the result of a century of governmentism. I can think of a thousand things I may disagree on with my neighbors while still being able to have a gentle and good community with them. But governmentism cannot.
If everything must be subject to the ruling hand of government, it is impossible to have true “community”: the voluntary coming together – a coming together based on both felt necessity and enthusiasm – of people who differ in many ways, but who have a few basic common bonds.
There will instead be only institutional pieties, on one side, and the people who disagree with them on the other. The pieties cannot be ignored; they affect every aspect of life. The genius of governmentism is that it gets inside a person’s life and demands his money and the rearing of his children. The cost of it is very high; the cost of disagreeing with the approved pieties can also be very high. They dictate what one must believe, say, and even do, if one wants to keep his livelihood.
There is no escape from it without liberty-oriented activism in politics. One must be able to direct what government does merely in order to retain proper control of one’s own life. Conservatives of a libertarian bent have never been very good at this; we just don’t live and breathe government, as those on the left do. I know that for me, it is exhausting and discouraging to have to think about government 24/7.
But we must be in the game, because government – even our national government – has its finger in everything now. Just as I do not have a “community” with the IRS, but rather an unequal relationship of obligation and enforcement, so the circle of all entities with which I have a “community” has been steadily shrinking since the day I was born some 50-odd years ago. In a community, there are a few basic rules, and there are a felt equality and a mutual respect among members. With governmentism, there is a detailed rule for everything, and there are not equal and voluntary participants, but unequal sides: the rulers and the ruled.
Increasingly, this latter is the situation we have today. In a community, school boards and teachers may have authority, but they quake in their boots if parents are dissatisfied or upset. Quite obviously, the social institution of “education” is not a community effort in America today. It cannot be made one by inviting parents and third parties into the institution to participate on the terms dictated by the state. Parents should be able to disapprove and reject the curricula proposed for their children; that’s what happens in a community. But that’s not what parents face today.
In a community, people’s disapproval of each other’s lifestyles, religions, or sex lives is worked out in one way or another. People sort themselves into groupings in these realms, recognizing that some things will not be acceptable in some places. Across history, people have tended to sort themselves and keep some things private rather than fight over these things; it is when governments get involved that inquisitions, social destruction, and all-out war start. A community will focus on what advances the commonweal, whether it is the need for worship centers to accommodate different faiths, or the need for police services to protect children at public parks, or the need for courts to punish assault and battery committed against the “different.”
But governmentism focuses on uniformity of opinion on social matters, with the breach being punishable by the state. I do not have a “community” with a government agency that can destroy my business if I don’t want to provide my services to a lesbian wedding. I am not being respected and treated as an equal by those who advocate forcing my hand in this way. They are not in a community with me; they see me as a zoo animal needing training or correction, rather than as a fellow human with an unalienable right to my own beliefs and the use of my property. There is no mutuality of respect in this case. Governmentism makes us predators and prey in a way that we would not be if we agreed that far, far fewer things in human life need to be regulated and adjudicated by government.
This is important, to community feeling in particular, because the vast majority of people tend to be quite moderate on all these matters. Most vendors don’t care if they are providing services to a traditional marriage or a gay wedding ceremony. Most gays aren’t out to destroy the businesses of people who don’t care to host or photograph their wedding ceremonies. The intervention of government pits the minorities on each side against each other, amplifying the stakes of their conflict. When it’s the national government, the stakes are as high as they can be, with the potential to affect the prospects of everyone in the nation, present and future.
Yet in the big flick of life, we are all perfectly fine if some vendors don’t do gay weddings and some gays seeking services have to make a second phone call. A “community” working this out would tend to look to see if anyone sustained bodily injury or property damage, and if not, would tell everyone to get a grip. Government, however, becomes an amplifier for minorities with a beef and their lawyers, and it requires an answer and a rule for everything. Government, by its nature, is incapable of latitude and tolerance; latitude and tolerance on the part of government are synonymous with corruption, because the whole point of government is the enforcement of rules.
Community is not about the enforcement of rules. It’s about the synergistic benefits of human interaction. Rules are an element of that, one we entrust, to some extent, to government, but community is actually a larger and more basic thing than government, and cannot survive as “community” if it is the wholly-owned project of government policies. Government is properly a servant to community, not the other way around.
Perhaps the wheel will turn a bit more and we will come back to a state in which we appreciate the benefits of limited government and true community – community of the kind de Tocqueville admired so much in the America of the 1840s. Burke lived in the last decades before the concepts of modern totalitarianism began to take hold in Europe; I suspect that his priority concerns would be modified if he were air-dropped into the Britain of 2013. Conservatives now speak to an audience that understands government’s role to be the role it has assumed in the West in the last century. In this understanding, government cannot be blind to people’s race, sexual orientation, or political beliefs; it must enforce pieties about these matters, regardless of the impact on the people’s livelihoods, and rights to property and their own beliefs.
We cannot speak of social issues and community today as if the last 100 years have not happened. Those in the political audience have a set of assumptions now that make it sound, in their heads, as if conservatives want to simply reverse the partisan purpose of government enforcement: to enforce conservative social ideas rather than leftist ones. Conservatives do have to make the arguments about liberty and limited government, because fewer and fewer people now know them.
Where I might agree with Peter is on this: conservatives need to point out that liberty and limited government are not antithetical to community, but rather are key ingredients for health, vigor, and compassion in communities. We want to have liberty and limited government because children and young mothers and old people and disabled people are as much better off with those political conditions as are working-age men. Poor people have a much better shot at improving their lot with liberty and limited government than with collectivism and a nanny state. Invention, and intellectual and economic dynamism, are inherently characteristic of free societies with more limited governments, whereas they are non-existent with controlled societies and big governments. The compassionate, enabling treatment of the halt and lame in a free society with limited government cannot be matched by big-government statism.
The truth is that having government policies on too many things tends to discourage the tremendous leaps, both personal and social, that can only come from freedom. The Founders had it about right: the national government should guarantee a very few fundamental things, like security of the borders, the people’s right to property and the right to bear arms and think and write as one pleases. States will obviously regulate more than this, but the less they regulate, the better off their people and communities are.
We are simply past the time when conservative arguments were best made in Burkean terms. What has changed in the centuries since is the public’s expectation about what government is meant to do. Burke could see the glimmerings of that shift in the French Revolution; if he were alive today, I suspect that he would be as anxious as any modern conservative in America to redefine what government ought to be doing, as an establishing predicate for talking about what our policies ought to be, and what is good for our communities. Governments have now taken on the role that Burke feared, when he wrote his famous book about the French Revolution. We cannot speak today as if that hasn’t happened.