Karnick on the Lure of Communitarian Conservatism

S.T. Karnick, my friend and colleague, writes a very interesting piece in reaction to recent thoughts shared in by David Brooks. It is well worth a read, and I’m certain it will provoke discussion and disagreement.

Brooks, in writing about pundit Rod Dreher’s return to St. Francisville, Louisiana, lauds it as a return home to rural living (which struck me as a bit odd, having visited there before – St. Francisville has a number of good restaurants), which opens up all sorts of talk about the virtues of communitarian living and typical Brooksian small-towns-are-bestism.  In this case, Brooks writes:

Dreher is a writer for The American Conservative and is part of a communitarian conservative tradition that goes back to thinkers like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. Forty years ago, Kirk led one of the two great poles of conservatism. It existed in creative tension with the other great pole, Milton Friedman’s free-market philosophy.

In recent decades, the communitarian conservatism has become less popular while the market conservatism dominates. But that doesn’t make Kirk’s insights into small towns, traditions and community any less true, as Rod Dreher so powerfully rediscovered.

To which Karnick responds:

As is confirmed by the writings of both Dreher and Brooks as well as those of their illustrious precursors, this communitarian conservative agenda is not about just praising a particular set of values and sentiments and then leaving people free to discover what’s best for them, as Dreher was fortunate enough to do (aided, one might note, by the economic freedom achieved by his market-based success as a writer). Dreher and Brooks are both intent on making people better by using government to “incentivize” good behavior, in great part by using regulation to “remedy” the value-destruction they believe is caused by market capitalism.

This is to be done, of course, by restricting economic activities that they perceive as corroding respect for marriage, child-rearing, hard work, religious faith, and the like. Good-bye WalMart, hello high-priced, under-supplied local general store.  This, as  Brooks notes, was the agenda of Kirk and Nisbet in prior decades.

The values these men promulgate are perfectly laudable, and all government policies that undermine them should be abolished unless to do so would risk people’s lives. Otherwise, yes, out with them.

But that is not what traditionalists argue for. They call for positive government action to strengthen these values throughout the society. As appealing as these values may be, however, Kirk and Nisbet were wrong then, and their followers are wrong now…

In addition, Brooks’s characterization of small-town life suffers from the fallacy of special pleading. People are charitable to one another in big cities just as they are in small towns, and they can be just as cruel, selfish, and ignorant in small towns as anywhere else. Not every small town matches Brooks’s description of St. Francisville, and not every big city is like Detroit. In fact, there are probably parts of St. Francisville that don’t match Brooks’s idyllic description, and big cities present a wide variety of ways of life and neighborhood environments.

Read the rest of Karnick’s argument here.  And perhaps pair it with this bit of Onion humor.

  1. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    Has David Brooks every spent any time himself in a small town?

  2. Ben Domenech
    C
    Paul A. Rahe: Has David Brooks every spent any time himself in a small town? · Jan 3 at 9:27am

    This is an open question. In this piece, just search for “Red Lobster.”

    I love small towns. But I love cities, too. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Neither is at odds with a conservative philosophy.

  3. The King Prawn

    welcome-sign.jpgThe real difference I found in living in a town with the first greeting sign and a city (well, it’s West Texas, you take what you can get) with the second welcome sign and the accompanying skyline is that in the smaller town everyone can be in your business. There is no anonymity. Midlandsign.jpgmidland_tx1.jpgThere is no live and let live. Even in a small city like Midland (population 111,000) it is possible to just live life without every other single person knowing who you are, what you do, where you go to church (and how regularly), how many beer bottles were in your trash, etc. The small town values exist in small towns not so much because the people very specifically want them to; rather, they exist because there really is no choice.

  4. Sisyphus
    Ben Domenech …

    This is an open question. In this piece, just search for “Red Lobster.”

    I love small towns. But I love cities, too. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Neither is at odds with a conservative philosophy. · Jan 3 at 9:30am

    And yet, when you look at the breakouts in the polls and at the polls, that trend exists. Less in some places than others, we have more polities than precincts.

    We flee to the suburbs for a reason.

    The worst of it is in academe. Not many with the wherewithal to excel in business find academe, especially in its current Western incarnation, attractive at all. They spot the phonies (many of them pushing Holden Caulfield), serve their time to earn their credential, and away. I made a minor career in college of working with the professors by being discreet and correcting the silliest mistakes tactfully. 

  5. Aaron Miller
    Ben Domenech

    I love small towns. But I love cities, too. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Neither is at odds with a conservative philosophy. 

    True, but there is an obvious correlation between population density and liberalism. Even in conservative states, big cities are more liberal (politically and culturally) than surrounding areas.

    There are a variety of reasons for this. Politics (not just government, but forced negotiation in general) is tiring. It becomes more common as more social interaction is required, and most people are eventually willing to sacrifice justice for the sake of comfort. Meanwhile, there is increased anonymity and so less accountability for one’s behavior.

    As the ratio of citizens to representatives grows, citizens’ understanding of and access to legislators, judges and other leaders diminishes. A small town judge must interact with everyone affected by his rulings throughout his life. In a big city or suburb, few voters even lay eyes once on any of their representatives.

    Big cities are where conservatism goes to die. I would never support enforcing a cap on a city’s population growth, but I can’t help but wonder how we might have handled such growth differently.

  6. Aaron Miller

    Exactly, King Prawn. One of my grandmas lived in a town of less than 1600 people. When my family visited, our presence was mentioned in the town newspaper (not that everyone didn’t already know through the grapevine).

    Small town / rural people take an interest in each other’s lives. They understand that good behavior can be promoted and bad behavior sanctioned without need of government and formalities. It’s not a utopian arrangement, but at least it’s generally conservative.

  7. The King Prawn
    Aaron Miller: Exactly, King Prawn. One of my grandmas lived in a town of less than 1600 people. When my family visited, our presence was mentioned in the town newspaper (not that everyone didn’t already know through the grapevine).

    Small town / rural people take an interest in each other’s lives. They understand that good behavior can be promoted and bad behavior sanctioned without need of government and formalities. It’s not a utopian arrangement, but at least it’s generally conservative. · Jan 3 at 10:17am

    Some might say it’s a cultural or regional thing, but the towns I reference are separated by only 20 miles of I-20.

  8. Sisyphus
    The King Prawn

    The small town values exist in small towns not so much because the people very specifically want them to; rather, they exist because there really is no choice. · Jan 3 at 9:50am

    You are looking from the land of Émile Durkheim’s anomie back at the world as it was before urbanization and sprawling suburbs made it so easy to hide in plain sight. For Durkheim, the severing of community bonds was a dangerous, destabilizing thing. Nothing in the 20th Century to shore up that position, no siree.

  9. The King Prawn
    Sisyphus

    The King Prawn

    The small town values exist in small towns not so much because the people very specifically want them to; rather, they exist because there really is no choice. · Jan 3 at 9:50am
    You are looking from the land of Émile Durkheim’s anomie back at the world as it was before urbanization and sprawling suburbs made it so easy to hide in plain sight. For Durkheim, the severing of community bonds was a dangerous, destabilizing thing. Nothing in the 20th Century to shore up that position, no siree. · Jan 3 at 10:32am

    I think a lot of the severing was by design and not by accident. Sure, you may not be able to borrow a cup of sugar so easily and safely in the city, but at least Mrs. Kravitz is afraid to look out her window at your place.

  10. JM Hanes
    Ben Domenech

    Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Neither is at odds with a conservative philosophy.

    I’m not so sure about that.  If you look at detailed election maps, you’ll find a clear pattern of Democratic cities and Republican country in both red states and blue.  The deepening urban/ex-urban divide may well be the most compelling feature in our political landscape.

    The underlying logic seems pretty obvious to me. Density poses distinctive problem-solving challenges.  Cities necessarily rely on collectivist, centralized decision making to function at all (imagine 8 million New Yorkers carting their trash to the dump on Saturdays).  When nothing but plasterboard separates you from your neighbor, you have a vested interest in his everyday choices which can dramatically affect your own quality of life. 

    The further you get from city centers, the less you rely on communal services, resources, and arbiters.  Unfortunately, you are also harder to organize politically. The ability to work at remote locations via the internet may have some impact on traditional rural to urban migration, but the big question is where the growing suburbs will ultimately fall on what might be framed as a continuum between centralization and autonomy.

  11. MMPadre

    “Using regulation to “remedy” the value-destruction of market capitalism” –now there’s a dubious –and far from conservative– political idea.

    I’m all in favor of the principle of subsidiarity.  But a government-enforced subsidiarity is a contradiction in terms.  It is precisely the growth of government that undermines the values honored in the small-town ideal, replacing the horizontal relationships that unite people into communities with the vertical relationships that bind atomized individuals to the state. Mostly, the best thing the state can do is no thing.

    On another thread I referenced the dystopian film A Boy and His Dog –an extreme but clever critique of this lunatic notion.  An example readers might be more familiar with is called the Taliban.

  12. Commodore

    I was personally disappointed with today’s broadcast of Coffee and Markets on this topic.  There was a jump — that I don’t think was justified by any evidence that I heard — from noting that Santorum et al. support traditional values as a priority to the assumption that he is a “benign” statist …with the desire to impose those values on others using the power of the state.

    I’m not objecting here as a fervent supporter of Santorum or anyone else; I still fall in the category of Undecided.  I was, on the other hand, a fervent supporter of Ronald Reagan who used the pulpit of the Presidency quite effectively to advocate traditional values (without the charge of being a statist).

    I’ve grown very tired over the years of hearing accusations from the left that every candidate who is a social conservative and faith-oriented wants to use the power of the state to impose a theocracy on America.  Today’s conversation, I’m afraid, came perilously close to that type of charge.