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.