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David Brooks on Communitarian Conservatives

David Brooks has a generous and eloquent column on the decision of “crunchy conservative” Rod Dreher to move back to his hometown of St. Francisville, LA.  Dreher is embracing the “limitations” of small town life in order to be “enmeshed” in the rituals, traditions, and virtue of genuine community.  It’s in the small towns that people know what to do when confronted with the inevitabilities of vulnerability, suffering, and death.  So it’s in such places that the virtue of charity is routinely practiced.

Charity, in principle, should be equally for friends and strangers, but it flows more strongly and reliably in the direction of those we know and love in our daily lives.  Dreher’s decision is based on gratitude for the personal support he and his family received in his sister’s struggle against cance. It’s also based on wanting his kids to be raised knowing who they are and what they’re supposed to do as loving, relational, dutiful beings.

 Brooks finishes up by reminding us that there are two basic kinds of American conservatism:

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.

First big point:  Conservatism in America isn’t one thing but a kind of “creative tension” of conflicting principles—devotion to a particular place or community and the cosmopolitanism of economic freedom.   Adherents to the two principles work together against big, centralizing government that undermines local self-government.  But they diverge in their view of, say, Walmart, which undermines communal economic self-reliance when it comes to town.

Generally, the centralization caused by high technology, economies of scale, and such have removed real economic decision-making from towns in the sticks and relocated brain-work or “mental labor” to distant locations.  As Marx says, capitalism saves us from rural idiocy, but he should have added at the price of making the rural areas more idiotic still.

The communitarian conservatives are all about exposing the damage globalization, multinationals, the displaced, virtual world of social techno-networking, and so forth do to the distinctiveness of particular places and the “enmeshed” lives of particular people.  The economic conservatives celebrate the prosperity and freedom that come when the market displaces local prejudice and laziness with liberated productivity.

Dreher calls himself a “crunchy” conservative because he believes that true conservatives share “ecological” concerns of the Birkenstock wearing, small-is-beautiful, Granola crunching children of the Sixties.  The conservatives are more concerned with the “ecology” that sustains life on an appropriately human scale.  That means, of course, conservation of our natural environment.  But it also means sustaining indispensable social institutions—traditions, manners, morals, churches, schools, families, neighborhoods, and the locally controlled economy. 

It also means sustaining the discipline—or “tough love”—of the daily habits or “moral virtue” that are equally indispensable for true human flourishing.  Nothing is less ecological, for Dreher, than the Sixties principle of moral liberation “Do your own thing.”

That leads to Brooks’ second big point: Communitarian conservatism continues to lose ground to economic conservatism.  We often call consistent economic conservatism libertarianism—that is, the application of the principles of individual freedomcontract and consentto all areas of life.

America, anyone can see, is now characterized by creeping and sometimes creepy libertarianism.  The conservatives are probably winning when it comes to persuading people to distrust big government and put their faith instead in entrepreneurial productivity. 

The libertarians are certainly winning when it comes to personal morality:  People are increasingly persuaded that they should liberate themselves from communal prejudice for autonomous moral choice, and that moral tradition is really a name for prejudice and repression.

The enmeshing community of the small town still attracts us, but not at the price of accepting the loving discipline and binding responsibilities of the community’s distinctive way of life.  Our libertarians often move to small towns, bringing their demands for sophisticated amenities and with no intention of surrendering their personal freedom.  In that respect, they’re ecological hazards.

There’s a lot more to say, and I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I simply agree with the communitarian conservatives.

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