If you want to understand an important trend in political thinking, I recommend the latest New York Times column by David Brooks. Brooks, the paper’s resident conservative, writes about his friend Rod Dreher, of “Crunchy Conservative” fame. (Crunchy conservatism, or communitarian conservatism, is a movement among traditionalist conservatives who venerate the values of small-town American life and want government policies to encourage the mindset they believe that sort of lifestyle represents. It’s a good deal simpler than I’ve made it sound.)
Brooks does a good job of telling the story (h/t to Francis Beckwith):
Rod Dreher grew up in St. Francisville, La., a town of about 1,700 people 30 minutes northwest of Baton Rouge. He left for college and then lived in Washington, New York, Miami, Dallas and Philadelphia, working as a writer for various magazines, a newspaper and a foundation.
His younger sister, Ruthie, went to L.S.U., returned to St. Francisville as a middle-school teacher and married an Iraq war veteran who worked as a fireman. On Feb. 22, 2010, Ruthie, who was 40 then, was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. . . .
As Ruthie’s illness worsened, Dreher’s grief would be mixed with something else. “The outpouring — an eruption, really — of goodness and charity from the people of our town has been quite simply stunning,” he blogged. “The acts of aid and comfort have been ceaseless, often reducing our parents to tears of shock and awe.”
She died on Sept. 15 this year. More than 1,000 people signed the guest book at the funeral, Dreher reported. Mike, her husband who had wrenched his back trying to perform C.P.R. on her, stood for hours by the open coffin as people filed past. Since Ruthie liked to go barefoot, the pallbearers took off their shoes, rolled up their pants and carried the coffin to the grave in bare feet.
These events so affected Dreher and his wife that they decided to move their family to St. Francisville. Brooks conveys their thinking as follows:
They wanted to be enmeshed in a tight community. They wanted to be around Ruthie’s daughters, and they wanted their kids to be able to go deer hunting with Mike. They wanted to be where the family had been for five generations and participate in the rituals ranging from Mardi Gras to L.S.U. football. They decided to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being a part of a community.
Anyone with a decent capacity for human sympathy will be happy that Dreher and his wife have finally found the life they really want. As any adult knows, that can be a very difficult process.
As a political columnist, however, Brooks is not content to stop there. He uses this story to argue for Dreher’s crunchy conservatism, which shares with Brooks’s conservatism a desire for more government intervention in the economy:
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.
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. Interestingly, in describing the two main “poles” of conservatism, Brooks fails to mention Frank S. Meyer, whose writings established the modern “fusionist” conservatism and demolished the logical and philosophical foundations of statism of the traditionalist, conservative, communitarian, crunchy variety. Meyer was in fact Kirk’s and Nisbet’s bete noir, and his book In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo leaves their arguments with no credibility whatsoever. (For this offense Meyer was condemned with the hated label of libertarian, a characterization that entirely missed the mark.)
I shall leave it to you to read Meyer for the full refutation of this brand of conservatism, an activity which I highly recommend, and for now I’ll mention just two big problems with Brooks’s and Dreher’s reasoning.
One is the suggestion (not stated explicitly, but clearly suggested) that lifestyle simplicity and small-town life are intrinsically better than urban life and sophistication. That is simply false. Some people go nuts in small towns, others find big cities terrifying, and still others aren’t happy living anywhere but the White House or a mansion in Malibu. Small towns, cities, suburbs, rural areas, resort towns—any of these can suit you perfectly or horrify you, depending on what you enjoy and want out of life.
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.
And if the communitarians’ complaint is the more limited claim that market freedom destroys the preferred environment for those who do like small towns and the values they believe such an environment fosters with unique facility, and should thus be suppressed so that traditionalists will have an environment conducive to their desires, that brings us to the second big problem with their reasoning—and in my view the more important criticism from a political-economy perspective.
It is this: no amount of perceived sweetness and light constitutes justification for additional incursions of Our Enemy, the State, into individuals’ lives. You may believe that a certain kind of life is best for everybody, or that preserving a particular set of values and customs is greatly to be desired, but to use force to “encourage” these outcomes is a political scheme with which we’re all too familiar. It has gone under many names (discarding each one as it is discredited by the awfulness of the mindset it describes): liberalism, progressivism, socialism, egalitarianism, etc. In all of its manifestations it is simply statism, the trampling of individual liberties in the vain pursuit of some perceived good.
Despite its claims of respect for the market economy, traditionalist conservatism in all of its forms must ultimately place the state over the individual. This, to me, is the problem with all traditionalist conservatism: the great leap from “should” to “must.” The “should” is dubious, the “must” reprehensible, in my view. Thus I prefer to make my home elsewhere.