What Conservatives Really Think About Community, Mr. Dionne
In the Year of Julia, liberals sometimes say the darnedest things. Last week, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne told his liberal readers that "Conservatives used to care about community. What happened?" Next week, perhaps he'll turn his pen to: "Liberals and the new community of one: What happened to Julia."
Things used to rub along between liberals and conservatives, you see, despite clashes over McCarthyism and the Vietnam War. But now things have changed. "Conservatism today places individualism on a pedestal[,]" whereas it used to insist "upon the primacy of society to the individual -- historically, logically and ethically."
Modern conservatism's rejection of its communal roots is a relatively recent development. It can be traced to a simultaneous reaction against Bush's failures and Barack Obama's rise.
While President Obama has "emphasized a better balance between the individual and the community[,]" conservatives have revolted. They won't agree even to budget deals "that tilt heavily" to spending cuts, to "energetic" expansion of health insurance, or to "new rules" to make capitalism "more stable."
Good point, E.J. But it's a pity that a chap like you, who has "long admired the conservative tradition and for years [has] written about it with great respect[,]" completely misunderstands the whole tradition. If you want to understand conservatism today, you must start with the fact that conservatives today believe that the liberal welfare state destroys "community." This belief was stated best by British Prime Minister David Cameron back in 2005. He said: "There is such a thing as society. It's just not the same thing as the state."
Conservatives believe that community dies when the government grows. Instead of government coming in to solve every problem, we believe that the health of society depends upon everyone, even the struggling poor, coming forward to take up communal responsibilities. Every time a bureaucrat issues a ukase instead of people deciding in a little platoon, community withers.
So when President Obama proposes to achieve a better balance between the individual and the community with a gigantic government takeover of the health insurance market, conservatives believe that the result will be a disaster for "community." When we argue for spending cuts, we do it not because we no longer care about community, but because we believe that current government spending will make the government "go Greek" with a follow-on demolition of "community." We regard the financial regulations of the last ten years -- from Sarbanes-Oxley to Dodd-Frank -- as making things worse, because these bureaucratic laws take responsibility away from the financial and business community and set failed government regulators in charge.
E.J. Dionne apparently knows about Edmund Burke. How about Herbert Spencer? Liberals love to tag him as the inventor of "social Darwinism," but Spencer the railway engineer made the obvious point that when the relief of the poor is done by the state, "the payment of [taxes] will supplant the exercise of true benevolence, and a fulfillment of the legal form, will supersede the exercise of the moral duty." Bureaucracy destroys community; who knew?
Dionne has apparently read his Robert A. Nisbet. What about conservatives like Berger and Neuhaus? In To Empower People they urged the importance to community of "mediating structures" between government and individual. Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism has suggested what I call a Greater Separation of Powers among the political, economic, and moral/cultural sectors, and Lawrence Cahoone has written within the last ten years his Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics, which argues for the importance of the institutions of civil society between government and the individual.
Liberals like E.J. Dionne who "admire" and "respect" conservatives are asking the wrong question. When the land agent comes up to the Towers and tells his lordship that the peasants are revolting, the question needs to be not "how dare they?," but "what is bothering them?"
Could it be that government has never spent so much? Or that government has never interfered with ordinary life so much? Or that government is failing to teach our children, and especially the children of the poor? Or even that government has promised $100 trillion in welfare-state benefits beyond the ability of the current tax system to deliver?
But the great lords throughout history have usually not asked that sort of question. Instead, they have complained that today's peasants are just not like the old ones, the generation that trusted and respected their betters.
Here's a tip for E.J. Dionne. The dirty little secret about community is that it has always been women, especially women in the neighborhood, who have been the backbone and the sinew of community. It's telling that the modern liberal woman, the faceless cartoon Julia, doesn't have time for community until retired from a web design career.
But your average married white women with children tend to vote Republican. What happened?
Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his usgovernmentspending.com and also usgovernmentdebt.us. At americanmanifesto.org he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.