When Democrats Confuse Statism with Community
American Spectator senior editor Quin Hillyer has called Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne a once "thoughtful" political commentator who has nevertheless devolved into "the realm of a flagrantly dishonest left-wing hit man."
Moving from "thoughtful" columnist into what Hillyer later calls a "dishonest hack" is quite a transition. Defending the Obama Administration however can come with a pretty high price these days.
Take, for example, Dionne's recent essay "Conservatives used to care about community. What happened?" Dionne tries to show that Mitt Romney is caving in to a diseased form of modern "conservatism" that has rejected not only its philosophical "communal roots" but is abandoning its long belief in a "robust role for a government that served the common good." Sound fishy?
Dionne adds that "today's conservatism is about low taxes, fewer regulations, less government - and little else." What's worse, according to Dionne, is that the post-Bush era conservative simply champions a bleak, Hobbesian "disconnected individual" who has "little concern for the rest." The definition of a cut-throat Social Darwinist in other words simply includes any conservative with the guts to prevent Democrats from turning America into another Greece.
Dionne's strategy is to try to convince Tea Party conservatives that although they are claiming to represent "the values that inspired our founders" Tea partiers are actually breaking "with the country's deepest traditions." Conservatism, according to Dionne, "used to care passionately about fostering community and it no longer does."
Dionne, in other words, wants to drive a wedge between conservatives and the Tea Party movement by cleverly convincing conservatives to embrace big government in the name of community.
For example, Dionne says that "Romney is simply following the lead of Republicans in Congress who have abandoned American conservatism's most attractive features: prudence, caution, and a sense that change should be gradual."
Nowhere in the essay does Dionne mention the wildly imprudent, incautious, and hastily manipulated burst of "change" that characterized the Democrat-controlled House, Senate, and Presidency between the years 2008-2010. Regarding the passage of Obamacare for example, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi summed up the ethos of that two year period in the following way:
"We'll go through the gate. If the gate's closed, we'll go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we'll pole vault in. If that doesn't work, we'll parachute in but we're going to get health care reform passed for the American people."
Dionne however is upset that conservatives today "cannot accept energetic efforts by the government to expand access to health insurance" because they have abandoned their sense of "community" in favor of a cold, calculating individualism. Is Dionne being dishonest here by refusing to acknowledge simple and honest conservative "prudence" in the face of our former House Speaker's demonstrable record regarding our "country's deepest traditions?"
Indeed, the "mortal disease" of every popular government, said James Madison in Federalist #10, "is the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." Therefore, the "principle task of modern legislation" is the regulation of the various kinds of "interfering interests" that will indirectly prevent a majority tyranny. Between the years 2008-2010, in other words, rather than act with prudence with their majority status, Democrats, in Madison's words, sacrificed "to [their] ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens."
In addition to resisting new healthcare mandates, Dionne cannot fathom why, "even after a catastrophic financial crisis [conservatives] continue to resist new rules aimed not at overturning capitalism but at making it more stable."
Again, Dionne massages the facts in order to blame what he calls the "untempered individualism" and unbridled capitalist tendencies of today's conservatives rather than admit that the "new rules" Democrats promoted for decades regarding "social justice" type home loans undermined a healthy capitalist housing market and drove the U.S. economy off a cliff.
Even the communitarian Socrates recognized over 2,400 years ago that in a healthy economy "voluntary contracts [should] be as a general rule entered into at the proper risk of the contractor, [so that] people will be less shameless in their money-dealings in the city, and such ills as we have just now described will be less common."
"Community" oriented entities like Fannie Mae in other words become more "shameless" in their money-dealings when the "proper risk" has been picked up by the taxpayer, thus making the economy less stable for the overall community.
In addition, Dionne argues that America "rose to power and wealth on the basis of a balance between the public and the private spheres, between government and the marketplace, and between our love of individualism and our quest for community." Dionne wants to claim that prior to 2008, conservatives even believed with sociologist Robert Nisbet that conservatism was about something larger than the family unit: "[Conservatism] insisted upon the primacy of society to the individual -- historically, logically, ethically."
As Christopher Chantrill wisely noted in an earlier essay that scrutinized Dionne's thin understanding of history: "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 is a compelling point that echoes what all great conservative thinkers from Aristotle and Tocqueville to Burke and even the more Lockean inspired Hayek have concluded regarding the ideal relationship between individualism and community. In other words, creative analysis regarding the tension between self-interest and community has mostly been a product of great conservative thinking.
On the other hand, when modern day liberals like E.J. Dionne endeavor to convince conservatives that the conservative tradition regards "society" as primary and the individual as secondary he is betraying in my opinion a more socialist and/or fascist conception of power rather than a healthy illustration of community. In short, when liberals today invoke "community" they most probably have in mind "planning" and "power."
And since nowhere in Dionne's essay does he mention the word "freedom" Americans need to be highly concerned about Dionne's apparent sleight of hand between "robust role for government," "society" and "community."
Indeed, F.A. Hayek noted in his book The Mirage of Social Justice that what Dionne calls the "robust role for government" actually "destroys public spirit" and "deadens" community participation:
"Nothing can have a more deadening effect on real participation by the citizen than if government, instead of merely providing the essential framework for spontaneous growth, becomes monolithic and takes charge of the provisions for all needs which can be provided for only by the common efforts of many. . . . The present tendency of governments to bring all common interests of large groups under their control tends to destroy real public spirit; and as a result an increasing number of men and women are turning away from public life who in the past would have devoted much effort to public purposes."
In fact, the customs, manners, religion, family conventions, and most especially the economy that emerges over the centuries underneath Hayek's "essential framework for spontaneous growth" is precisely what the great conservative Edmund Burke regarded as constituting a "society" or "community." Burke called this the "drapery" of a society for which those hell bent on "change" or power had little respect.
This is why Burke said in his great essay Thoughts and Details on Scarcity that "the moment government appears at market, all the principles of market will be subverted. . . . I am sure that, in the first place, the trading government will speedily become a bankrupt, and the consumer will in the end suffer." In addition, said Burke,
"To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them, and not they the people."
In other words, for the gradualist Burke, the market developed within a community over time in a way that cannot be understood by any one planner, politician, or even a group of highly degreed Harvard intellectuals. Despite what Dionne argues then, there is no "equal" balance between "government and the marketplace" in the conservative tradition.
In fact, according to historian Jerry Muller in his book The Mind and the Market, Burke "warned that the long-term beneficent effects of acquisitiveness channeled through the competitive market were poorly understood. It was the role of the intellectual, he thought, to warn politicians, who, under the influence of the ignorant poor or the misguided powerful, were tempted to tamper with the free market."
The last thing an intellectual should be defending then is the kind of politically expedient rhetoric of class warfare that serves to shred the drapery of American society all in the specious name of community. Said Burke:
"The consideration of this ought to bind us all, rich and poor together, against those wicked writers of the newspapers, who would inflame the poor against their friends, guardians, patrons, and protectors."
E.J. Dionne proudly claims that "[President] Obama . . . pitched communal themes from the moment he took office. . . . [But] the more he emphasized a better balance between the individual and the community, the less interested conservatives became in anything that smacked of such equilibrium."
Barack Obama declared in 2010 that only Democrats - not Republicans - care about community. The reason people run as Democrats instead of running as Republicans, said Obama, is that "[Democrats] have a sense of neighborliness and a sense of community and we are willing to look out for one another and help people who are vulnerable and help people who are down on their luck and give them a pathway to success and give them a ladder into the middle class."
If this is what Dionne means by "pitching a communal theme" then he might want to look up the terms "equilibrium" and "better balance" again.
Eric Hoffer once said that "unity and self-sacrifice, of themselves, even when fostered by the most noble means, produce a facility for hating. Even when men league themselves mightily together to promote tolerance and peace on earth, they are likely to be violently intolerant toward those not of a like mind."
In other words, beware the statist communitarians.