Saturday, March 31, 2007

Guvment

I guess that I succeeded in stirring up a hornet's nest. That was sort of the point of my criticism of the agrarian hostility toward government, which was admittedly and intentionally a bit provocative. It has been protested that I have unfairly and inaccurately characterized at least some of the participants of last weekend's Charlottesville conference as anarcho-libertarian optimists. They may be right - and I am glad to learn that some proudly declare their allegiance to a more pessimistic perspective - but I maintain that there was a certain optimism that could be detected in the strongly stated animus against government.

Let me explain: I sympathize deeply with the dislike of centralization and the expansion of government seemingly into all aspects of our lives. However, it's necessary to recognize that government has grown often in response to demands of ordinary working people to address the growth and expansion of regional, national, and now international markets. It was difficult not to detect a sentiment among some participants that, if the Federal government could only be downsized or shrunk to the point of elimination, we could again achieve our local liberties. It went unmentioned that our capacity for local liberty and self-government were long ago compromised by the disruptions and dislocation that the expansion of free markets has produced. William Jennings Bryan understood this fact all too well - after all, it might at least be mentioned that he was running for President after all, not mayor.

What are we to make of this fact? Bryan understood that large-scale national markets, and their incursions into local life, could only be governed by relatively large-scale governmental power. Monopoly power could only be effectively controlled by a strengthened federal government. Resorting to the assistance of Washington was perhaps an undesired outcome of the growth of the American national market, but a necessary one given the circumstances. It made sense to be an Antifederalist at the time of the ratification debates. It makes no sense to make many of those same arguments now, because of the profound structural changes that have been wrought by our Constitutional order. If you would cleave to the spirit of the Antifederalists today, you must make prudential changes to their arguments, now to the point of understanding that large scale government may be misfortunate, but it is a necessary misfortune.

It strikes me as the height of fantasy to imagine that we could eliminate government and achieve a paradisic return of robust local life. "Globalization" has assured us that we cannot. Isn't it at least slightly discomfiting to realize that such anti-government animus is identically shared by the business elite of the nation? Might we not be unwitting helpmeets of laissez-faire plutocrats?

Yet, I agree with many that the current form of governance from Washington is deeply destructive of the very ends to which figures like Bryan sought to employ public authority. Both parties seek everywhere the extension of the market into all aspects of our lives. Bush's "ownership society" and, before him, Clinton's embrace of NAFTA and every and all free trade agreement have quite understandably led many to view Washington itself as the source of all evils. It is easy to understand this frustration, but it is misguided and even dangerous.

It is misguided because it mistakes what government now does for what government could and ought to do, namely, to use its power to support local and communal forms of life. The government now does enormous damage to communal life, to take just one example, through the tax code, which provides all kinds of incentives for us to move great distances and to own large houses without relevance to where they are located. This could be changed to actively discourage reckless building, to encourage local business ownership, and overall to encourage the support of local business and local community. It seems to me that we are entering a time when it might be more possible to get a hearing for these arguments - particularly due to inevitably rising energy costs and the enormous difficulties we face in maintaining the current order of things. It's localism and community or bust.

Anti-government animus is dangerous because those people who can best help our age articulate the good that government can do are poorly positioned, and ill-disposed to do so. I maintain that there was a certain optimism among many of the participants of last weekend's conference (even manifested in seeming pessimism), above all because there seemed to be a wistful nostalgia that was disconnected from any realism about how to defend and preserve the way of life that many rightly admired. Many of the participants admired the monastic ideal of withdrawal and retreat - to hell with the world while we build our agrarian lifeboats. I am not so optimistic to think that, if the nation and the world continue on their present course, those who seek to withdraw will be immune from the comeuppance we face. We face an enormous collective action problem - how to reorder our disordered society - and the people with the most discernment and understanding struck me as being the least likely to be able to make their case publically and especially politically. I believe that we can and must act locally, but that the problems and challenges we face are now global in scale. Ironically we must seek the help of larger scale and even more centralized governmental structures to help defend, preserve, and even restore locality. Do I think this is likely? No. But I think it's necessary and at least worth attempting.

One last point: I was struck at last weekend's conference at the simultanaeity of palpable anti-government sentiment, and little to no mention of the anti-local orientation of unrestrained markets (so, if the most hated city is chosen due to what the "business" of that city is, then why Washington and why not Wilmington, i.e. home not only of I.S.I., but the world headquarters of usury?). I took this greater hostility toward the public realm ironically to be confirmation of its greater redeemability: such animus is at least inspired by the fact that, deep down, we understand the government to be at some level accountable and answerable in ways that the private sector is not. As I said at the conference, it is time to put the market back in the city, and not vice versa - to make the market accountable to the public. And the only way to do that is through res publica, or "public things." Bryan understood this well. Do we?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

In Memoriam



Two years ago today, March 29, 2005, my friend and teacher, the great Wilson Carey McWilliams, passed away.

Carey believed in the existence and persistence of the "alternative tradition" in America, and devoted his life's thought and writings to explicating and defending it. In his honor, I exerpt two passages from his writing - one that perhaps helps explain the contemporary animus against government, and a hopeful reflection that the truth of human equality will prevail.

"In the contemporary United States, repression is a much smaller danger to democratic liberty than fragmentation, privatization, and the conviction that collective action is hopeless. Linked by law - especially given the virtual incorporation of the Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Amendment - and by the market forces associated with it, local communities are relatively open societies, often to the regret of their members. Meanwhile, the diversity of the nation as a whole is increasing in startling ways: even Madison might be taken aback by the incoherence of present-day majorities. The scale of life and the pace of change, moreover, leave increasing numbers of Americans baffled and feeling powerless, in a situation that is broadly paranoid. The opinion that economics and technology are fundamentally ungovernable is paralleled, among a substantial fraction of the public, by the conviction that our lives are being scripted by hidden powers and conspiracies. And there is something to the common denominator in the wish - reflected in movies like Independence Day - for someone to 'take charge,' even at great cost. Too many Americans 'hate politics' because they have lost faith in democratic institutions and forms."

W. Carey McWilliams, "Community and its Discontents," in Autonomy and Order: A Communitarian Anthology.

"Our religious heritage teaches equality in a different sense [than liberalism]. It insists that our equal human nature, considered in the whole of which humanity is a part, is the supremely important human fact, and it teaches equality in our feelings as well as our conduct. 'Thou shalt not harden thy heart,' Deuteronomy enacts, 'nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother.' Generosity is not enough: we are commanded to give gladly, and without the secret aim of establishing supremacy by beneficence.

"This religious view is rooted in the ancient understanding that equality is an end, the goal of all justice. To those who are truly devoted to God's purposes and the ends of nature, it is no offense to ask human beings to receive the same 'pay' for different 'work.' The realization of our humanity is enough, a proper limit to ambition (even if not all human beings, or even a majority, ever attain it), just as in a good city no man asks to be more than a citizen or is content with less. Equality and good faith are twins, and both were present at the founding of the Republic. They are difficult teachings, yet even if obscured by individualism and neglected amid abundance, they are among the qualities, 'somehow more divine,' which never lose the capacity to draw humankind."

W. Carey McWilliams, "In Good Faith," Humanities in Society, 1983.

I raise a glass to Carey today - as he would wish - and would wish all of his friends, and friends unknown to him, to join me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In Memoriam

Two years ago today, March 29, 2005, my friend and teacher, the great Wilson Carey McWilliams, passed away. Carey believed in the existence and persistence of the "alternative tradition" in America, and devoted his life's thought and writings to explicating and defending it. In his honor, I exerpt two passages from his writing - one that perhaps helps explain the contemporary animus against government, and a hopeful reflection that the truth of human equality will prevail.

"In the contemporary United States, repression is a much smaller danger to democratic liberty than fragmentation, privatization, and the conviction that collective action is hopeless. Linked by law - especially given the virtual incorporation of the Bill of Rights into the Fourteenth Amendment - and by the market forces associated with it, local communities are relatively open societies, often to the regret of their members. Meanwhile, the diversity of the nation as a whole is increasing in startling ways: even Madison might be taken aback by the incoherence of present-day majorities. The scale of life and the pace of change, moreover, leave increasing numbers of Americans baffled and feeling powerless, in a situation that is broadly paranoid. The opinion that economics and technology are fundamentally ungovernable is paralleled, among a substantial fraction of the public, by the conviction that our lives are being scripted by hidden powers and conspiracies. And there is something to the common denominator in the wish - reflected in movies like Independence Day - for someone to 'take charge,' even at great cost. Too many Americans 'hate politics' because they have lost faith in democratic institutions and forms."

W. Carey McWilliams, "Community and its Discontents," in Autonomy and Order: A Communitarian Anthology.

"Our religious heritage teaches equality in a different sense [than liberalism]. It insists that our equal human nature, considered in the whole of which humanity is a part, is the supremely important human fact, and it teaches equality in our feelings as well as our conduct. 'Thou shalt not harden thy heart,' Deuteronomy enacts, 'nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother.' Generosity is not enough: we are commanded to give gladly, and without the secret aim of establishing supremacy by beneficence.

"This religious view is rooted in the ancient understanding that equality is an end, the goal of all justice. To those who are truly devoted to God's purposes and the ends of nature, it is no offense to ask human beings to receive the same 'pay' for different 'work.' The realization of our humanity is enough, a proper limit to ambition (even if not all human beings, or even a majority, ever attain it), just as in a good city no man asks to be more than a citizen or is content with less. Equality and good faith are twins, and both were present at the founding of the Republic. They are difficult teachings, yet even if obscured by individualism and neglected amid abundance, they are among the qualities, 'somehow more divine,' which never lose the capacity to draw humankind."

W. Carey McWilliams, "In Good Faith," Humanities in Society, 1983.

The Problem with Agrarians

Much as I enjoyed the fellowship of the past weekend in Charlottesville, there was a persistent and palpable animosity toward politics and government generally held by many of the participants. For all the talk of community, it was a community bereft of the idea that communities require more than just good feeling, but laws and institutions as well as the willingness on the part of citizens to work publically toward the formation and enactment of the public good and the recognition that such work will result in conflict. There was something of a gauzy sentimentality and even anarchic libertarianism that pervaded the sessions. As much as I admire Wendell Berry, his work does not sufficiently attend to the needs for, and demands of, politics. Indeed, I was struck by the similarity between two camps that otherwise might be thought to be polar opposites - agrarian communitarians and libertarians. Both are wildly optimistic about human nature and the ability of humans to "do their own thing" without the "interference" of politics and government.

At the dinner before the public session on Saturday, the participants were asked to name, among other things, the most despicable city in America. Among the few cities that were named (since most people forgot this requirement), one was Washington D.C. Washington D.C.??!!?? It may not be one of the world's great cities, but it is a fine city, and not the most despicable city in America. What about Las Vegas or Phoenix? Houston or Palm Beach? I have to think that Washington was named because it was the location of "Guvment," to quote Pap Finn.

It amuses me to think that anyone holding such optimism about human nature can be called "conservative." Conservatism, to my mind, necessarily requires the recognition of the fact of human imperfection. Call it original sin, self-interest, the fatal flaw - what you will - such optimism is incompatible with conservatism because optimists are inclined to make wild surmises about the plausibility of perfectibility, individual or social. One of the great ironies of our time is the inscription at the burial site of Ronald Reagan, the great paragon of "conservatism" in recent times: "I know in my heart that man is good." Of course, we also need recall that his favorite political philosopher was Thomas Paine, that great conservative, so beloved by Edmund Burke....

Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Nation "At War"

It's stunning how little evidence there is in our daily lives that the nation is at war. I believe this is be entirely by design - the nation's success is now measured wholly in economic terms. There is more talk in daily conversation about the losses in the stock market over the past week than the numbers of wounded and dead that are added each day to the tally. We are urged to calculate as consumers than to reflect upon any forms of sacrifice. What would have been seen as necessary military virtues have been replaced by commercial vices. When I say that this transformation has taken place by design, it is a design deep in the heart of modern thought itself. As argued by Bernard de Mandeville, private vices needed to replace private virtues. Public virtue would result from our collective pursuit of private vices.

One result of this has been a decline in the honor that is accorded to soldiers. This fact was brought home to me in a recent article in the Wall Street journal. I've also been emailing with a friend who is now in the Iraq theater. His somewhat bitter thoughts: he expects little from people on the Left, but he notes that even so-called conservatives are largely unwilling to step up to participate in some material way in the war. He speaks of growing numbers of officers and enlisted men who are becoming increasingly disgusted at the "cheap patriotism" of the Right. The divide between the military and the broader society seems wider than ever. This is not only bad for the moral resources of the nation at large; it is also an ill omen for the future of military-civilian affairs. For the sake of the republic, there needs to be a renewed willingness to cultivate the martial virtues. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, however, this seems not only implausible; it would be political suicide, and no one seems particularly willing to - forgive the metaphor - fall on their sword.