Coming This Weekend

I know that, as seems always to be the case, I’ve been dreadfully remiss in the upkeep of this humble online bastion of Nathanism, and for this I apologize. I’m sure I’ve been busy or something. Anyhow, I just relieved myself of a serious academic burden, and intend to write a few things this weekend.

This evening I attended a wonderful Tocqueville Forum debate, between Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute and David Schindler of the JPII Institute and moderated by Patrick J. Deneen, at Georgetown. Tomorrow, I’ll venture twice into DC, once for a lunch-hour discussion at the Heritage Foundation featuring Tim Carney and Matthew B. Crawford, and then later in the afternoon back to Georgetown for another Tocqueville Forum event, a lecture by Prof. Bacevich. Doubtless, I’ll have somethings — or some things — to say about any and all of this.

I’ve engaged in a couple of really great discussions that began over at the League, and stemming from those conversations, I’m going to write a bit more on New Urbanism and on Distributism.

Finally, I’ll be offering, finally, my thoughts, on the Obama-at-Notre Dame controversy. For now, Mr. Kain has posted a nice excerpt here.

More (Extra)Ordinary Discussion of (Neo)Distributism

Chris Dierkes enters the fray here.

More on Why I’m not a Libertarian — Or, When Belief in “the Market” is just risible, sad, and disgusting


1. Sitting in peculiarly busy traffic in downtown Baltimore this afternoon, I read, on the news monitor wrapped around a trashily modern glass building, a headline from the Baltimore Sun that informed me that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has proposed a bill to create a new government agency “that could stop lenders from offering mortgages and other financial products deemed unsafe for consumers.”


Now, first, I’m wholly uncomfortable with adding yet another resources-sucking, power-grabbing, liberty-quashing entity to the behemoth known as the gummint. I love the ultimate sentence of the article: “Consumer protection is part of the Fed’s mandate, but Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the agency has been “asleep at the switch.”” So our answer is more gummint. Hmm, yep, I do agree with the libertarians here


However, the libertarian counter-argument, which, I confess, immediately flashed through my mind whilst I waited to move ahead in traffic, is equally absurd, to wit, that the market — properly unencumbered, of course — is the check on “mortgages and other financial products deemed unsafe for consumers” and a whole host of other yucky things. When corporations become as gargantuan as many of those at the center of our current economic perturbations are, they really exist beyond the controls of the market — sometimes because of the intervention of government, sometimes because they’re just “too good.” They’ve done so well that they outpace competitors to the point that no natural regulation hinders them. At this point, they fall asleep at the wheel, so to speak. Viva Distributism! Long live the small!


2. Though not a libertarian, I’m often sympathetic to many of their causes, I supported Dr. Paul quite passionately, I think that Young Americans for Liberty are doing some great work, and I wrote for the debut issue of Young American Revolution — as part of the conservative contingent of their Old Right coalition, of course. This post, regarding President Moloch’s desire to “shield” science from politics, on YAL’s Web-log, however, utterly terrifies me. Chet Butterworth writes,

Tabling the ethics of human embryo research for the moment, the only ethical way for any scientific decisions to be made is by the market. The market is unbiased and efficient. The market can determine the worthiness of the research and if it considers it worthy the market can produce it better. Through the market the only people who want stem cell research and do not care about any human embryo ethical questions pay. While people like myself do not.


One of the problems admitted by economic theory is the absence of perfect information. Sarah Palin rightly took flack for her brushing off of fruit fly research whilst on the campaign trail. (I’m not interested in debating the merits of such research here; rather, I seek merely to note that she obviously made her comment with no knowledge of why this research occurs.) If the lack of perfect knowledge is even remotely problematic in matters of everyday economic transactions, are we really willing to leave scientific research — the benefits of which often remain unknown until long into the processes — to the whims of people who lack any and all awareness of, let alone training and education in, particle physics, molecular biology, or gene therapy. (Yes, that’s my uncle in the Telegraph.) Maybe it hurts my “libertarian street cred,” but I’d rather have a living uncle than a realm of scientific research guided by the invisible hand.


The market is a good thing. But it’s also a tool of relativism. Matters of life and death seem, to me, to be beyond the very mere matters of supply and demand.

Elsewhere: Mark minces no words.

WWGKD?

In a post for which I could claim authorship, over at The League, E.D. Kain, with bookend quotations from Chesterton, offers much food for thought, continuing on something that he and others at FPR, and I, have been discussing, on distributism, providing able, fair criticisms of both free-marketeers and economic-interventionists, and, wouldn’t you know, prescribing Distributism — with realistic caveats — as the cure for what ails us.

A delicious sample:

Imagine, if you will, an economy based on localism instead of globalism. Credit unions flourish instead of massive, international banks. The mortgage you purchased is still owned by the bank or credit union that sold it to you. You eat at a restaurant that can be found nowhere else in the world, and purchase groceries at a local grocer who buys his produce from local farmers. Could any thief ever cause so much harm in this scenario? A corrupt businessman or politician could certainly cause a great deal of pain to his fellow citizens in the town or region, but this harm would have a much more difficult time spilling over into adjacent communities. A subprime mortgage scandal confined to one town or county would hardly stop the national or global economy in its tracks.

This is one reason, but certainly not the only reason, that local control and small business and finance must be restored. Big business and big finance especially must find their way to the scrap heaps. As Philip Blond notes,

The final piece of the puzzle is for Conservatives to break with big business. We must end a model in which competition is reduced to a cartel of vast corporations maximising profits by discouraging competitors and minimising wages by joining with the liberal left to encourage mass immigration. A covert alliance between the liberal left and liberal right has destroyed incomes and identity at the bottom of the scale.

A society must be grounded on the basis of good order and social stability. This means that a balance must be struck. When government becomes too centralized, or when capital is so displaced that local communities are no longer self-sufficient then something has gone terribly wrong. The order of things has been replaced with the drive to gather wealth into the hands of the few in the name of economic liberty.

My only quibble lies not specifically with Kain, but with the generally accepted use of “economic liberty,” a term used, I think, to describe something more aptly dubbed “economic libertinism.” I regard liberty as virtue that exists as a mean, between libertinism and coercion; Distributism promotes economic liberty and, thereby, equality, where as capitalism promotes economic libertinism, or only “liberty,” and socialism, “equality.”

Kain concludes,

In short, a few things that might help check the sort of dangerous capitalism and growth of government could be:

1) The advent of guilds to supplant unions and limit corporate power and the spread of national corporations.

2) A return to local finance and procurement.

3) Protection of domestic industry.

4) Return of government functions to the local level and the end to “private” government at a national level.

5) Employee ownership of companies as opposed to a public, stock-based system. Limitations on the public sale of stocks would be necessary, and could be enforced, perhaps, through the guild system. Limitations on the growth of companies beyond agreed upon regions would also be necessary, though I admit such an effort would not be easy. Good, healthy competition must still be fostered.

Essentially, capitalism fails because it is too efficient, too perfect in its implementation, and too devoid of human qualities. Chesterton says it best:“Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”

Indeed, and too many thieves.

[Emphasis in the original.]

AND HOW! Besides, Distributism means an America with better beer!

“Reviving Our Sense of Place, Our Priorities of Localism, Agrarianism, and Self-government”, Part II

Why, then, a “Jeffersonian” New Urbanism? (Part One.)

A few years have passed since I last read any of the Anti-Federalist Papers; lately, slowly, I’ve been getting back to that, starting with introductory material from editor Ralph Ketcham and some of the important Constitutional debates. To me, one of the greatest failings of the Anti-Federalists (excluding the eventual ratification of the Constitution) is that, though they succeeded in adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, thereby, theoretically, providing protections of individual liberties, lost in the shuffle was any notion of community rights. As I’ve stressed elsewhere,

Gone is Aristotle’s zoon politikon, and the Philosopher’s fundamental precept, “every community is established for the sake of some GOOD”, specifically the common good, replaced by the Every-man-a-king doctrine of liberalism. Without the State, its origins in necessary contractarianism, mankind, by the liberal creed, exists in a perpetual state of war. Contra liberalism (and, thus, libertarianism), conservatism, rightly conceived, follows Aristotle, appreciating the importance of the individual but recognizing that outside of community, man enters into what Berry calls “vast meaninglessness, […] the freedom of our vices.”

“Community rights” is a dangerously imprecise term, just the sort of concept that, improperly understood, could lead to collectivism. Nonetheless, the idea that communities possess rights, to which individual rights should be subordinated, or at least by which individual rights should be crafted, guided, and restrained is, I think, essential to conservatism. (I’m channeling Wendell Berry here, for sure.) Though the successes of the the Anti-Federalists manifested themselves primarily in the form of defenses of the individual (and the states), these decentralists were not merely libertarians, something that Larison has noted.

One particular line from Ketcham’s introduction, referring to Anti-Federalist “John DeWitt,” echoes ceaselessly in my mind, reaffirming the very communitarian nature of anti-federalism:

“Each ‘district,’ furthermore, would be a town or ward or region conscious of its own, particular identity rather than being some amorphous, arbitrary geographic entity.”

[My emphasis. – NPO]

Then, to return to the task at hand, to wit, replying to E.D. Kain’s post, I submit that we conservatives must embrace a New Urbanism that not only “believes in community,” but specifically one that recognizes that our “districts” must be “conscious of [their] own, particular ident[ies]”, rather than being mere political divisions. Again, this goes back to my point in Part I about the problems inherent in the coerced integration espoused by some planners. We need to embrace a variant of New Urbanism that not only seeks to define each community, but to empower it — to bring as much political power to the lowest level possible, in addition to the (moderate) cultural control (A bogeyman term? C’est la vie!) of the community. (See, in Patrick J. Ford’s “Edmund Burke, Anarcho-Conservative,” Burke’s admiration for the anarcho-conservative Massachusetts colony.) It’s not just about community, but about a community’s control over its own fate.

Along with the decentralization of power and the community-facilitating traditional urban design and architecture (contextually appropriate, of course!) of Anti-Federalist New Urbanism, we must espouse Distributist(-esque) economics, Jeffersonian economic democracy.

One of my most serious complaints with New Urbanism in practice is that, for reasons of “necessity,” the otherwise localist bent of New Urbanism is all too often sacrificed on the economic front. Instead of Neighborhood Grocery Mart, we have a New Urbanist-friendly Safeway or, given the upper-middle-class predilection for New Urbanism, a “green” “neighborhood” Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Instead of Nathan’s Nocturnal Nook, we have Starbucks and a “neo-traditional” Borders. One cannot sincerely deny what benefits this has, but to substitute, for economic or other reasons, the national chain for the local and independent is to succumb to the short-term, unsustainable temptations of liberalism.

We replace natural cultural and economic diversity with the banality of ubiquity, thereby relegating local culture — and a truly vibrant economic market — to quaint nostalgia in the community museum and a few hole-in-the-wall establishments. We lose the material benefits of having the proprietors of the businesses that we patronize living amongst us — both the benefits of having income that stays in the community and having businesses that, their owners having real knowledge of the community, are responsive to the wants and needs of community members, as they members actually describe them, rather than as they “define” them with their wallets. When we support farmers’ markets and local grocers that contact directly with local farmers, we know that not only are we near the sources of our food (something that, sometimes, we can know even at the chain stores), but we know that the people who make the decisions about what local food we can buy have direct contact with that food for the duration of the journey from field to plate.

When our neighbors are our pharmacists, lumber guys, mechanics, and tailors, we can address concerns we have with their establishments, employees, or products without much of the redtape we may face when dealing with a corporation “owned” by thousands of shareholders and run by a suit-wearing MBA in Bentonville who knows nothing about a lube job, let alone the name of the mechanic who forget to put new oil into your engine after he drained the old lubricant.

Finally, we need this Distributism-infused New Urbanism because private property is, to quote Prof. Wilson, in his reply to Prof. Shiffman, “bound up with the activities of man’s pursuit of the good; consequently it can only be understood properly in terms of that end.” Without the widespread distribution of property championed by Belloc, et al., and Jefferson, we risk both political dominance by those in greatest possession of real property and the diminishing of many men who, deprived of property, become less able to pursue the good. No society, at the community level, the national level, or anywhere between, can survive, in the long-term, when plagued by these two serious ailments.

“Reviving Our Sense of Place, Our Priorities of Localism, Agrarianism, and Self-government”, Part I

As I noted in my post-script to the introduction to my senior essay, E.D. Kain presents a superb, indeed “Front Porch Republic-worthy” piece, “Redefining Prosperity,” an essay so ambitious, loaded, and impressive that I’ll refrain from even attempting to reply as deeply as I had hoped, leaving part of the task to the able Mr. Larison— whose masterly, but still incomplete, response includes references to Prof. Deneen, Prof. Bacevich, and George Grant — and to those whose many thoughtful replies comprise the comment box.

Echoing a point that I, following Larison, made, Mr Kain offers a well-aimed jab at individualism that I cannot abstain from repeating:

Individualism leads to the growth of the State because individualism denies the need for community and family; it abandons such antiquated notions as God and tradition and favors reason and wealth over history and modesty. In the end, however, individualism inevitably falls short; reason inevitably contradicts itself. A nation of individuals is inherently chaotic, and will gravitate, sometimes consciously, oftentimes not, toward a bigger and stronger and more all-encompassing State.

Do read the entire damn post, please.

Hereunder, I offer my reply, limiting myself to addressing the latter portion of Mr. Kain’s essay, where he begins to consider solutions to the serious cultural-moral-social-political-economic disease of individualism.

What the conservative movement doesn’t realize is that to shrink government we must first find a way to transform our communities. We must find a way to undermine this vision of the individual above all else, and tap into that lost art of solidarity. We must abandon our illusions for realities, and our culture of entitlement for one of virtue and accountability. […] This is a cultural challenge even more than a political one, though where the one leaves off and the other begins is hard to say.

[…]

Can we ever revive our sense of place, our priorities of localism, agrarianism, and self-government?

It is not, I think, a question of if, but how: Though usually a bitter pessimist, I remain convinced that we can rebuild our communities, and, thence, greater society — if we want to. (By which I mean not that we shouldn’t seek to rebuild “society,” but that perhaps society is best rebuilt not by working upward from A to Z, but by rebuilding every A.) The answer lies in New Urbanism.

However, the answer, I think, lies not with the New Urbanists. First, though their commitment, usually, to community is undeniable and unabashed, most New Urbanists tend to be left-leaning. Doubtless, we should not fear aligning with them when we share common ground — as no less formidable men than Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul have contended about leftists, more broadly; however, my experience has revealed that a number of them — or at least of planners, more broadly (I should be cautious not to suggest that all planners are New Urbanists, or that all New Urbanists are planners.) believe that “social planning”, often in the form of attempting to integrate outsiders (e.g. immigrants) into communities, is a worthwhile task.

Although we should be welcoming, we must be wary. The presence of foreign elements in our communities threatens the very nature of our communities as we need to perceive them: that is, as people who share roots in place and culture. It’s analgous to planting invasive species in an ecosystem where they do not belong. You might have the most beautiful flower to add to your garden, but not being part of the environment naturally, it disrupts the natural cycles of the place, perhaps poisoning an unwitting animal that happens to nibble, growing sufficiently large to prevent other plants from receiving enough sunlight, or requiring more nutrients than the soil can provide for it and the native plants. If and when outside elements can be integrated smoothly, organically, and over an appropriately long period of time into the community, all the better for the sustainability thereof. But “facilitating democratic participation,” which coerces integration in much the same way that busing did during the slow, agonizing end of segregation — which is to say in a manner wholly destructive of community in the name of a sense of equality that is risible —, is both unsustainable and a political anathema.

Of even more serious concern is the delusional optimism, from which I’ve suffered oftenly, of New Urbanism. We simply cannot create community: No matter how walkable our neighborhoods are, now matter how many front porches and other community-enabling features we include, no matter what other steps we take, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that this alone guarantees community. In my Community Planning Studio this semester, we’re studying Broadway Overlook, a HOPE VI mixed-income development in Baltimore. Imperfectly as it was designed (no porches, no real integration of the owners and the subsidize renters, lack of sufficient public space), it marks a wonderful, aesthetically pleasing (if not somewhat sterile and artificial in its quasi-cookie-cutter design — or planning (Eww!)) departure from the typical example of public housing. Most of the residents feel little more — sometimes even less — sense of community than when they resided in a rat-and-bug infested high-rise. They have a hard-working, but divisive, president of the tenants’ council and in-house community organization, but community is still hard to detect; crime and other concerns, as well as dissastisfaction with the property manager, and countless other problems, hamper the goal of “creating community.” Community takes effort, it takes time, and it takes the proper cultural and political attitudes.

And therein lies perhaps the most serious drawback of the New Urbanists. However “communitarian” they be, ultimately, most, like most Americans, are communitarians wholly within the liberal tradition. The underlying acceptance of the State, of the tension between individual and collective, impedes the community-first philosophy necessary for New Urbanism to accomplish both its own purported goals and the goals discussed herein.

Thus, what we need is a conservative, truly localist and communitarian New Urbanism, one founded on the belief that the locality — place — is a priori superior and sovereign, rather than a subdivision of the whole. The whole, in our New Urbanism, must proceed from the parts. In short, it must be an “Anti-Federalist” and Distributist — a Jeffersonian? — New Urbanism.

Part II.