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.

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“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.

Turning Up Earth, Urban — and Federal — Style

I have a rambling late-night post at Upturned Earth on New Urbanism, wherein I introduce it as something conservatives should embrace and immediately express my serious concern with the post-modern lack of (primarily architectural) context all too common in applied New Urbanist design. I’ve also offered my first post on federalism, here. Be on the look out for more on both subjects.

Edward L. Glaeser on Houston-versus-New York City

Incredibly interesting food for thought. I’m not always comfortable with some of the fare that Glaeser offers (Neither is Ryan Avent.), but this is worth the read.

But what if, like most Americans, you are neither a partner at Goldman nor a penniless immigrant? Consider an average American family with skills that put them in the middle of the U.S. income distribution—nurses, sales representatives, retail managers—and aspirations to a middle-class lifestyle. What kind of life will such people lead in Houston and New York City, respectively?

For starters, they’ll probably earn less in Houston, though not as much less as you might think. In the 2000 U.S. Census, the typical registered nurse made $50,000 in New York and $40,000 in Houston. A retail manager earned $28,000 in New York and $27,800 in Houston. Let’s be generous to New York and assume that our middle-income family would earn $70,000 there but just $60,000 in Houston.

If our Houston family’s income is lower, however, its housing costs are much lower. In 2006, residents of Harris County, the 4-million-person area that includes Houston, told the census that the average owner-occupied housing unit was worth $126,000. Residents valued about 80 percent of the homes in the county at less than $200,000. The National Association of Realtors gives $150,000 as the median price of recent Houston home sales; though NAR figures don’t always accurately reflect average home prices, they do capture the prices of newer, often higher-quality, housing.

[ . . . ]

The average home price in New York City is dramatically higher. In 2006, the census put it at $496,000, and $787,900 in Manhattan—way out of reach for a family earning $70,000 a year. There are cheaper options: a perfectly pleasant Staten Island home with three bedrooms and two baths for $340,000, for instance.

[ . . . ]

Ah, but doesn’t it cost a lot more to get around sprawling Houston? The Houstonians must have two cars: the poor public-transit system leaves them no other choice. American families earning $60,000 typically spend about $8,500 a year on transportation—and sure enough, in Houston, that’s sufficient (barely) to cover gas, insurance, and payments on two relatively inexpensive cars.

Just as with housing, however, there’s a significant difference in the quality of transportation in Houston and New York. In Houston, the middle-class breadwinner likely will drive an air-conditioned car from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned workplace, and take 27.4 minutes to do it, on average. Commuting via New York public transit is more complicated. If you live in Queens, the average commute to midtown Manhattan (if that’s where you work, as we’ll say) is 42 minutes, and longer if you’re coming from Far Rockaway.

The question, I believe, that urban planners must contemplate is “How do we engender the higher quality of life, at least quantitatively speaking, enjoyed in Houston in real cities, cities designed well, in ways that embrace high standards of aesthetics, decrease reliance on the automobile, and facilitate community (vague term, I know!) in meaningful ways?” New Urbanism, I believe, has a role to play, but it, too, proves to be problematic. In fact, it’s that, when done properly, New Urbanism can be too good for its own good, driving up the market rate on properties, turning “gentrification” into a force of division and inequality, rather than the positive phenomenon that it can, and should, be. It bears on my aforementioned concern about property valuation, but, again, I’m not entirely sure how to address this properly, in a way that improves communities, as discussed above, without requiring more dastardly government intervention in the market.


Thoughts?