“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.

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Why I’m Not a Libertarian (or a “Conservative”)

Larison:

[M]ost people who call themselves conservatives are, when you press them, essentially classical liberals, and classical liberals did not have a “dogmatic aversion to statism,” either. By comparison with their traditional conservative and monarchist foes in the 19th century, they were advocates for centralism and the expansion of the role of the state in the name of reason and liberty. Standardization, rationalization and uniformity in law and regulation were what most classical liberals prized, which is one reason why they tended to be strong nationalists hostile to the customs and privileges of regions and local parlements. The separation of modern strands of classical liberalism from nationalism (i.e., some forms of libertarianism) is a curious by-product of 20th century American politics, and I am guessing that this owes a great deal to influence of exiled liberals from central Europe on the evolution of these strands of American classical liberalism.

[My emphases. – NPO]

In the comments, Daniel McCarthy (to whom I’m personally indebted for giving me the opportunity to review Prof. Bacevich’s The Limits of Power for Young American Revolution) offers a nuanced reply, in which he asserts

Classical liberalism had different strains, some of which were highly centralist and some of which were decentralist. The centralizers generally prevailed in government — just as centralizing non-liberals (like Bismarck) generally prevailed over decentralist non-liberals.

Doubtless, McCarthy is on to something here, but I generally side with Larison (and I’m not entirely comfortable calling Tocqueville a liberal, as McCarthy does; I prefer “liberal conservative”).

And herein lies my fundamental qualm with libertarianism. The ideology (or collection of ideologies) is one of the more true-to-roots modern progenies of classical liberalism, (lacking the pseudo-conservatism of mainstream “conservatives”) — perhaps, according to some libertarians, the successor of Enlightenment liberalism. However, it disavows the State. To me, this is, as I called it before, internally contradictory alchemy. The liberal needs the State.

(McCarthy, in his response, offers a cogent argument in suggesting that the roots of the pairing of liberalism and decentralism in American political philosophy lie with Jefferson and Madison, but I think, at least respecting Jefferson, this assertion oversimplifies matters. Yes, he was very much, in many ways, a liberal, even radically so, but no mere liberal decentralist, he was, as Larison, rather compellingly, long ago asserted, in ways quite conservative, a man not only opposed to consolidation, but to the “power of the ‘moneyed interest'” as well, and a man of the country. That is, rather than merely a “liberal decentralist”, he adhered to and upheld certain liberal and certain conservative tenets.)

Liberals need the state because, ultimately, the foundation of the liberal polity is the individual. 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.”

Contemporary libertarianism seeks to dull both edges of the sword; to have its cake and to eat it, too. The libertarian, like the classical liberal, exalts the individual, subordinating any group — the world “community”, the nation-state, the region, or the community — to him; however, he credulously asserts that a society of kings can function without the intervention of the State. He often allows for decentralized government (though is wary even of federalism/subsidiarity, for the local government may expand too much for his tastes, just the same as the national), and offers paeans to communal self-government (that is, anarchy, conservatively understood). This is all well and good, save that the tension remains between the necessarily communal nature of the community government and the “king”‘s desire for self-rule. Without subjugation of the self to the polis — something anathema to the underlying doctrine of individualism —, the libertarian engages in futility, ultimately requiring the development, and consequent overdevelopment, of the selfsame state he sought to avert initially.

Thus, I am not a libertarian; thus I believe that, ultimately, “Fusionism” cannot sustain — as seems to be obvious today —, and that American “conservatism”, really conservative liberalism, is as problematic, if not more so for its untenable attempt to blend conservative values into a framework antipathetic toward community, as libertarianism.