Two decades ago, during a wave of handwringing about “the new nationalism” sparked by the war in Bosnia, the late political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote that the nation-state remains “the best way we have thus far devised for protecting and sustaining a way of life in common.” Yet the nation-state is an abstraction, meaningful only insofar as it shapes the way individuals understand and order their interpersonal relationships. As Roger Scruton has written, citizenship defines the relationship between the individual and the state—which is to say between the citizen, other citizens, and non-citizens. William B. Allen, whose kind remarks on…
This edition of Liberty Law Talk welcomes back Yuval Levin to discuss his latest book, The Fractured Republic. Levin notes that our decentralizing republic, as observed in the decades long trends in social, economic, religious, and cultural diffusion, provides both opportunities and difficulties. America's ongoing deconsolidation from a nearly unprecedented period of national cohesion after World War II has led to numerous benefits for individual freedom and economic prosperity. However, if we are more free than ever, we may also be more alone than ever and bereft of the contexts for a responsible freedom and citizenship. And this has sparked a…
Editor’s note: This Fourth of July oration was first delivered by G. M. Curtis III on July 1, 1989 in Lone Mountain, Montana, for a conference on American citizenship.
As an American historian and as an American citizen who looks forward to the 21st. century, I place great stock in John Adams’s early 19th. century exhortation to future generations that they remember and celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Technically speaking, I suppose that we are jumping the gun by about one day, since the Continental Congress first agreed to the Declaration on the 2nd. of July 1776. Actually, the past five days in one way or another has represented a remembrance and a reconsideration of many of those values and beliefs that John Adams cherished enough to tender the ultimate sacrifice: his life and property. It is altogether fitting and proper, then, as my historical footnote for these discussions and as a remembrance of the Declaration of Independence, to return to the first principles therein contained, principles that not only retain their merit today, but more importantly, offer us hope for the years to come.
Ken Masugi argues that conservatives and libertarians must be “radical to grasp the truth.” He certainly is radical in casting Robert Nisbet and, with him, it would seem, other Burkeans who see little platoons rather than isolated individuals as the building blocks of society outside “the foundation of American politics,” which Ken identifies with the Declaration of Independence.
Robert Nisbet was certainly a conservative theorist of some prominence, as Mike Rappaport indicates. Mike was picking up on Steve Hayward’s post, which called to task today’s “quantum conservatism” for its uncertainty principle. For good reason, Mike holds Nisbet as an exemplar of the differences between conservatives and libertarians. But like Tocqueville, whose insights his best work elaborated on, sociologist Nisbet overlooks the core of American politics, which is the Declaration of Independence. Unless conservatives are selective about what it is they are conserving, they are no better, theoretically, than the radicals they claim to be combating. And libertarians cannot claim to defend…
Over at Powerline, a recent post mentioned an essay on libertarians and conservatives by Robert Nisbet. Nisbet was an extremely throughtful conservative, who was respectful of libertarians (unlike Russel Kirk, whose essay “The Chirping Sectaries” Power Line also mentioned). I reread Nisbet’s piece on the Uneasy Cousins of conservatives and libertarians, written in 1979, and I have to say it holds up relatively well.
Nisbet focuses on both the agreements and disagreements between the two political theories. Among the agreements, he notes four:
1. The dislike of government intervention, especially national, centralized government.
2. The view that equality should be legal equality, not equality of result.
3. The belief in the necessity of freedom, and most notably, economic freedom (although conservatives are more prepared to endorse occasional infringements).
4. The dislike of war and especialy of war society such as during WWI and WWII.
The only one of these that seemed a bit off to me was the last. Nisbet supports his claim with the following:
And let us remember that beginning with the Spanish-American War, which the conservative McKinley opposed strongly, and coming down through each of the wars this century in which the United States became involved, the principal opposition to American entry came from those elements of the economy and social order which were generally identifiable as conservative-whether “middle western isolationist,” traditional Republican, central European ethnic, small business, or however we wish to designate such opposition. . . . [T]he solid and really formidable opposition against American entry [into the two world wars] came from those closely linked to business, church, local community, family, and traditional morality.
It may be so. But to my mind, this element of conservatism seems to be gone. Sadly. (Perhaps the most important remnant is Patrick Buchanan and his opposition to the two Iraqi wars.)
A friend recently introduced me to the GPS app Waze, which promises—warning: I will likely botch the lingo—a crowdsourcing solution to traffic: “Nothing can beat real people working together. Imagine 30 million drivers out on the roads, working together towards a common goal: to outsmart traffic. . . .” Waze users report traffic incidents and driving conditions in exchange for points. I can’t tell what these points are actually good for—probably something that exceeds my understanding—so the reports seem close to altruistic activity. The app is addicting, invaluable and troubling. It leaves one with the impression of participating in a community that in fact does not exist, of committing acts of altruism that actually require no sacrifice and of making connections that are in reality hollow. Dr. Nisbet, please call your office.
To be sure, one ought not extrapolate more of a message from a navigation app than is actually there, and none of this is a knock on Waze as all it promises to be: a better means of navigation. But Waze is indicative of the false sense of community that social networks can induce: one that is either anonymous, impersonal or, at best, arms-length. Such relationships do not involve the same sorts of accommodations and complications that Claes Ryn reminds us sustained, personal, face-to-face interactions require. Social networks instead enable connections on the individual’s terms, at times and places of his or her choosing.
I have written elsewhere that the primary task of the Progressive state is the rearing of good citizens. In this way Progressives participate in a very ancient conversation about citizen virtues and the common good. To understand them well, one ought to pay close attention to the cave wall, to the images and ideals they craft in order to play on widely accepted moral principles and, then, to alter or shape those principles in an ongoing reeducation campaign. Progressivism is, first and foremost, a moral vision and its power rests squarely on how compelling democratic citizens find that moral vision. The rearing of good citizens requires, as a result, first deceiving citizens by “framing” policy alternatives in such a way as to tap into the linguist moral resources of the people and then, second, altering the moral framework by steady efforts at reeducation by several key institutions like the media, the judiciary, higher education, but especially government schools.
Robert Nisbet’s most important and yet neglected insight is that modern individualism and collectivism are the twin movements of modern democratic despotism. The first liberates individuals from myriad forms of authority (e.g., family, church, guild, local community) that characterize most pre-modern social orders. The second represents a new, equalitarian order based on the consolidation of isolated (liberated) particles into a new administrative regime that promises solidarity and community. In a previous essay I suggested that the dominant species of modern community, the democratic administrative state, faces severe—perhaps existential—threats to its hegemony because the financial burden faced by modern states makes it impossible for them to sustain the necessary level of provision for their citizens. The resulting austerity should open social space between the individual and state. The question now is whether new patterns of authority as well as richer conceptions of the person will emerge in this new social space.