In response to Conservatives for Community
I commend National Review Institute summer intern Frank Filocomo on his strong first piece for National Review, posted on the Corner earlier today. The piece, titled “Conservatives for Community,” emphasizes the importance of “what Buckley called the ‘libertarian’ streak” as “an essential part of the American character” but cautions that “it must be counterbalanced by a complementary communitarian streak,” arguing that “what we need right now is a synthesis of these two aspects of America’s unique identity.” Filocomo makes the case “for a more Tocquevillian America, as opposed to one characterized solely or mostly by a liberal (in the purely classical sense) ethos,” renewing the communitarian aspect of the American — and conservative — tradition:
Individual freedom, moreover, is not the only part of the Founding legacy, nor is it the totality of the conservative tradition. There is also a vital communitarian strain within conservatism, one that is often underappreciated. Though not always: In the 1960s and 1970s, Russell Kirk’s Modern Age, for example, contained a plethora of essays emphasizing the importance of civic engagement and local associational membership. Though there is obvious merit in individual freedom, it would be foolish for us to understate the advantages of community, social capital, and societal togetherness. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, said that associations are “stronger and more formidable than a simple individual can be.”
It’s a welcome contribution, particularly in a moment of increasingly extreme atomization and social breakdown. I share Filocomo’s criticisms of the fact that “at times, those on the right are overly sympathetic to a simplistic reading of the libertarian ethos that sees civic relations as being only between individuals and the state, and individual freedom and its derivatives as the only things worth valuing.” I doubt he would disagree, but I’d also just add that the traditional conservative preference for limited government, properly understood, can and should be harmonized with the Tocquevillian communitarian ethic. Defending and stewarding the civic associations that sit in the space between the individual and the state requires preventing a burgeoning government bureaucracy from “crowding out” those institutions. So in setting themselves against the “libertarian ethos” that does not recognize the existence of the “mediating institutions” that stand between individuals and state actors, conservatives must also oppose the statist, bureaucratic progressivism that essentially does the same but in reverse — the kind of political philosophy that operates on the assumption that, as an infamous 2012 Democratic National Committee video put it, “the government is the only thing we all belong to.”
In their famous 1977 study of “mediating structures,” Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus argued that “one of the most debilitating results of modernization is a feeling of powerlessness in the face of institutions controlled by those whom we do not know and whose values we often do not share.” To renew a Tocquevillian America, centered around connection to place, people, and local community, conservatives must seek to renew the institutions that are tied to those local associations. Government can and should seek to support those institutions wherever and whenever possible, but it cannot take their place.