"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Importance Of Community–A Conservative View

The conservative Right is often maligned for being too individualistic.  All this talk about personal freedom, individual rights, and free enterprise, ‘progressives’ say, is tantamount to dismantling communitarianism and dismissive of the importance of social cooperation, caring for others, and concerns for a more just society.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  What these ‘progressives’ fear is the dismantling of government programs and patronizing efforts to socially engineer equality and community.  However, government is a Johnny-Come-Lately to America, and for a century after our founding, we turned to private institutions and organizations for social support.  The Church was not only the source of spiritual succor and renewal, but the institution which educated our children, provided help for the poor and disadvantaged, and was the focal point of the community.

As Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute writes in The Atlantic (7.11.13):

Conservatism, properly understood, has long championed the essential role played by the mediating institutions of civil society -- Edmund Burke's "little platoons" -- the churches, the schools, the men's and women's clubs, soup kitchens, scout troops, youth sports leagues, and neighborhood associations. It is here that we learn how to interact with each other. It is here that a healthy dependence of mutual obligation is formed. It is here -- enmeshed in a layered, vibrant web of social interactions and commitments -- that manners are learned, habits of virtue are cultivated, tradition is discovered and appreciated, and young people are taught who they are and how to live.

While Americans have always been independent, and while there is most certainly something to the myth of the cowboy, Manifest Destiny, and the hardscrabble living of pioneers willing to take great risks for a homestead on the prairie, none of us – then or now – can ever survive without community and the support of our peers.

Furthermore, it doesn’t take much to realize the power of collective action. Westerns are made all the time about ranchers who band together against the hostile intent of raiders; or citizens rising up to protect the legacy of a peaceful town against intruders.

What has happened in recent American history is that while the spirit of individualism is still strong and vigorous, the State has become more intrusive, more directive, and more insistent.  Rather than provide the support to individuals and to private enterprise that it was once designed to do, it has become an arbiter of value.

This is not to say that all government programs should necessarily be privatized.  A restoration of private community is not a matter of turning over responsibility to corporate interests. It is a matter of realizing that releasing the reins of government control can help those in need more than government itself can do.

There is no reason, for example, why government should maintain its current monopoly on education.  The schools in America are failing and failing badly.  Public education has been given a chance and failed badly; and families should be offered a wide range of alternatives.

That would include making it easier for local communities to start charter schools, tailoring curriculum to meet the needs of an automated economy, holding schools and teachers to performance metrics, weakening the power of teachers' unions, and pushing for a longer school year -- 180 days is too short a school year for a 21st-century education.

It would also end affirmative action which tends to promote students who are less academically talented leading to their disappointment, loss of confidence, and failure, and increased education costs for all. Public education should not focus just on flagship schools but junior and community colleges, and vocational schools.  The way to help is to provide access to the most appropriate education, not to engineer as system doomed to failure.

Students should be asked to pay full freight for this education.  There are few students who cannot afford community college, for example, and can use this basic education to move up as their talents and ambition permit.  In other words, there is no reason why government should engineer an idealistic ‘community’ of equally-educated students. There is enough money being made in higher education that it can be more rationally distributed according to demand.

The recent recession has caused severe unemployment, and the people who are out of work are more than just numbers on spread sheets.  They have suffered, and unemployment has taken a toll not only them and their families but on their communities.  The answer, however, is not to open the public sluices, thereby encouraging feeding at the public trough, but encouraging self-help, individual enterprise, and restoring confidence:

A public policy animated by a spirit of community would assign top priority to helping put Americans back to work by reforming the unemployment-insurance system to include relocation vouchers for unemployed workers who need to move in order to find a job and lump-sum bonuses for finding jobs, further delaying Obamacare's employer mandate beyond 2015 if the labor market continues to recover at a slow pace, encouraging high-skill immigrants to come to America and create jobs, encouraging domestic energy production, and getting the government off the backs of aspiring entrepreneurs by reducing occupational licensing requirements and regulatory burdens.

The essential element in this conservative community focus is to put people back to work, not to support them in place and to discourage recovery and enterprise.

As importantly government has been a major reason for the recession.  For years government spent far beyond its means and we became deep in debt.  Much of this spending was wasteful, but the shame was how profligate public spending robbed individuals of money which could have been better spent – or at the very least saved.

Savings is just another word for investments, and we know investment is crucial to future economic growth. We owe it to the next generation to leave them a large capital stock so that they too can enjoy robust growth and higher wages. The tax code should encourage that.

It is important to look at ‘community’ in the broadest possible terms, for government policies are eroding large communities – older Americans, for example:

Concern for community itself motivates reducing entitlement spending relative to current policy. In the worst-case scenario, a true fiscal crisis would hit the most vulnerable members of society the hardest by suddenly shredding the safety net. Appropriately reforming entitlement programs helps them -- reforming entitlements is helping the poor.

Strain cites Rep. Paul Ryan in a recent speech pleading for a new conservative look at community and spoke of “an inherent human need” for it:

"We want everyone to have a chance in life -- a chance to be happy," Ryan argued. "And we're happiest when we're together. We want to be together. It's in our nature. We feel it in our bones." People "hunger for a community -- where they realize their potential."

‘Progressives’ dismiss Ryan as a far-right zealot whose budget proposals were anti-poor and anti-community; but he is far from an extremist.  He, like most conservatives, do not start with the principle of government; but demand that those who favor public intervention defend each and every expenditure rationally and persuasively. Government should be the last resort, not the first.

Both conservatives and liberals understand the essential nature of community as indispensable for human society and well-being.  It is just that both have different ideas about the means to a laudable end.

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