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April 25, 2013 11:59 AM Communitarian Conservatism Redux

By Ed Kilgore

There are so many overrated “arguments” underway among conservatives these days—mostly tactical disputes about how to sell a common ideology—that it’s refreshing to see a real one, if a very old one, emerge. Consider this post from everybody’s favorite hip new conservative thinker, Yuval Levin, at National Review’s The Corner yesterday, commenting on a speech to the Heritage Foundation by Sen. Mike Lee:

While I think the argument about dependency gets at a real problem—the ways in which the welfare state undermines personal responsibility—the term dependency and the concept it describes point us toward a radically individualist understanding of that problem that is mistaken in some important ways. We are all dependent on others. The question is whether we are dependent on people we know, and they on us—in ways that foster family and community, build habits of restraint and dignity, and instill in us responsibility and a sense of obligation—or we are dependent on distant, neutral, universal systems of benefits that help provide for our material wants without connecting us to any local and immediate nexus of care and obligation. It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul. Such technocratic provision enables precisely the illusion of independence from the people around us and from the requirements of any moral code they might uphold. It is corrosive not because it instills a true sense of dependence but because it inspires a false sense of independence and so frees us from the sorts of moral habits of mutual obligation that alone can make us free.

At this point, attentive readers may wonder: which authority is about to get quoted here? St. Thomas Aquinas, Burke or Tocqueville?

We reach for the idea of dependency because of the kind of arguments we often respond to from the left—arguments that seem like calls for common action instead of individual action. But we should look more carefully at those arguments. The problem with the “you didn’t build that” mindset, as becomes particularly clear if you read what the president said before and after that line, is not just that it denies the significance of individual initiative (though that’s an important part of the problem, and our culture of individual initiative, which is far from radical individualism, is a huge social achievement in America) but also that it denies the significance of any common efforts that are not political. The president took the pose of a critic of individualism, but in fact the position he described involves perhaps the most radical individualism of all, in which nothing but individuals and the state exists in society. Alexis de Tocqueville saw where this would go long ago.

And there’s your winner! Seriously, though, there’s always been a tension in conservative thought between individualists and communitarians who agree on a policy of hostility to the state, but disagree about the primary victim of state power: is it the autonomous individual, or the “mediating institutions” of church, tribe, family and local community—the “little platoons” that Edmund Burke spoke of as the principal agents of civilization?

The best expression of American communitarian conservatism I’ve ever read was in sociologist Robert Nisbet’s 1975 book, Twilight of Authority, a long meditation on the drift towards totalitarianism allegedly being produced by an egalitarian state in combination with atomized individuals yearning to be free from the bonds of “mediating institutions.” Its essence was distilled in an essay that same year appearing (appropriately) in National Review, written (appropriately) by Robert Bork:

Nisbet’s thesis is that the West is in a state of decline, a “twilight age,” characterized by a loss of social authority and hierarchy, and a decline in attachment to political values, coupled, perhaps not paradoxically, with the spread of an oppressive state machinery. As the state, in the name of equality, attempts to ensure not equality of opportunity but equality of result, and is supported in this effort by a “clerisy of power” (including “the greater part of the intellectual, especially academic, class”), it necessarily becomes an engine of leveling. Private power centers and institutions that mediate between the individual and the state are weakened so that ultimately the state will face only a mass of individuals. In that lies the prospect of tyranny.
Indeed, Nisbet predicts that the future lies with military socialisms presiding over masses of persons unsupported by intermediate institutions, barbaric regimes ruling in the name of equality.

Recognize any contemporary right-wing rhetoric in that brief screed? Sure you do.

Communitarian conservatives (frequently, though not always, traditionalist Catholics; Ross Douthat is a pretty good contemporary example) often criticize libertarian types for complicity in the “atomized individual” part of the destructive dynamic Nisbet was talking about, or, more practically, for promoting a political message that repels voters who don’t view “altruism” as immoral or who may anticipate needing external help at some point in life. Indeed, you sometimes get the sense that Randians and “traditionalists” hate each other more than their common liberal enemy. But if you boil off the philosophy and look at actual public policy issues, you have to wonder if this is often a distinction without a difference. Consider the rhetoric of one prominent politician who is forever trying to reconcile his Catholicism with his youthful enthusiasm for Ayn Rand, the 2012 vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party, in a Big Speech honoring Jack Kemp shortly after the most recent elections:

Not every problem disappears through the workings of the free market alone. Americans are a compassionate people. And there’s a consensus in this country about our obligations to the most vulnerable. Those obligations are beyond dispute. The real debate is how best we can meet them. It’s whether they are better met by private groups or by government - by voluntary action or by government action.

The two problems, of course, with this and every other iteration of “compassionate conservatism,” are (1) whether “private groups” (or, as Republicans often argue, state or local governments) are actually adequate to deal with inequality and poverty and illness and other social problems, even if government chips in with some tax credits or other incentives, and (2) whether empowering these “intermediating institutions” involves risks to liberty that we are all familiar with from their long reign in human history.

To put it another way, if people in need (or indeed, nations in need) can no longer turn to the most efficient means available to meet collective challenges, this thing called democratic government (ideally self-government), then does it really matter if they are then helplessly consigned to the market’s wealth-creators or to the “little platoons” that regard them as objects of pity and opportunities for good works? Isn’t that “dependence,” too?

Perhaps if the arguments between libertarian and communitarian conservatives would seem more meaningful if they resulted in significantly different policy initiatives, or in a different kind of politics. Certainly the “compassionate” crowd is prone to engage in the same savage denunciations of liberalism as anything Rick Santelli ever uttered, and it’s no accident that the Tea Party Movement is equally rooted in the kick-the-looter psychology of Ayn Rand and in the Christian Right (often finding a common inspiration in the idea of a divinely created Republic in which property rights are eternally absolute). But anything that encourages public discussion by conservatives of their ideology is to be encouraged, insofar as conservative ideology has become and remains the central problem of American politics.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • paul on April 25, 2013 12:13 PM:

    This whole notion is pretty much the definition of chutzpah. You know who remembers that all those good things the government does are ultimately being done by us, the people? Liberals and other sane folks. The only people who "lose touch" with that fact are rightwing jackholes and the poor saps who fall for government-bashing rightwing propaganda.

  • Gandalf on April 25, 2013 12:28 PM:

    I'd like to know just whats stopping these wonderfull groups ,tribes ,small entities and feudal lords from helping people out now? The govt sure isn't getting in there way.

  • c u n d gulag on April 25, 2013 12:31 PM:

    I can see the roots from Nisbet's and Bork's writings. And, written in that time, might make some sense.

    But, that was a different America.

    It was far more prosperous back in the 50's to mid-70's, and more of that compassion might have worked, coming from private sources - because there were MORE private sources with disposable income.

    The middle class could afford to lend some helping hands, because they had more money.

    Now, due to 40+ years of Conservatism, the middle class, or what's left of it, is squeezed to the point of desperation, the poor are needier, because what wages they might earn, haven't kept up with the cost of living, the upper-middle class is desperate not to slide down, while the top 2-1% have all of the money, and prefer the tax-breaks that endowing a library or hospital-wing gives them, and having it named for tham, rather than contributing to help the neediest in relative anonymity.

    So, the problem comes back to, things were better for the whole country, when the tax rate was above 70#, and the that money really DID 'trickle-down.'

  • esaud on April 25, 2013 12:34 PM:

    Ya gotta love the overblown rhetoric from those blowhards: "habits of dignity and restraint"? You mean folks like Cheney who lied and tortured his way into a war? Or chaps like Limbaugh?

    But mostly I get a kick out of the whole construct that they are merely trying to help those poor schmucks that are lacking in a "moral code". The fact that it condemns said schmucks (many of whom are children) to a life of wanton depravity, ill health and despair is beside the point. What's starvation compared to a strong moral fiber?

    No, as much as they cloak themselves in "morality", scratch the surface and all you'll find is cruelty and willful ignorance. They are horrible people.

  • jim filyaw on April 25, 2013 12:35 PM:

    this may sound pedestrian, but when one is out of a job, the rent is due, and the kids are hungry, he really, really doesn't give a damn about whether assistance comes from next door or from the d.c. zip code, nor does he give a rat's ass what aquinas or the others would have thought. its something that republicans cannot seem to grasp.

  • FlipYrWhig on April 25, 2013 12:42 PM:

    Sometimes it seems like the greatest tragedy for a conservative would be... accidentally helping a stranger.

  • Rick B on April 25, 2013 12:44 PM:

    The real problem I see with those writings is that they are essentially used by politically powerful individuals to justify their own class and power and to allow for the exploitation of everyone else.

    When conservatives speak of "freedom for everyone" they really mean freedom for members of their own (powerful) class to exploit the "unworthy." The unworthy are those not born to the proper class.

    The minute this is brought up, their argument is that there are no classes in America. Research has shown that this is invariably a major argument of the dominant class in any society. They are blind to the existence of the class they belong to - fish who do not perceive the water they exist in.

  • Mimikatz on April 25, 2013 12:54 PM:

    Back in the early 1960s I had the pleasure of taking a course from Louis Hartz in 19th and 20th century European thought. This tension among the sovereign (which he called "the rational X," putting a big X on the board, and the mediating institutions and the atomized individuals, peppering the board with dots. His backdrop of course was the great totalitarian movements and governments of the 20s, 30s and 40s, and the war and carnage they spawned. He talked often about the dilemma of reformers, many of whom saw the dangers, but felt that the mediating institutions, particularly the Catholic Church and most other religions, plus the nobility and corporations, were so entrenched in power that they had to be dissolved and their power broken if the middle classes were ever to sharepower and the masses were ever going to rise above destitution, even though that risked leaving them at the mercy not of a rational sovereign but a totalitarian madman and his thugs.

    And this is still the conservative dilemma. They can't both defend a grossly unequal political and economic system, and appeal to the aspirations of those not already rich. Some mediating institutions try to really mediate, but too many (the Catholic Church, still, and certainly most corporations) just try to consolidate their power. And look what the radical Christian right has done with religion and the family, using them as instruments of conformity and male domination, opposing critical, scientific thought with the zeal of Tertullian.

    The real lesson of today's society is that the market is amoral and many of its champions use that as a license to behave immorally. Predatory corporations are not mediating institutions but independent power centers who attempt to control government for their own ends. Religion can be as stultifying and stifling as political conformity, and so can the family, especially when "family" is a code for resistance to change.

    We need a strong government to, among other things, restrain market forces and predatory capitalists, and to protect individuals against mediating institutions that have become oppressive of minorities and even the majority. And we need engaged citizens not just consumers, and they need to organize into truly mediating institutions. But just as in prior centuries, many so-called mediating institutions are just propping up the status quo if not trying to turn back the clock, and they can oppress the reat of us just as much as government, if not more.

  • gregor on April 25, 2013 1:04 PM:

    All these lofty philosophical flights of fancy aside, the only goal of conservatives has always been to live up to the definition of conservatism so succinctly stated by J.K. Galbraith, to wit, conservatism is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

    That will never change. That can be used to explain very simply all the political drama coming out of the GOP.

  • c u n d gulag on April 25, 2013 1:27 PM:

    Also too, think about the circles our political and pundit Conservatives travel in.

    They are members of the same "tribe," from many of the same origins, with many of the same experiences - well to-do children from well to-do towns, upper-crust HS's and colleges, fraternities, sororities, etc.

    And people of that tribe DO indeed have their own "communities" - ones that help one another out.

    Lose a job?
    Call a HS, college, fraternity, sorority, friend, and they'll try to find something in their new circles - which aren't that different from the circles they all came from, now just with more members.

    And then, there's always Wingnut Welfare, with it's Think Tanks, and assorted associations, clubs, and lecture cirquits.

    Of course, they don't understand how other might NOT have the same communities, offering the same opportunities!!!

    Hey, young Paulie Ryan had some token menial/fast-food jobs, went to college, came out, used his wealthy families connections to work in DC, and finally ran for Congress in the area he grew up, won, and has kept winning.

    And if he loses, FOX, Heritage, and others, will all fight to have him. And he can hit the rubber-chicken lecture cirquit.

    Hell, HE made it, didn't he?

    Why can't that poor white kid from Janestown working some NON-token menial/fast-food jobs, do the same thing?
    Why doesn't that kid show some initiative?

    Even, or ESPECIALLY, that kid is a minority, and can somehow or other get into college, join The College Republicans, graduate, break into that political/pundit circle by hook or by crook, and agree to follow Conservatism like a religion, and he/she will get the same deal young Mr. Ryan got.

    They really have no idea how the other half, plus 45+ percent, live.

  • scott_m on April 25, 2013 1:30 PM:

    Another one of those mediating institutions would be labor unions, but it seems that conservatives of all flavors want to keep folks atomized when it comes to making their living.

  • LaFollette Progressive on April 25, 2013 1:47 PM:

    Ed, this is an excellent piece. If I can take one of your points and run with it...

    The individualist right-wing perspective on dependency is fairly disgusting, but if you accept their assumptions their agenda makes a certain amount if sense. Market good, taxes bad, redistribution evil. If you get old, or sick, or injured, and your investments fail, too bad for you. Fine, got it.

    It's the communitarian conservatives whose concept of freedom and dependency ultimately makes no sense at all. Once you accept that there's nothing inherently immoral about needing support from others, you ought to see a program like social security and medicare as making people *less* dependent on others.

    It's an earned benefit. You aren't dependent on handouts from charity or moving in with your kids. You aren't dependent on the performance of your savings and investments, which can be wiped out by stupid decisions made by strangers -- you receive an income and pay your own bills and maintain your financial independence.

    The act of giving charitably is honorable, but depending on charitable giving (which waxes and wanes by season, and declines in a recession when people need it most) is undignified. Being a burden on your own children is something no one wants. A properly constructed government program increases the freedom of those individuals who need aid and the people who care for them.

    It does have to be paid for, of course, but a system in which everyone pays in and everyone is eligible to benefit is only "tyrannical" if you have a deeply confused understanding of what freedom is.

  • boatboy_srq on April 25, 2013 2:20 PM:

    @FlipYrWhig:

    Sometimes it seems like the greatest tragedy for a conservative would be... accidentally helping a stranger.

    There's a story I read once about a certain Samaritan who became famous doing just that. I think it's in that Book thing the Reichwing keeps on misquoting.

    ---------------------------------------------------------

    Mimikatz nails it. The public sector is designed - deliberately - to curb the excesses of the private sector, not to impede "success" or "job creation" or any of the other ideals of Conservatist thought, but to prevent the corruption those ideals suffer when allowed to run unfettered. At the same time, it achieves with a minimum of baggage what the private sector would lard with unrelated requirements (conversion to a certain faith, accommodation of other values, adherence to ridiculous values systems, etc).

    What the Reichwing continually glosses over is this insistence on a binary approach to public policy. Levin's discussion of "arguments that seem like calls for common action instead of individual action" makes that view very clear. In their Black/White, Good/Bad mindset there appears to be room (as the article points out) for only private, individual effort or some vast Big Gubmint machine. From that, they continue to take the belief that since they are (supposedly) the Good, individualist camp, the opposition must necessarily be the Big Gubmint crowd by default. The idea that a public solution is hardly the preferred solution, has no need to operate in a vacuum, can coexist with private initiatives, and is far from the Eternal Beloved of the Left, is apparently completely beyond them. If it were suggested to Levin that his "common action" and his "individual action" could coexist and complement each other it's arguable from his recent article (if nothing else) that his head would explode.

  • Barbara on April 25, 2013 2:26 PM:

    Levin's commentary has superficial appeal, and is subject to all the weaknesses that Ed points out. Here is my short reply: A man's idea of "false sense of independence" is often enough a woman's idea of self-direction and dignity. You see, when the government gives the benefit it might usurp those "traditional" notions of interdependence, but often as not, that interdependence imposes a heavy load of command and control over individual human action in their most intimate and personal matters. The notion that your association with a church (because that's what we're really talking about) should be voluntary still sticks in a lot of people's craw.

  • sacman701 on April 25, 2013 2:47 PM:

    Gotta love it.

    "The question is whether we are dependent on people we know...or we are dependent on distant, neutral, universal systems..."

    So if you know the right people, you're good to go. If you don't, tough luck.

  • esaud on April 25, 2013 2:48 PM:

    Another thing that bugs me about people like Levin is that they are pretending to be philosophical about something quite prosaic. When you look at all of the practical applications of conservative governance, it follows the same blueprint: heavy reliance on police/military, not so much to protect and defend, but rather keeping the general populace in line with strong-arm tactics like torture and imprisonment. And the "freedom" they sorely love amounts to an open season for A-list corporate interests. Everything else (education, consumer protection) is for the wussy liberals.

    Given examples like Pinochet's Chile, Yeltsen's oligarcic Russia, or the Bush adminstration Iraq Authority, I wonder if Levin would care to live in any of them.

  • PTate in MN on April 25, 2013 3:34 PM:

    "The two problems, of course, with this and every other iteration of “compassionate conservatism,” are (1) whether “private groups” (or, as Republicans often argue, state or local governments) are actually adequate to deal with inequality and poverty and illness and other social problems, even if government chips in with some tax credits or other incentives, and (2) whether empowering these “intermediating institutions” involves risks to liberty that we are all familiar with from their long reign in human history. "

    An outstanding post, Ed, and thought-provoking comments, too. It is a good conversation to have, but the only insightful comments will come from the liberal side. Every time a conservative opens his or her mouth, I have learned to expect gobbledegook. Every conservative statement is a variation on the central conservative challenge: "how can I make suckers believe that cruelty, bigotry and selfishness are virtues?"

    We have an answer to your question 1). State and local governments are not able to cope with inequality, joblessness, poverty, aging populations and all the rest. The conservative embrace of state's rights as "solutions" to these problems is just their tactic to destroy a federal government powerful enough to prevent them from exploiting the vulnerable. The American Civil war was fought under the guise of "state's rights" arguments like these. We know how compassionate state and local governments are when a conservative gets control of the statehouse (Tim Pawlenty, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Paul LaPage, eg.) In the end, the only private group they care about is the one to which they belong.

    And history shows pretty definitively that 2) intermediating institutions do less well at helping the vulnerable than government of, by and for the people. That's why the federal government has had to step in time and again. If people in the USA feel atomized, it is because those intermediating institutions have failed to serve their needs. In fact, in many cases, the intermediating institutions are the cause of the problem. When did it become okay for corporations to demand that employees work 60 hours a week? Or to not pay a living wage? Isn't it obvious by now that the market has failed to provide affordable housing and healthcare and is failing to address our energy needs? Why is it okay for churches to discriminate against women and gays and deny global climate change? Ultimately, the roots of instability and dependency in our society are conservative policies that have made it more difficult for families to flourish even as they claim to care.


  • Col Bat Guano on April 25, 2013 3:58 PM:

    All I know is that I think it's time to stop relying on Alexis de Tocqueville as an authority on current U.S society.

  • Peter C on April 25, 2013 4:42 PM:

    “It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul.”

    This idea is a crock of shit. With a democracy, we ARE the government. So, if we get things from the government, we’re getting them from us. This IS a mutual obligation – the obligation we have to take care of each other. We take on these mutual obligations in as fair a way as we can – through our democratic process and by majority vote. None of these obligations were tyrannically applied; we took up these burdens as an act of our own will.

    As for corrupting the soul, the real pieces of low-hanging fruit are injustice and poverty. Republicans ignore poverty and injustice in order to ‘save’ us from the ‘corruption’ of being ‘dependent’ upon a collective obligation we imposed upon ourselves. They can pretend a concern for our ‘souls’ as much as they like, but I’m not buying it.

  • Doug on April 25, 2013 7:58 PM:

    That "decline of the West" so-called conservatives are so often whining about can be traced right back to their losing power and social standing, in that order after screwing everybody over in the 1920s and 1930s.
    Here it was Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. In France it those murmuring "Better Hitler than Blum". In England, the supporters of Baldwin and Chamberlain so tainted the Conservative brand, Churchill couldn't be re-elected Prime Minister. In 1945! Spain had Franco, Italy had Mussolini and both only got to where they did by the support, covert *and* overt of "conservatives". Then there's Germany...
    Conservatives screwed the world up and were politely told if *they* couldn't take better care of their things, there were those who could. And did for almost fifty years until my generation, the "Boomers", reached adulthood (?) and those on the right proved themselves to be just as radically arrogant as they claimed those on left were. Or might it have been an early example of projection? Either way...
    In any case, today's "conservatives", just as did their predecessors, whine about "Big Government!" but support the Patriot Act, transvaginal probes and "letters, please" policies? That's *not* consevatism, it's a group of people who are used to being in charge just as their parents/grandparents were, or think they should be in charge, and simply cannot, or won't (which is worse) face the fact conditions change. and today *isn't* yesterday.
    We are no longer 90% rural, with a good chunk of that remaining 10% capable of returning to the family farm in times of economic downturns, but you'd never know that from conservatives. Have "conservatives" ever asked themselves *why* so many people are so reliant on the government? Could it be because the wages in this country haven't kept up with inflation, let alone productivity? And if someone can't support his/her family in "good times", how in H*ll are they supposed to support charities during bad times?
    I've all but given up trying to figure out *how* the thought-processes of today's so-called conservatives work. Perhaps I should ask Norton?

  • MikeN on April 25, 2013 10:09 PM:

    "The question is whether we are dependent on people we know, and they on us—in ways that foster family and community, build habits of restraint and dignity, and instill in us responsibility and a sense of obligation—or we are dependent on distant, neutral, universal systems of benefits that help provide for our material wants without connecting us to any local and immediate nexus of care and obligation. "

    Good. Let's start with West, Texas. I'm sure the inhabitants there don't want to be dependent on some distant neutral universal system- they can get all the help they need from the people around them, who have a sense of care and obligation because they're suffering under the exact same tragedy....uh, how does that work again?

  • latts on April 26, 2013 10:38 AM:

    @LaFollette Progressive:

    "It's the communitarian conservatives whose concept of freedom and dependency ultimately makes no sense at all."

    Actually, it makes plenty of sense if you note that conservatism always reinforces social hierarchies, even if their methods (economic, military, religious) vary with the circumstances. Private charity a) flatters & strengthens its sources, and b) demands much more social compliance from recipients than public supports ever would. That's why they're constantly going on about drug tests for social programs; it's an effort to make public charity more like the private kind. Relying on churches and old-white-people organizations to care for the disadvantaged both attempts to curb what they consider bad behavior and warns others who might stray that they had better not run afoul of these groups, in case they ever need help. And that perpetuates social power structures that government aid allows outsiders to ignore.

  • Daryl McCullough on April 26, 2013 2:50 PM:

    I have a certain amount of sympathy for communitarian conservatives. But they don't seem to realize that it's not big government that is only, or primarily, ripping apart the sense of community. It's also big box store chains, mass entertainment, outsourcing of jobs, online shopping, etc.

    The bottom line is that it's big business that is as responsible, if not more so, as big government. What do communitarian conservatives plan to do about that?

  • PopeRatzo on April 26, 2013 5:30 PM:

    No, poor people relying on private charity is not "dependance" because there's a better chance that they will not get such charity.

    And that is ultimately the goal of modern conservatism: making sure people who, for whatever reason, cannot carry their own weight (and the weight of their boss, the bosses company, and the company's shareholders) simply do not survive.

    As long as their are plenty of people in the so-called "middle class" who can be pressed into service as drivers, nannies, and housekeepers, there is no reason to keep such people around.

  • Ted Frier on April 27, 2013 5:27 PM:

    My favorite example involves George F. Will and his takedown of Elizabeth Warren when just a candidate her support of what Will called "the liberal project" aimed at diluting “the concept of individualism" and thereby refuting "respect for the individual's zone of sovereignty."

    When Warren liked private industry with the public investments that made them possible ("you didn't build that") Will said she was promoting a "collectivist agenda" antithetical to America's fundamental premise, which is: That government and its products, including such public goods as roads, schools and police, are instituted to facilitate individual striving, but that such "collective choices" designed to "facilitate" individual striving "does not compel the conclusion that the collectivity is entitled to take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving."

    That word salad of gibberish would come as a surprise to the George Will of 1983 who wrote in "Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does" that liberal democratic societies were "ill-founded" precisely because they were based on materialism and the maximization of self-interest at the expense of those grander and more noble virtues such as generosity, modesty, humility, self-sacrifice, disinterestedness, and justice.

    Going further, Will wrote in his introduction to the re-release of professor Clinton Rossiter's classic history, "Conservatism in America," that the incoherence in American conservatism is attributable to its too close association with free market capitalism.

    How could, asks Will, a political belief system based on law and order and the primacy of the community over the individual possibly subscribe to an economic theory like laissez-faire that is lawless at its core?

    "The severely individualistic values and the atomizing social dynamism of a capitalist society conflict with the traditional and principled conservative concern with traditions, among other things," write Will.

    "Those other things include the life of a society in its gentling corporate existence - in communities, churches and other institutions that derive their usefulness and dignity from the ability to summon individuals up from individualism to concerns larger and longer-lasting than their self-interestedness."

    The sad reality, of course, is that like so many other right wing conservatives, George Will is not aiming for intellectual consistency or integrity with his attacks on Elizabeth Warren and her so-called "collectivist" ideas of an American social contract. Rather, what Will seeks is a strategic victory for the vested interests he serves with all his talk of Warren's collectivism and freedoms denied.

  • Doug Hughes on April 28, 2013 9:55 AM:

    One small point to add to an insightful post.

    The conservative affection for private conservatism as a way of attending to social problems dances lightly over the feature they like most - privatized institutions of charity can deny benefits to the unworthy. 'There's the rub..' as the bard put it. WHO decides who is worthy?

    The liberal viewpoint excludes 'morality' as a criteria, using a fixed set of measurements - income, number of dependents, etc as a formula. Conservatives, particularly those with a religious bend, want to decide if the lifestyle makes the person undeserving of aid. This leads down a dangerous path of social discrimination but the creed of excluding the unworthy is an integral theme of Limbaugh and his clones.

    Never fear, the left falls onto the same cognitive trap when they point to the ill-gotten profits of various individuals as a rationale for higher taxes - as if taxes can be applied according to social benefit - an acceptable form of liberal discrimination which suggests by implication that we liberals can parse good and bad profits.

  • laura w on April 28, 2013 3:50 PM:

    I enjoyed this article, as I think I just learned I was a communitarian conservative. Thank you.

    I was disappointed by many of the comments that want to shred the article apart. I am middle class, volunteer at a food pantry and homeless shelter, live below my means, and have never been on unemployment, though I have been unemployed. The people I meet at the pantry and shelter are either trying hard to improve their circumstances or too crazy to try. Either way, I enjoy helping. There is a direct relationship and people feel not only grateful, but motivated to improve. I think accountabiity (motivation, whatever you want to call it) is important. The directors of each place know most of the clients and can address needs on a level the govt is not capable of.
    The people that I know (many friends) that are on unemployment or govt assistance do not seem to want to change their circumstances. They want to keep what they have and are unwilling to work as they might not earn as much. These are the people we need to reach and motivate.
    By the way, when I say the people I know, I include my sister, who once she got on govt programs and learned from friends how to get more, never has worked again.
    Another small example: when people got food stamps, there was some shame associated with it, so now most aid is issued on a debit looking card. It may have taken away embarrassment, but it's been replaced with no motivation to change.
    We need to take care of those who can't take care of themselves, but we also need to motivate those that can take care of themselves to do so. I see no motivation coming from the way the govt handles things.
    I am tired of both liberals and conservatives ripping ideas apart when the reality is, both sides want to improve the country.

  • clarence swinney on May 08, 2013 10:58 AM:

    MINIMUM WAGE DEBATE
    “You are going to exclude a lot of younger workers”
    80% that would get a raise are adults.
    Add in those indirectly affected it is 92% adults.
    Most are parents. Seven million children would be affected.
    The majority that would get a raise are women.
    The Republicans rejected a proposal to go to $10.10
    and indicated they would oppose Obama's $9.00 proposal.
    Polls show nearly 75% support the increase.
    Will Republicans ever stop working to stop Progress of the Middle Class?
    Still old Country Club Outfit! Aid the rich. Trickle down nonsense.

  • Hexexis on May 09, 2013 11:28 AM:

    In fact, the authority here was not Aquinas or de Tocqueville but Sartre, who wrote in the late 50s & in ennui-provoking, exacting detail that this "dependence w/o mutual obligation" was @the heart of our social institutions; & this can be shown from the gulf in power & prestige between a church board of directors & the parishoners to ossified & obsolete "regional commands" of our standing army & navy.