Communitarianism, Conservatism, Populism and Localism: An Updated Survey

by Russell Arben Fox on June 11, 2009 · 21 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Philosophers & Saints,Politics & Power,Region & Place

community

Wichita, KS

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Michael Sandel’s giving of the prestigious Reith Lectures for the BBC (hat tip: the ever-watchful Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber) has prompted me to return to an old post of mine on communitarianism, and perhaps do some updating of what I wrote then, so as to incorporate the populist and localist ideas that I have since become more familiar with and committed to, and which I see as closely entwined with any serious attempt to think about politics in light of the well-being of families, neighborhoods, and communities. Front Porch Republic, in recent weeks, has seen much discussion of community, along with thorough considerations of such arguably communitarian forms of political economy and government as autarchy and distributism and Christian social democracy. Given all that, perhaps a review of the broad sweep of communitarian thought could provide some helpful, orienting perspective.

Sandel is not my favorite communitarian thinker (that would be Charles Taylor), but he has done as much to advance various civic republican and “common good”-style arguments in the context of political theory as probably anyone currently living, and so his thoughts deserve some consideration. In his first lecture (available for downloading here), Sandel makes the argument that the common, and easy, anti-capitalist response to our nation’s present economic woes–namely, the idea that our economic elites have behaved in an irresponsible and greedy manner–is, as he puts it, a “flawed or, at best, partial [critique].” He continues:

Looking back over three decades of market triumphalism, the most fateful change was not an increase in the incidence of greed. It was the expansion of markets and of market values into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms….[M]arkets are not mere mechanisms. They embody certain norms. They presuppose, and also promote, certain ways of valuing the goods being exchanged. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is a mistake. Markets leave their mark. Often market incentives erode or crowd out non-market incentives….Some of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities, so to decide when to use markets, it’s not enough to think about efficiency; we have also to decide how to value the goods in question. Health, education, national defence, criminal justice, environmental protection and so on–these are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To decide them democratically, we have to debate case by case the moral meaning of these goods in the proper way of valuing. This is the debate we didn’t have during the age of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realising it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

It is easy, of course, to be cynical about such state; one could snark, as one on-line commenter did, that Sandel isn’t saying anything was wasn’t being said in the ninth century A.D., and even then it wasn’t new. But so what–so what if communitarian reflections tend to question methods of individual liberation, and emphasize the irreducibility of goods which are created and appreciated collectively and historically, and thus end up being, well, “conservative”? Old-fashioned, even. Stodgy, perhaps. It doesn’t seem to me that such stodginess prevents one from being able to recognize and take action on behalf of social concerns, both local and otherwise. Indeed, community-minded conservatives can be, and often are, the most radical of thinkers, in the sense of their ability to look past the obvious material benefits of consumer economies which separate out, meritocratically train, and enable individuals to specialize along their own preferred lines, and instead to insist upon the enduring quality of those things and relationships which are concomitant to groups, spread out over a particular place or a span of time, acting on behalf of something larger than themselves. But perhaps we need to get clear on our terms first.

Like “liberalism,” “communitarianism” can refer to both an ideology–a set of more or less organized set of claims or ideas about political positions and actions–and a philosophy. The range of arguments and proposals that can be plausibly identified as “philosophically communitarian” is, I think, much greater, culturally and historically, than is the case with liberalism. Practically all core liberal ideas are associated with the growth of personal and social liberation from the modern history of Europe: the rise of entrepreneurial capitalism and dogma-debunking science in the context of an increasingly rambunctious public sphere, with a skepticism of royal, church, and ultimately government authority which followed. Of course “liberty” (though Lew Daly would probably prefer to say “freedom” here) has its positive connotations, with economic and moral empowerment and equality being treated as a necessary requirements to the realization of liberal rights; T.H. Green made that argument in the 19th century, and John Rawls did the same in the 20th. But by and large, notions of rights (whether natural–John Locke–or categorical–Immanuel Kant) operate in a negative way, asserting what should not be done to a person or be imposed upon her interests or preferences in the name of a religious truth, a local tradition, a community norm, or a political goal. Liberalism–as a philosophy and ideology–is thus to a great degree a carrier of the individual liberation and social deconstruction achieved in the modern West to the rest of the world.

Communitarianism, by contrast, can be applied to any of a great number of philosophical presumptions that do not aim to justify individual liberation from tradition, authority, religion, society, necessity, and so forth, but rather to positively assert the embeddedness of the self in a community. The “liberty of the ancients” as described by Benjamin Constant–in which the existence of slavery made possible the regular participation of citizens in the collective formation of civic life–is basically communitarian, and rightly so; Aristotle and others like him are complicated thinkers that don’t easily fit into any one (especially modern) category, but only a seriously misinterpretation could discover in their writings a condemnation of the cultural and hierarchical claims of one’s community and the affects it has on individual lives. Similarly, one can discover communitarian ideas in classical Confucianism, medieval Christendom, or in almost any other premodern worldview. Practically any theology or ontology or epistemology which criticizes or undermines individuated, critical, unprejudiced (and therefore alienated) action or cognition, and considers to be natural or good or necessary its opposite (a dependence upon revelation, an emphasis on group-ordained roles, the prioritizing of mutual benefit and progress, etc.) is communitarian. Still, such broad descriptions–which could presumably equally fit Han dynasty China or ancient Sparta or 16th-century Swiss villages, to say nothing of their modern incarnations–leave much unexplained. Thus, figuring out exactly how any person or policy identified as communitarian comes to that label is at least as important as identifying it as such in the first place.

This is where things become particular interesting (or difficult, if you prefer) for populists and localists, or those sympathetic to such: do they insist upon a restrictive definition of community (as Jason Peters and Katherine Dalton do) as a specifically localized and peopled place, and deny the kind of thinking which suggests the applicability of orienting oneself towards an attendance upon cultural and collective norms which emerge from contexts other than extended families and small towns as having anything to do with “real” communities at all? Or do they (as I suggested in connection with public schooling) acknowledge there can be spheres of collective action and feeling that include broader, more “public” groups than those aforementioned, intimate ones, which would mean that the communitarian critique can be made use of in a diversity of settings–include, perhaps, even national ones? If the former approach is taken, then the very idea of communitarianism as anything other than an ontological category, much less as something sufficiently grounded as to be able to suggest moral and political possibilities at our present moment, seems ludicrous: Christopher Lasch’s old (I think somewhat unfair, but not entirely inaccurate) condemnation of communitarianism as too broad, too concerned in a sociological sense with “humanity” to be able to provide the specific judgments needed to revive the virtues that political freedom and economic security depend upon, would seem to be conclusive. But I suspect the latter approach can work as well–assuming that one can recognize and distinguish between the types of communitarian thinking one engages in.

Michael Walzer suggests in an old essay of his that contemporary communitarian perspectives can be sorted into two fundamental camps. The first perspective “holds that liberal political theory accurately represents liberal social practice.” That is, it affirms that the doctrines of liberalism–the notions of self, rationality, and nature which emphasize economic, social, moral and political liberation–have in fact resulted in the fragmentation of civilization: we have lost our ability to connect with one another, lost even the ability to coherently explain that loss, and consequently live materialist, egotistical, self-interested, isolated lives, with no sense of a common good, no moral standards for judgment, no solidarity, no traditions, no hope for transformation or better ends. The second perspective, by contrast, “holds that liberal theory radically misrepresents real life”–that the “deep structure of even liberal society is in fact communitarian.” Being born into a state of sovereign and independent nature, outside of embedded relationships of power and meaning, is of course impossible; the way we work through our families and languages and cultures to evaluate and make sense our lives proves that. Hence, according to this perspective, liberal theory is not so much destructive as it is confusing (though that confusion could do a fair amount of destruction along the way).

There are problems with both types, as Walzer notes; they struggle when they try to turn themselves into productive critiques of our undeniably liberated world. In regards to the first, if it is true that the modern flight from norms of obligation and belonging has destroyed our ability to articulate and attend to community, why exactly would we want to subject ourselves to communitarian policies which presumably would be in vain? In regards to the second, there is the fact that, as Walzer concludes, “if we are all to some degree communitarians under the skin…the portrait of social incoherence loses its critical force.” Still, Walzer believes–and I agree–that there is a lot of wisdom and truth in both types: if nothing else, recognizing them can help us humbly consider how much communal sensibility and appreciation for the public good the modern West has lost–even in its current nation-state (or post-nation-state!) contexts–and it is valuable to see how much of that sensibility nonetheless still haunts our moral and political thinking.

Assuming we can use communitarian labels in this broader way, who amongst philosophers and writers would fit with which perspective? On the basis of my own reading of them, I would describe Wendell Berry, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Robert Nisbet as communitarians of the former sort. (The residents of Front Porch Republic might insist that Berry would have no part of this, preferring instead to see his arguments as operating solely within the explicitly restrictive understanding of community mentioned above; however, if that were the case, then one might be a little hard-pressed to explain his not unoccasional willingness to recommend clearly “communitarian” command reforms of the national economy, and his wistfulness for ambitious New Deal-era efforts to preserve collective control over regional economies, such as through the Burley Tobacco Program.) On the other hand, Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, and Walzer himself would be in the second camp–though it should be noted that, in any case, almost none of these people would use ever the word “communitarian” to describes themselves politically or economically.

And “conservatism”? Well, the ontological supports that advocates of these various communitarian critiques have philosophically drawn upon range across the above divide, and of course plenty of agitators for one or more of the above theories of government and society don’t feel a necessary connection to any particular sustaining philosophy at all. However, generally speaking, it seems to me that the more a person’s criticism of liberal modernity is based on conceptions of the natural world or revealed religion, the more likely it is to be “conservative” in the political sense, and thus tending towards the first type of generally applicable communitarian thought. This is the sort of communitarian ideology most Americans are used to, even though it’s rarely called by that name: this is where you find many advocates of traditional marriage and gender roles, opponents of artistic expressions and media that ignore local values, supporters of protectionism and small-town agricultural economies, and people critical of the language of rights and grievances. With them usually also comes both a sense of nostalgia or lamentation and, until the most recent election, perhaps, Republicans trawling all too successfully for votes. Of course, many of those who are persuaded by elements of this critique are not truly critical of philosophical liberalism at all; so long as the government stays small or they are able to keep a few socially conservative regulations on the books, they are content with the liberating, “creative destruction” of capitalism and individual rights.

On the other hand, if one’s critique of modern liberalism is based on social observations, such as about the importance of civic trust, national service, or class equity, whether derived from Karl Marx or Alexis de Tocqueville, then one’s communitarianism is, I think, likely to be more inclined to the second perspective. This is the kind of communitarianism that, in contrast to the former and more politically common type, more political theorists will be familiar with: Sandel, of course, but also Philip Pettit, William Galston, and Richard Dagger have been key figures in a small but significant “neo-Tocquevillian” revival, in which a re-attachment to the virtues that the liberal order presupposes, and a recommitment to its participatory demands and possibilities, are seen as crucial to restoring legitimacy to the modern democratic welfare state. Most of these individuals, strongly influenced by the social democratic left, see themselves as liberals or civic republicans rather than communitarians, a word which they (probably rightly, I think) associate with conservatism and (probably wrongly, I think) religious and political authoritarianism. Sometimes those in this group are categorized as “left” communitarians, as opposed to the previous, more “right”-leaning kind, and there is a certain logic to that usage (though I think both “left” and “right” can be used to explore conservatism, and thereby separate the pure traditionalists from those of a more explicitly communitarian focus as well). More usually they have eschewed such labels altogether, and defined themselves instead as representing a “Third Way” or a “Radical Center,” and in so doing have blurred to the point of indistinguishability the difference between themselves and scholars like Will Kymlicka who take community and culture seriously, but only on explicitly liberal terms. Nonetheless, even these left-leaning communitarians, by opening themselves up to necessity of tradition and attachment, usually find themselves less than instinctively supportive of modernity’s project of liberation, and in that sense, they are friends to FPR types.

(For those inclined to ponder things in light of the whole history of philosophy, one more philosophical note, having to do with the association between what has been come to be called “Continental” philosophy (as distinguished from the predominantly liberal, Anglo-American tradition from Locke on down) and communitarianism. It is true that the German romantic tradition, including but not limited to G.W.F. Hegel, gave rise to a phenomenological argument which asserted that knowledge, ethics and action depend upon already-existing historical and cultural horizons and materiality; this, in time, contributed to the writings of hermeneutical thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Hannah Arendt, all of whom emphasized such communal realities as language, participation, and the Volk. While there is no real sense that any of these thinkers were communitarians in the manner I have discussed them here, it is nonetheless true that, under the influence of Arendt social and participatory democratic thinkers like Sheldon Wolin and others have advanced arguments that link political action with community, thus providing a good antidote to overly sociological constructions of belonging.)

Where does this survey leave me? Well, I’m most fundamentally a populist, one whose communitarianism has enough of a religious grounding to take many forms of cultural and social conservatism seriously, but also one who is attached enough to romantic and socialist traditions to see virtue and equality as mutually compatible, if the playing field is democratic enough. But figuring out how to make it that way is something else entirely.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Empedocles June 11, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Communitarianism has sometimes described as the theory that individual rights can be violated in order to pursue the common good. I think that rather it should be the view that the protection and fostering of social capital is a legitimate role of government. Thus the question of whether individual rights maximize social capital remains open. I would argue that individual rights do in fact help to further social capital as the places with the greatest social capital also have a high degree of personal freedom, but perhaps not necessarily so. I am sure there are many places that don’t have a tradition of Western rights, but have high social capital. The key in places with high degrees of social capital is not restrictions on individual liberty in the name of conformity or “the common good”, but the presence of stable norms, usually inherited through a common historical culture. And this is what communitarianism should aim to protect.

avatar Russell Arben Fox June 11, 2009 at 4:32 pm

An excellent comment, Empedocles; thank you for it. However, I would make one point in response. Your conclusion…

The key in places with high degrees of social capital is not restrictions on individual liberty in the name of conformity or “the common good”, but the presence of stable norms, usually inherited through a common historical culture. And this is what communitarianism should aim to protect.

…elides the possibility–and often, probability–that the preservation of “stable norms” and “a common historical culture” will involve some kind of restictions on individual liberty. If the preservation of, for example, a common culture (which, on one level or another, is going to have to include sites and patterns of interaction and association) means the preservation of a business, a school, a park, a beach, and so forth, then that means the liberty to go corporate and outsourcing the local jobs to Guatemala, or to cash in and start building private homes on the public access beach, etc., is going to have to be restricted. How, and to what degree? That will always have to be debated, in light of all sorts of other competing values. But I think your desire to distinguish the development of social capital from restrictions on individual behavior, while a worthy one, can easily be taken too far.

avatar John B. June 12, 2009 at 7:52 am

Re the proposing of communitarianism as an antidote to consumerism: this recent essay in The New Republic.

avatar Russell Arben Fox June 12, 2009 at 11:08 am

John, thanks for linking to that! I read that essay by Amitai Etzioni yesterday, and thought about putting up a short link to it on FPR. Maybe I still will…

avatar Kenneth McIntyre June 12, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Russell,

The post is intelligent, well-argued, and erudite in the best sense of the term. I understand a great deal of what you are doing here because my intellectual background is similar to yours. My differences with you are easily traceable to the split between the so-called Young Hegelians and the older traditionalists. I think that Hegel is easily the most important modern political philosopher (i.e., he provides us with an adequate account of the modern state), but I think that Oakeshott gets Hegel right and that Taylor gets him wrong.

I also like your dissection of various versions of communitarianism, though I am not sure that I agree with your placement of Berry in the middle of the two. You have to remember that, even if one believes that the positive meaning of community is limited by language, location, etc., it doesn’t necessarily mean that one surrenders the right to comment on ‘national issues’.

Nonetheless, I think that your post does bring up a couple of fissures among the FPRers. One, which many have already noticed, is concerned with the character of community. The other deals with the nature and function of political association. Like other communitarians, you speak a great deal about the common good. I prefer the term common concern, for reasons which relate to what I take to be the inherently limited nature of modern political associations (i.e. there is little in the modern state that could generate a real consensus about a substantive good, but, if people share a common life and enjoy it, there might be something that they would all be concerned about preserving and, possibly, improving).

avatar Caleb Stegall June 12, 2009 at 9:07 pm

“I prefer the term common concern, for reasons which relate to what I take to be the inherently limited nature of modern political associations (i.e. there is little in the modern state that could generate a real consensus about a substantive good, but, if people share a common life and enjoy it, there might be something that they would all be concerned about preserving and, possibly, improving).”

Augustine called this “loved things held in common.” Much better than the ever manipulable and elusive “common good.”

avatar Russell Arben Fox June 12, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Ken and Caleb,

Thanks for the responses. I can see your point about the language of “common good” versus “common concern,” though I wonder if this fine distinction really does function as such a conceptual gap as you both seem to suggest. Perhaps it does–but then again, perhaps in practice it is a distinction so theoretically narrow as to be negligible. For example, does the preference for clean air and water signify a commonly/collectively articulated “good,” or is it “merely” a “good” held in common? Is it a substantive good, or is “merely” a good that enables all those who live in a defined place to live better (“good”?) lives? If there is an obvious practical distinction between what can be properly discussed as “the common good” versus what should be spoken only as “a common concern,” it is not immediately apparent to me.

avatar Empedocles June 13, 2009 at 7:50 am

My intuition is that clean water is something that everyone would be interested in as individuals and for loved ones. So lets call it a common concern or common interest. But at some point, when there is too much pollution occurring, the protection of clean water requires us to work together. When people with a common concern come together to work towards an end that end becomes a common good. Likewise we have a common concern in our individual safety, but the prevention of crime requires many individuals working together in the form of the police and so is a common good. How does that sound?
Not everything in which people have a common concern needs to become a common good. In sparsely populated areas there is not enough pollution or crime to require a water or police department whose job it is to see to the common good. As Hume writes:

“Let us suppose, that nature has bestowed on the human race such profuse abundance of all external conveniencies, that, without any uncertainty in the event, without any care or industry on our part, every individual finds himself fully provided with whatever his most voracious appetites can want…

It seems evident, that, in such a happy state, every other social virtue would flourish, and receive tenfold encrease; but the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of. For what purpose make a partition of goods, where everyone has already more than enough? Why give rise to property where there cannot possibly be any injury?

We see, even in the present necessitous condition of mankind, that, wherever any benefit is bestowed by nature in an unlimited abundance, we leave it always in common among the whole human race, and make no subdivisions of right and property. Water and air, though the most necessary of all objects, are not challenged as the property of individuals; nor can any man commit injustice by the most lavish use and enjoyment of these blessings.”

Of course the irony is that, impossible though it was for Hume to see, air and water now can be the subject of injustice and that we do now possess the capability to foul the air and water sufficiently that their use and misuse can be brought under the purview of justice.

avatar Caleb Stegall June 13, 2009 at 8:20 am

Russell, I think you are losing focus on the political symbolism in these terms. Of course at the prosaic level, a common concern is a common good. But the “common good” as a political weapon is much more potent to evoke guilt, bring pressure to bear, and cause every nosey do-gooder to come out of the closet shaking their rolling pin.

The “common good” evokes a state solution, while loved things held in common do not evoke a “solution” of any kind, but rather an ethic of care and affection. That is the difference, and it makes all the difference.

avatar Bob Cheeks June 13, 2009 at 5:09 pm

“Well, I’m most fundamentally a populist, one whose communitarianism has enough of a religious grounding to take many forms of cultural and social conservatism seriously, but also one who is attached enough to romantic and socialist traditions to see virtue and equality as mutually compatible, if the playing field is democratic enough. But figuring out how to make it that way is something else entirely.”

I’m not trying to be insulting, but isn’t this a recipe for a replication of the same failed political structure we have now? I mean once we open the door to statism, in any of its various forms, aren’t we asking for trouble?

avatar Russell Arben Fox June 13, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Caleb,

But the “common good” as a political weapon is much more potent to evoke guilt, bring pressure to bear, and cause every nosey do-gooder to come out of the closet shaking their rolling pin.

Ah, but my friend, you forget that I am one of those nosey do-gooders, or at least am occasionally willing to make common cause with them. (The mentally troubled neighbor next door hasn’t removed her trash or mowed her lawn in three months. We and other neighbors have approached her, offered to mow her lawn for her, to help her out with her trash, and she’s angrily and abusively refused us. Our possible courses of action are thus either 1) ignore her and tolerate her increasingly scary lawn, or 2) in the name of the “common good” of the neighborhood, turn to the rolling pins of the Wichita City government, which can order her lawn mowed and her trash collected without her say-so, and provide the man-power to do so. I confess that I am unembarrassed to say that I chose the second route.)

avatar Caleb Stegall June 14, 2009 at 9:47 am

Russell, I think we have reached an area of significant difference. Your example illustrates my point. When viewed through the prism of the common good everything becomes a problem to be solved, and as with all frustrated problem solvers, they will eventually turn towards the power of the central state.

Where does the problem solving stop? After tobacco is regulated out of existence? Trans-fats? I can’t sell my own butchered chicken to my neighbor because of the common good. And don’t forget, all of this imposing of solutions by the state gets expensive! Who is paying for that? Hence we have healthcare that makes us sick, education that makes us stupid, and a communitarian common good that makes our “communities” homeless commuter zones defined principally by property values.

I don’t want to make this personal, but needless to say I think you made the wrong choice regarding your neighbor.

avatar Bob Cheeks June 14, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Caleb: BRILLIANT!!!
Again, I do not understand the socialist mind; never have, never will!

avatar Russell Arben Fox June 14, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Caleb,

It’s actually kind of interesting–and, I think, speaks well of our local government here in Wichita–to reflect upon how the situation with our neighbor worked out. After making initial contact with her, and being harshly rebuffed, the city workers contacted my neighbor’s father, who owned the property and paid the taxes on it. Turns out that the father had set up his daughter and had kept an eye on her there as the best alternative to putting her into a 24-hour care facility for the mentally disturbed. Because of some health issues he hadn’t been able to come over to the house personally to check on her–and not incidentally, take out the trash and mow the lawn–for a couple of months. Recognizing his desire to keep his daughter settled there rather than move her into a home, but also acknowledging he wasn’t physically able to do the work he’d originally committed to do for her any longer, the city worked with a mediation lawyer, who contacted us neighbors, and set up an arrangement with the fellow two doors down from me, whereby he’d mow her lawn for her and be compensated out of a fund the dad had set up for her. There were a couple of difficult encounters with her while it was all hammered out–she insisted the neighbor who’d volunteered to do the mowing was a vandal trying to destroy her long-unused lawn mower–but now it seems to be working smoothly.

Did we need to get the city involved to do all this? Perhaps not–perhaps if I and my fellow neighbors had been better people, with more time and more access to information, we could have found out about her father and worked out arrangements on out own. I am unsure exactly what kind of freedom was lost or bad precedent was necessarily set by allowing the city to play, as it were, a facilitator here, with solid Kansas common sense.

Might the city have insisted on being more than a facilitator–might it have decided, on the other hand, to have forcibly taken possession of the property and evict the woman? I suppose. If we were sure that would have been the result I strongly doubt that any of us would have contacted the Parks and Public Works Department. But because–speaking her just for myself–since such extreme overreactions (while I know they occur; I’ve read more than enough about them over the years!) simply haven’t been a part of my own personal experience, I suppose I didn’t calculate the potential costs in light of the possibility of such state violence.

All of which is, I suppose, just a roundabout way of addressing your very important challenge, Caleb:

When viewed through the prism of the common good everything becomes a problem to be solved, and as with all frustrated problem solvers, they will eventually turn towards the power of the central state. Where does the problem solving stop?

You’re absolutely correct that “common good” formulations lend themselves to “problem-solving” mentality, and such a mentality usually (not always, but certainly often) involves a centralization of decision-making and power. Leaving aside my belief that any kind of formulation that allows for collective or common or community concerns will open the door to the same sort of mentality, let me say two things: first, admit your point that state centralization is always problematic, and needs to be policed by citizens (which means also structuring society so that such democratic participation and supervision actually make a difference, which clearly is often not the case today); and second, beg your patience and ask–can the question not also be also turned around? That is, isn’t it possible to ask, in the face of your justifiable rebuke, “When should problem solving begin?” I mean, if the whole root problem begins with the aforementioned “problem-solving” mentality, how do we articulate those problems whose costs may outweigh the all-too-common (though not, from what I can tell at least, especially frequent around Wichita) abuses which that mentality invites?

What if my neighbor was a petrochemical factory, letting its toxic garbage pile up along the gutters of our street? Too easy a target? Okay, smaller then–what if it was little taco joint, a family place which raised and slaughtered its own chickens, but then just tossed the heads and feet in the empty lot behind both our houses, attracting rats and raccoons by the score? You’re a lawyer; I’m sure you could lay out dozens of comparable example, all the way up and down the bigness scale. At what point–if any–do you think that thinking in terms of a common good starts being useful in the larger scheme of things, and when does it stop? Or do you feel that the mentality is dangerous enough that, in principle, it simply ought always be avoided, no matter what kind or what size of concern is being addressed?

I don’t mean to be tendentious here; I agree with you that this is a very significant point of difference, not just between us but as a faultline within the whole FPR project. And don’t worry about making things personal–as you’ve noted, if we’re not prepared to get sharp and personal with our criticisms, that may mean we’re not really serious about our beliefs. You may be right that we–my neighbors and I–really screwed up with dealing with our problem resident on our street. But that case seems as good a one as any to pose the question: just what is the tolerable level of communitarian/modern/problem-solving-type thinking for a localist or populist? Because if the answer is “none,” then a lot of my purported compromises with modernity may be worse than the disease.

(Apologies for the long comment; maybe I should have made this into a post. Though as I final quick point, I don’t understand “a communitarian common good that makes our ‘communities’ homeless commuter zones defined principally by property values.” The communitarians I know are all advocates of mixed housing and smart growth.)

avatar Kenneth McIntyre June 14, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Russell,

Your reply answered some of my misgivings about your initial story, though I certainly can’t speak for Caleb here. However, it also raised another set of difficulties. First, I don’t know that you would disagree, but I’m dubious of any attempt to arrive at some sort of methodological rule which would divide questions immediately into objects of public concern and objects of private indifference. This notion smacks of the naïve scientism which informs progressive technocratic politics. The answers to your questions about government involvment depends for the most part on the political commitments and instincts of your interlocutors. For example, although I recognize the ambiguity of Frost’s poem, I am of the ‘good fences make good neighbors’ political disposition, and thus would be less likely than most to call the gendarmes in on the lunatic next door. Nonetheless, if Monsanto wanted to move into the neighborhood, I would probably be singing a NIMBY tune of some sort.

Second, the key to your situation is that your neighbor is non compos mentis, in which case some sort of public wardship may be justifiable. The problem, however, is that references to the common good by Nosey Parkers almost always suggest that the ‘neighbors’ are incompetent and thus in need of some sort of state re-education. The therapeutic state is largely definable by reference to the presupposition that most citizens are mental invalids and thus in constant need of moral instruction and civil protection. The concept of the common good as it has been deployed in communitarian political thought and in progressive politics treats the citizen as if he or she were your crazy next-door neighbor instead of a human being whose purposes might not coincide with the notional preferences of the state.

avatar Russell Arben Fox June 15, 2009 at 7:07 am

Ken,

I don’t know that you would disagree, but I’m dubious of any attempt to arrive at some sort of methodological rule which would divide questions immediately into objects of public concern and objects of private indifference. This notion smacks of the naïve scientism which informs progressive technocratic politics.

You’re right; I don’t disagree with you. These things can’t be easily–or ethically–packaged into methodologically defined categories (I’ve read my Gadamer!), and the attempt to do so shouldn’t be made. I don’t think that my response was engaged in the effort to tease out methodological rules, though; I think I was trying to elicit from Caleb how he, as sincere and serious and intelligent a localist and populist as I know of, would personally respond to his question of “Where does it stop?” being turned around on him…which it can surely be seen as having been done, to him and to all of us, assuming no one reading this is living a life of complete isolation and self-sufficiency on a non-governed mountainside somewhere in Alaska. Perhaps my language bled over into the naive rule-mongering you mention, in which case I simply wasn’t sufficiently careful, but I think my point was to establish Caleb’s own (and, presumably therefore, his own defense and recommendation of) “political commitments and instincts,” as you put it.

[A]lthough I recognize the ambiguity of Frost’s poem, I am of the ‘good fences make good neighbors’ political disposition, and thus would be less likely than most to call the gendarmes in on the lunatic next door. Nonetheless, if Monsanto wanted to move into the neighborhood, I would probably be singing a NIMBY tune of some sort.

This is a nice statement about what your own “political disposition” would bring to the table at a neighborhood meeting. Does it show a naive rule-mongering–or just an annoyingly intellectual gad-flyism, perhaps?–to admit that your statement, which seems thoughtful and sensible to me, also kind of makes me interested in throwing counter-statements back at you? You admit you’d probably go NIMBY over Monsanto next door; how about an adult bookstore? An abortion clinic? A tattoo parlor and biker hang-out? The swingers with their loud music and nude sunbathing? It’s not like I have a principled–or feel like I need a principled answer–to all of these possibilities. But I confess that I do feel as though the pluralistic modernity we live within obliges me to at least be ready to ask myself such.

[R]eferences to the common good by Nosey Parkers almost always suggest that the ‘neighbors’ are incompetent and thus in need of some sort of state re-education. The therapeutic state is largely definable by reference to the presupposition that most citizens are mental invalids and thus in constant need of moral instruction and civil protection.

If this claim of yours is correct, Ken, then I guess I must conclude that the communitarian thinkers I have read must not, for the most part, be “Nosey Parkers” for whatever reason, or else that I am reading them very much incorrectly. Because when I read Benjamin Barber or Sandel or Taylor, and others, I see a constant emphasis upon community being developed and empowered from the ground up, through and by citizen action, with the presumptive role of the courts in ordering American life being harshly criticized. Participation, deliberative democracy, citizen’s councils, town meetings–none of that seems to suggest that citizens are “mental invalids and thus in constant need of moral instruction and civil protection.” But as I said, perhaps my study of communitarian thought has been flawed.

avatar Caleb Stegall June 15, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Russell, yours is a good and fair question, and one deserving of a more thoughtful answer than I am likely to provide in these short comments.

It does seem as if your situation with your neighbor worked out well, and I am in no way suggesting it is possible or even desirable that an easy geometric can be applied to these situations and to finding a proper response. I am only suggesting that when one works from an ethic of love, care, and affection, one is starting from a significantly different place than those who view the world as essentially something to be fixed.

That said, we still live life, confronting each day as it comes, not knowing what it brings with it. Only knowing what we love, what we have committed together to care for, to be responsible for, to nourish and protect. Sometimes this requires fixing things, solving problems, etc. But it is done in the name of what is loved, to preserve it, to conserve its essential character; as opposed to imposing on it a standard of “common good” that is fundamentally at war with the subject being fixed, the patient being treated.

avatar Bob Cheeks June 15, 2009 at 5:26 pm

I do appreciate Kenneth McIntyre’s insightful, erudite critique and comments! We should hear more from him on this question!

avatar Al June 16, 2009 at 1:22 pm

This is a very helpful essay and commentary. Thanks to all.

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