An article in last week’s Washington Post explores the revival of communities as a response to the economic crisis. According to the article,

As the neighbors got out of their homes and started talking to each other, the sense of connection grew. They learned one another’s names and began to say hello at the nearby Giant. Somebody got Metro to trim the shrubbery around the Glenmont Station, which made it feel safer. They had a “visioning” session for their community and created a colorful Web site. At their first spring festival, April 25, 174 people showed up for face-painting and hot dogs.

The little Cape Cods and ranchers off Georgia Avenue have been there 55 years, but it took a global downturn to turn them into a real neighborhood.

What this article suggests is that the individualism, isolation and “silo living” that had been the norm for 55 years (!) – that is, that period dating back to the beginning of American suburbanization and our automobile culture fueled by cheap petroleum – is a luxury that we can no longer afford. Individualism, it turns out, may be one of the ultimate luxury items of a prosperous society, one that turns out to be as artificial as the bubble economy and false prosperity upon which it was based. What the community of Glenmont has discovered is something that was the norm in most towns, villages, cities and communities for most of human history: people gather together because we are partial and needy, and we can only achieve the good life together through the effort to achieve together and in concert a shared conception of the common good. Moreover, such common good is not the product of pronouncements of distant government or abstract philosophy, but derives from the lived experience, common concerns, shared history and interlinked destiny of those people who live together. Some economists doubtlessly have read this article and regard it as a highly inefficient expenditure of time and energy on non-productive and unprofitable endeavors. As Aristotle would respond to such economists, they seek to concentrate on “mere life,” not “the good life.”

This article should be read and considered alongside this recent article from The New York Times which reports census findings that fewer Americans have been able to move since any time since 1962. Of course, this reportage will truly alarm economists – much as it is portrayed by the NYT reporter as a sign of calamity and distress – rather than a positive trend in favor of stronger neighborhoods and the possible source of a renewed sense of loyalty and commitment. However, given our prevailing default preference in favor of mobility (especially, and always, upward mobility) that is promoted (through public policy no less) in order to support the creation of an absentee economy and itinerant workforce in which connections to production and consumption are all but severed, there can be little wonder that elites at the New York Times regard this census data with alarm. After all, above all, the New York Times is devoted to promoting a deracinated culture that allowed for the creation of the reporters at the New York Times.

Many years ago, Albert O. Hirschman wrote among the most perceptive books yet written – intended to describe an economic phenomenon, but more widely applicable to most human relationships, and more broadly, politics in general. Entitled Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Hirschman described how organizations tend over time to develop “slack” (that is, cease to be wholly responsive to their constituents); in response, people involved in those organizations (at least in a liberal society) have two fundamental options: exit or voice. That is, they can choose to leave for some other organization (e.g., in economics, they can choose to purchase another product), or they can choose instead to exercise “voice” – that is, to engage with other members of that organization to convince the organization to change its ways. In order to exercise voice, however, there needs to be high levels of loyalty: otherwise, exit proves to be a less costly and time-consuming transaction. For consumers – or the consumer mentality – we tend mostly to think in terms of exit. If some product doesn’t meet our desire for whatever reason, we simply buy a competitor’s product or forgo the purchase altogether. Rarely – as in the case of Coca-Cola’s introduction of “New Coke” some years ago – there is a deep base of consumer loyalty that fuels “voice,” in this instance, demands of the return of “the Real Thing.” However, in consumer society, such loyalty is rare and even nearly non-existent. It makes little sense to be “loyal” to a product.

Politics, society, and family life presumably operate on a different model, one in which loyalty is more likely to cause us exert greater levels of voice and be less likely simply to exit. However, much evidence of recent decades suggests that the option of “exit” has everywhere overwhelmed loyalty: that is, the model of economic life has tended to transform every aspect of life in its image, leading individuals in nearly every role of life to exhibit decreasing levels of loyalty in favor of the exit option. Particularly where loyalty cannot be expected in return – people are simply moving, leaving, and divorcing too often for anyone to be unquestionably loyal, and we live in a society that actively promotes “exit” as a default way of life – we are far more likely to exhibit tendencies or proclivities toward exit. Even where we do not literally exit, we proverbially exit, escaping to gated bedroom “communities” where we can live private lives apart from the interference of any of our “neighbors.”

These two stories, published within two weeks of each other, are remarkable for the change that they suggest may be afoot. Where exit is harder and not simply the default, we are more likely to foster relationships of loyalty and thereby find firm ground in which to exercise voice. Finding voice, we thereby build relationships that increase loyalty. A society of voice born of loyalty is one of greater civic solidarity. It is more likely to be one of neighborliness and mutual assistance. It is a society from which culture might be expected to arise – that is, a shared set of common understandings that stand the test of time and become an inheritance across generations. We are a long way from achieving the conditions of true culture in contemporary America, but these are promising signs.

Most importantly, it is through the existence of a rich tapestry of actual neighborhoods that the best resistance to centralized authority is to be found. Tocqueville – as ever – understood this best. For a long time Tocqueville’s admirers on the Left have admired his criticisms of individualism, while those on the Right have lauded his criticisms of centralized authority. What both have generally failed to do is put these two criticisms together: namely, that it is in a society composed of isolated individuals that one is most likely to see the rise of a centralized bureaucratic State – “the vast tutelary power.” Consider this passage rarely cited by any of Tocqueville’s admirers:

In centuries of equality no one is obliged to lend his force to those like him and no one has the right to expect great support from those like him, each is at once independent and weak. These two states, which must neither be viewed as separate nor confused, give the citizen of democracies very contrary instincts. His independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals, and his debility makes him feel, from time to time, in need of the outside help that he cannot expect from any of them, since they are all impotent and cold. In this extremity, he naturally turns his regard to the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement. His needs and above all his desires constantly lead him back toward it, and in the end he views it as the unique and necessary support for his individual weakness. (II.iv.3).

That is, when we are isolated, alone and most fully individuated, we are most likely to turn to the assistance of the central government when (inevitably) the going gets rough. By contrast, when we live among a strong community of fellow citizens with whom we regularly consort and build relationships based upon trust, history and memory, we are more likely to turn to those people closer to us when times prove challenging. As usual, “conservatives” and “liberals” get roughly half right – and, more importantly, half wrong – in thinking that either we must have the assistance of government or encourage individual self-reliance. What is needed is less exit, and instead, more loyalty and voice. What is needed is what is now happening in neighborhoods like Glenmont, and which – it can be hoped – will happen throughout the nation, if we are to keep our liberty and even aspire to live “the good life.” It won’t be what the economists wish of us, and it’s a good thing too. There is more on heaven and earth than is dreamed in their philosophy….

Previously posted at What I Saw in America.

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  1. That is, when we are isolated, alone and most fully individuated, we are most likely to turn to the assistance of the central government when (inevitably) the going gets rough. By contrast, when we live among a strong community of fellow citizens with whom we regularly consort and build relationships based upon trust, history and memory, we are more likely to turn to those people closer to us when times prove challenging.

    Monday morning irony time. I came across this AP article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which talks about the difficulty certain of the Amish communities in Indiana are having with unemployment and the increasing use of state unemployment benefits by members of those communities. According to the article, a large chunk of the Amish population is/was employed in the RV industry, which has declined substantially, pushing some onto the public dole. I find it ironic that as individualist Americans rediscover the virtues of community in hard times, the communitarian Amish (at least in Indiana) are finding their community unable to support its members and are turning to the state for assistance.

  2. Patrick, I laud what you say, but believe you come at it bassackwards. To be truly individuated is not to be alone, to be without relationships. It is to be aware that all your choices are your responsibility. To accept full responsibility for your acts, and to act with foreknowledge of that responsibility. The truly individuated being is fully capable of being an integral part of any community. She participates from choice, not from lack of choice.

    Unless I read you wrong, you suggest reducing choice is the way to build community. I say, make the choice to build community possible. In today’s world, where mobility is synonymous with “getting ahead”, community suffers. So lets work to make getting ahead more broadly defined (essentially, more modest), and lets work to make it possible to both get ahead while staying in place.

    People are empowered by choice. They are diminished by a lack of choice. A community of diminished beings is a diminished community.


  3. Jake,
    No, I’m not suggesting a closed society in which choice (including exit) is disallowed. Rather, (using Hirschman’s terms), ‘loyalty’ is a disposition that inclines us to stay (or return, or find an appropriate place and settle) and exercise “voice” where we might disagree or seek that place’s improvement. But ‘loyalty’ doesn’t arise simply out of abstract choice, but a particular kind of character that is cultivated and encouraged. We need to understand that to inculcate such a disposition, we can’t simply valorize “choice,” but encourage in ways formal and informal the choice to stay put. Responsibility is not an abstract concept, but the result of a lived reality and practices – particularly the result of having to live with and amid the consequences of the sum of your own decisions. We are not necessarily inclined to do this in a “culture of choice” where what is most strongly cultivated is the inclination toward “exit.”

    The “choice” for loyalty eliminates certain other choices, a condition that we think that we avoid when we inculcate a culture of constant mobility, disloyalty (or “cosmopolitanism”), and the ideal of self-recreation. The Old-order Amish (for instance – though perhaps not the ones about which Weasly writes about!) fully allow their young to consider leaving the community and to live among “the English.” They have that choice – indeed, are encouraged to consider it when the time comes. Most choose not to exercise that option, instead accepting baptism in the Church and thereby acquiescing to the expectations of the community. They choose to limit their choices, in a sense. Now, perhaps a liberal would say that they never really had a “free choice,” since they were so fully formed by their culture that they couldn’t conceive of living outside it. That would be correct – but if that’s the case, then we must acknowledge that liberalism is not neutral to outcomes. It seeks to foster a certain kind of society and certain kind of individual, and that kind of individual and society will be one that does not inculcate a strong sense of loyalty and resultant community.

    To push this idea further: if we are shaped by a liberal conception of fully free choice – the individual as abstract chooser – are we not also being “shaped”? Is not our inclination to valorize the choice of more choice itself the result of a finger being put on the scale by the “culture” in which we live? Haven’t we thus had certain choices demoted, in that case (just as much as in the case of the Old Order Amish)? If so, we should not be surprised to witness a society that has the effect of undermining and even destroying those qualities of character that are needed for a strong sense of community. Is this a matter of indifference?

    These are an interesting and not very easy set of issues to think through. But the invocation of “choice” is at once finally too simplistic and problematic.

  4. Patrick, we are shaped by our lack of knowledge. We never get to make fully free choices – our assessment of outcome is never fully informed, and is always probabilistic, never certain.

    So in your scenario, the Amish, it is not the society I would fault – actually, I wouldn’t fault anything in your scenario, as the real determinant is the youth of the chooser. Youth being another way of saying inexperienced.

    Staying, later in life when knowledge is perhaps greater, is a choice.

    I am human because I exit, or something like that. 🙂

    Exiting is influenced by culture, but it is an integral and irreplaceable part of human nature. Species survive because at least some members chose exit over loyalty. You and I here today because multiple times in the past, our progenitors, human and otherwise, chose to flee, to exit a bad situation. We are also here because other progenitors at other times chose to stay, to exercise loyalty.

    Individual human beings span the spectrum from those who always exit to those who always stay. Neither extreme is good. Most of us are not at the extreme and so are open to modification of our inclinations, to moving the pointer in the loyalty direction in this case.

    To do that, all we have to do is remove the reasons to leave. Work being the number one reason, in my estimation. Find a way to allow a being to make a good life where they are and they will stay.

    Part of the issue of choice is one of maturity. Making the best choices we can and then accepting the consequences, whatever they might be, is not something that comes to most of us when we are young. It certainly didn’t come to me in my youth. If it can be said to have happened at all, it happened within the last decade, and I am nearly 58.


  5. I can only say that its a good thing that , unlike the dismal science of economics that actually thinks it can scientifically reduce human economic activity to a set of recurring standards and is given an entire Federal Piggybank to explore these smoky reveries…well, I can only say that I’m happy that they do not give the same credit to the Weatherman….who forecast weather but have a similar record of forecast success to economists. If we had a Federal Weather Bank, we’d be knee-deep in mud while a tornado raked the backyard and a dust storm socked in the front yard. Meanwhile, the Government Weather Report would read “Partly cloudy with mild breezes from the west. “

  6. DW, dissing weather forecasting is totally unconscionable – we (the grand we) do a great job of weather forecasting as long as we don’t try to go too far into the future. What’s that old saying? The problem with forecasting is the future, or something like that. Personally, I favor long term planning – 20 years or more. Everybody likes what you tell them, and either you are gone or at least everyone forgets what you predicted when the 20 years is up.

    I think economists are waking up to the fact that their science rests at least partly on assumptions and models that just aren’t valid. Expect a sea change in the next few years.


  7. Jake,

    The Austrian economists have been accurately and sensibly been explaining why we are in the current economic mess.It sounds as though you are reading Keynesian economists who advocate some variation of government intervention and dictatorship to “fix” the economy and bring those greedy “capitalist” bankers and other “free market” corporations in line. Of course these particular bankers and corporations are not interested in abiding by the free market, welcome government intervention, and are and always have been instrumental in the destruction of the voluntary market for their benefit at the expense of people who work hard, are productive, save part of what they earn, and live within their means.

    If you are interested, you can learn a lot about Austrian economics and about economic history at mises.org.

  8. So, Art, the first thing I read on Mises is this:

    “We have seen how the “single payer” systems “cut” costs: they deny care.”

    What total bs. Outcomes are what matter, not the individual pieces. And outcomes are far better in nations that have universal health care. In Canada, for example, the average life span is something like greater than in the US. Mexico is lower than the US by about the same amount as Canada is greater. Is that our claim to fame, that we are halfway between Mexico and Canada?. 2008 estimates of life expectency rank the US at 45th. Behind almost all of Europe, Canada and obviously several other countries. The majority of those countries have fully socialized medicine. Medicine that costs less and does more.

    Here’s a list of industrialized nations ranked by life expectancy at birth and whether or not they have some form of socialized medicine and the per capita expense:

    Nation Type of Care Life Exp at birth Per Capita Exp (2003)
    Japan s 82.07 $2249
    Sweden s 80.63 $2746
    Australia s 80.62 $2886
    Switzerland s 80.62 $3847
    France s 80.87 $3048
    Iceland s 80.43 $3169
    Canada s 80.34 $2998
    Italy s 79.94 $2314
    Spain s 79.78
    Norway s 79.78 $3769
    Israel s 79.78
    Greece s 79.39
    Austria s 79.21 $2958
    Netherlands s 79.11 $2909
    S Korea s 79.1
    Luxembourg s 79.03 $4611
    New Zealand s 78.96
    Germany s 78.95 $2983
    Belgium s 78.92 $3044
    UK s 78.7 $2317
    Finland s 78.66 $2104
    US p 78.06 $5711
    Denmark s 77.96 $2743
    Ireland s 77.9 $2455
    Portugal s 77.87
    Poland s 76.88
    Czech Rep s 76.42
    Mexico p 75.84
    Slovakia s 74.95
    Hungary s 72.92
    Turkey s 72.88

    As can be seen those nations that might best be compared to the US have have greater life expectancy at birth and it costs about half what it does in the US. The rates came from the CIA factbook. The per capita date came from Kaiser Family Foundation site.

    The bottom line is that if one looks at outcomes and then costs, the system in the US is terrible when it comes to treating the nation as a whole. Undoubtedly, some people get the best care in the world in the US. If they can afford it.

    If that’s quote I presented at the beginning of this comment is the kind of wisdom to be found on Mises, reading there could be tough sledding. Partisan hackery is never fun to read.


  9. Jake,

    It’s sad that you looked at one sentence and thought you had learned enough to launch an attack on the Mises Institute, deeming them partisan hacks. First, I don’t see how being opposed to socialized medicine makes one a partisan hack. Second, if you’d kept your mind open and read just about anything else on the site, you would have have noticed the Mises Institute isn’t partisan in the least. Finally, your comparison to other countries is useless, since the US is far from having anything even approaching a free market in health care. Besides, there are myriad other reasons that people in the US have lower life expectancies (e.g. poor diet, lack of exercise) that have little or nothing to do with our health care system.

  10. Steve, using a partial set of facts to make an argument which the entire set of facts would disprove is the very definition of hackery.

    Any place that puts hackery on the front page is suspect.

    In any case, I will continue reading, but finding hackery so soon is more than a little disappointing. If public and media conservatives didn’t have such a reputation for it, maybe it wouldn’t be such a problem.


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