Conservative Commoners


October 26, 2006


Browse in Commons Conservatism

About half a century ago, a prominent writer described automobiles as “mechanical Jacobins” for their disruptive effects on American life and mores. It was not a young Ralph Nader rehearsing for Unsafe At Any Speed. .  It was Russell Kirk, intellectual patriarch of the modern conservative movement, writing in his seminal book The Conservative Mind.

The difference between the two is instructive. Nader was writing from a standpoint of utility. He did not object to the social and cultural impacts of cars, not outwardly at least.  His argument was that they weren’t safe.  Kirk by contrast was talking values – the nature of our communities and ultimately of ourselves. This is the deeper territory that liberals in America pretty much have forfeited, with their focus on such things as consumer protection and safety.  Safety is important; but we humans cannot live on it alone.

There are ironies aplenty. Nader himself is much more Kirkean than most people realize.  He waxes rhapsodic about his small town upbringing in Winsted, Connecticut, where he could walk to the library, and then to his father’s bakery-restaurant, and from there to the courthouse where he listened to lawyers argue and where his father spoke often at Norman Rockwell-style town meetings.  He once took me to Highland Lake, where he used to ride his bike.  “It was great – except for the damn cars,” he said.

Ralph used to quote his older brother Shafik, who stayed home in Winsted.  “Every genuine innovation in America has begun at the local level.”  He embraced federal regulation not because he loved the federal government and bureaucracy — he didn’t.  The problem was the corporation.  The federal government was the only entity with the power — potentially — to stand up to it and hold it accountable.  There just wasn’t an alternative.

Ralph’s concerns for safety were genuine.  When he hitchhiked around the US he encountered gory car wrecks, the toll of which could have been reduced with simple safety engineering.  But his critique of cars drew from a deeper emotional well.   And Kirk, for his part, was an authentic conservative; by which I mean he was alert to the corrosive effects of market culture upon integrity and community and other values he held dear.

The automobile was a natural focus. No product so epitomizes the embedded narrative of “the market:” the glorification of mobility and self-gratification, the casting aside of community and tradition.  Literally and figuratively, it is the cocoon for the solipsistic market “me.”  Kirk’s conservatism did not restrain him from saying this.  To the contrary, it was the reason he said it.  (Though he did not say it as pointedly as I just did; and in his day the Red Menace seemed the greater Jacobin threat.)

In recent decades that kind of authentic conservatism has not been much in evidence. It has been displaced by a “movement” version that is politically expedient and cynical to the core.  Movement conservatism is really market worship that embraces the disruption of traditional mores and values so long as corporations are making money in the process.  It channels the truly conservative impulse into a few red-meat issues – abortion, gays, school prayer – that pose no threat to the corporate moneybags who bankroll the Republican party.

Most leftist writers are tone-deaf to these distinctions.  They sneer about “conservatives” the way right wingers sneer about them; and in the process they do their adversaries a favor.  Ann Coulter is to conservatism what she is to chastity. She is a screaming polemical Jacobin; and the same goes for most of the Right Wing crew. To call them  “conservatives” just helps keep their act going, at the very time it is starting to fray.

Genuine conservatives are getting disgusted with the whole show in Washington; and are feeling, rightly, that they have been used.  They are starting to sniff out the corporatists, market libertarians and neo-con empire builders who have been operating in conservative disguise. A spate of recent books has explored aspects of this theme, such as Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Now comes American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, the lead editor of which is Bruce Frohnen, who teaches law at Ave Maria Law School in Ann Arbor.

The Encyclopedia is a surprisingly good read, and a rich resource for those of leftward bent who have not paid enough attention to the growth of the movement that has dominated the nation’s politics for much of the last twenty-five years. Without intending to be, the book also is a guide to the tensions and fissures in the conservative camp.  The editors do not dramatize these.  The free-marketeers such as Friedman and Hayek get their glowing write-ups.  The performance artists such as Coulter and Limbaugh get nods as well.

Sometimes the tensions are positively repressed.  The entry for Wilhelm Ropke, the free market economist and compatriot of Hayek, does not mention that his book, A Humane Society, was about the limits of market ideology and the need for a sphere of civic life that is guided by higher values and aims.  Still they are there.  How many of you would have expected an encyclopedia of conservatism to include Wendell Berry, for example?

I didn’t.  Yet the entry lauds Berry’s commitment to community, locality, tradition and virtue.  It praises too the way he lives these convictions as a farmer. (Russell Kirk was a localist and an agrarian.)  There’s an entry also on Ralph Borsodi, who established an experimental community during the Depression, and whose book Escape From the City, was an early text of the back-to-the-land movement. Borsodi was seeking an alternative to the centralizing and corporatizing tendencies of the New Deal – a standpoint the left today too easily forgets.

These inclusions are not idiosyncratic.  When I went to a discussion blog on Dreher’s Crunchy Cons on the National Review website, I found references to Jane Jacobs, E.F. Schumacher, Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation)  and James Howard Kunstler (Geography of Nowhere.)  There even was praise for the New Urbanism.  True conservatives are not the corporate greedbags who run the Republican Party.  They are localists who care about culture and community and distrust schemes from Washington that would jeopardize these.

An even bigger surprise was William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner.  The editors admire the Scriptural basis of his economics and his small town traditionalism, which outweigh for them his advocacy of the progressive income tax. Perhaps most surprising of all is the entry on Henry George. George was the homegrown economist who deplored the way land speculators were reaping value that the society as a whole was creating.  He advocated a tax on land values – not structures, just the land – to recapture for the benefit of society what the society had created.

Such a system would make it possible to reduce most taxes on income and sales, George said.  It also would lead to more compact development, since the owners of close-in, higher-value land would seek to develop it more intensively in order to generate revenues to pay the tax.  Sprawl would be greatly diminished.   The land barons of George’s day reviled him as a kind of socialist. But the editors of the Encyclopedia are wise enough to see the justice in his plan, and its essential conservatism.

To recapture for society that which the society has created, would make it possible for individuals to keep more of what they themselves have created through their own enterprise and toil.  There is of course a large social component in all individual wealth, and not just land.  Where would Google be today without the Defense Department which funded the creation of the internet?  Where would George W. Bush be without the taxpayers of Arlington, Texas who funded a new stadium for his Texas Rangers baseball team?

Still, it’s a good start.  It is not what you hear from Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter, and it’s a lot more appealing.  George’s argument is the basic rationale for environmental taxes; and for my colleague Peter Barnes’ Sky Trust proposal.  You take from the common pool of earth’s resources, then you should have to pay, and enough to diminish your taking.  Let’s derive public revenue more from what people take, and less from what they make.

I interviewed Frohnen on my radio show recently and found it more appealing still. He lamented what he called “Wal-Mart conservatives” — by which he meant people who worship at the altar of the “cheapest price” — and the utilitarian values of the market right generally. He expressed dismay with the Bush Administration on everything from foreign adventures to its imposition of federal standards on local schools and the diminution of local control.

His dismay was akin to that of many on the decentralist left when the Clinton Administration stumped for corporate globalism; and when his “liberal” appointees to the Supreme Court voted to affirm the power of local governments to use eminent domain to kick people from their homes and give the land to Wal-Mart.  (That’s “public purpose”?)   There is congruity here, if not outright convergence.  It would be a stretch to call a Russell Kirk a commoner, or a father of them.  He had too much of a patrician quality, too much distrust of the rabble.

Still, someone who is a friend of Wendell Berry and Ralph Borsodi, and hangs with the thinking of Jane Jacobs and E.F. Schumacher, is sniffing around the right tree.  When was the last time we heard a Democrat in Washington invoke such people?  Those of us who are concerned about reviving communities and rebuilding their social wealth, have got to stop heeding ideological stereotypes.  There are allies out there.