I guess that I succeeded in stirring up a hornet's nest. That was sort of the point of my criticism of the agrarian hostility toward government, which was admittedly and intentionally a bit provocative. It has been protested that I have unfairly and inaccurately characterized at least some of the participants of last weekend's Charlottesville conference as anarcho-libertarian optimists. They may be right - and I am glad to learn that some proudly declare their allegiance to a more pessimistic perspective - but I maintain that there was a certain optimism that could be detected in the strongly stated animus against government.
Let me explain: I sympathize deeply with the dislike of centralization and the expansion of government seemingly into all aspects of our lives. However, it's necessary to recognize that government has grown often in response to demands of ordinary working people to address the growth and expansion of regional, national, and now international markets. It was difficult not to detect a sentiment among some participants that, if the Federal government could only be downsized or shrunk to the point of elimination, we could again achieve our local liberties. It went unmentioned that our capacity for local liberty and self-government were long ago compromised by the disruptions and dislocation that the expansion of free markets has produced. William Jennings Bryan understood this fact all too well - after all, it might at least be mentioned that he was running for President after all, not mayor.
What are we to make of this fact? Bryan understood that large-scale national markets, and their incursions into local life, could only be governed by relatively large-scale governmental power. Monopoly power could only be effectively controlled by a strengthened federal government. Resorting to the assistance of Washington was perhaps an undesired outcome of the growth of the American national market, but a necessary one given the circumstances. It made sense to be an Antifederalist at the time of the ratification debates. It makes no sense to make many of those same arguments now, because of the profound structural changes that have been wrought by our Constitutional order. If you would cleave to the spirit of the Antifederalists today, you must make prudential changes to their arguments, now to the point of understanding that large scale government may be misfortunate, but it is a necessary misfortune.
It strikes me as the height of fantasy to imagine that we could eliminate government and achieve a paradisic return of robust local life. "Globalization" has assured us that we cannot. Isn't it at least slightly discomfiting to realize that such anti-government animus is identically shared by the business elite of the nation? Might we not be unwitting helpmeets of laissez-faire plutocrats?
Yet, I agree with many that the current form of governance from Washington is deeply destructive of the very ends to which figures like Bryan sought to employ public authority. Both parties seek everywhere the extension of the market into all aspects of our lives. Bush's "ownership society" and, before him, Clinton's embrace of NAFTA and every and all free trade agreement have quite understandably led many to view Washington itself as the source of all evils. It is easy to understand this frustration, but it is misguided and even dangerous.
It is misguided because it mistakes what government now does for what government could and ought to do, namely, to use its power to support local and communal forms of life. The government now does enormous damage to communal life, to take just one example, through the tax code, which provides all kinds of incentives for us to move great distances and to own large houses without relevance to where they are located. This could be changed to actively discourage reckless building, to encourage local business ownership, and overall to encourage the support of local business and local community. It seems to me that we are entering a time when it might be more possible to get a hearing for these arguments - particularly due to inevitably rising energy costs and the enormous difficulties we face in maintaining the current order of things. It's localism and community or bust.
Anti-government animus is dangerous because those people who can best help our age articulate the good that government can do are poorly positioned, and ill-disposed to do so. I maintain that there was a certain optimism among many of the participants of last weekend's conference (even manifested in seeming pessimism), above all because there seemed to be a wistful nostalgia that was disconnected from any realism about how to defend and preserve the way of life that many rightly admired. Many of the participants admired the monastic ideal of withdrawal and retreat - to hell with the world while we build our agrarian lifeboats. I am not so optimistic to think that, if the nation and the world continue on their present course, those who seek to withdraw will be immune from the comeuppance we face. We face an enormous collective action problem - how to reorder our disordered society - and the people with the most discernment and understanding struck me as being the least likely to be able to make their case publically and especially politically. I believe that we can and must act locally, but that the problems and challenges we face are now global in scale. Ironically we must seek the help of larger scale and even more centralized governmental structures to help defend, preserve, and even restore locality. Do I think this is likely? No. But I think it's necessary and at least worth attempting.
One last point: I was struck at last weekend's conference at the simultanaeity of palpable anti-government sentiment, and little to no mention of the anti-local orientation of unrestrained markets (so, if the most hated city is chosen due to what the "business" of that city is, then why Washington and why not Wilmington, i.e. home not only of I.S.I., but the world headquarters of usury?). I took this greater hostility toward the public realm ironically to be confirmation of its greater redeemability: such animus is at least inspired by the fact that, deep down, we understand the government to be at some level accountable and answerable in ways that the private sector is not. As I said at the conference, it is time to put the market back in the city, and not vice versa - to make the market accountable to the public. And the only way to do that is through res publica, or "public things." Bryan understood this well. Do we?