Saturday, March 31, 2007


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?


Anonymous said...

Honestly, professor, I don't think the anti-local destructiveness of the unrestrained market was lost on ANYONE at the Charlottesville conference. Can you point to a single example of a of a free market apologist from the line-up of speakers?

Further, who is being overly rosy? Those who opt for a modest retreat from a decadent culture or those (like you) who apparently believe in some sort of (unspecified) wholesale political solution?

Patrick Deneen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick Deneen said...

Anonymous (courageous of you), it's a fairly willful misreading of what I've written to suggest that I am advocating a "wholesale political solution." As I wrote, "Do I think this is likely? No." Withdrawal leaves the field to those "itinerant vandals" described by Berry. Do you think withdrawal will protect you from their depredations and the massive damage they do to our world? I am arguing that it is only through public action, politics governed by citizens, that it is at all possible to limit the continued expansion of the modern project of conquering nature. Do I think this is likely? No, I do not. But I think withdrawal only makes us complicit in the reign of the market, if by resignation.

I'm amused that the debate seems to be who is being more optimistic, with "optimism" being an insult. I rather like the terms of this debate - so "unAmerican!" I think it's optimistic to think that being anti-government tout court can thought to be wholly compatible with seeking to restrain markets. I find it optimistic to believe that markets will self-restrain, or that local governments can govern multinational market entities. It would be optimistic for me to argue that government can solve all our problems - and I am not optimistic. I merely think that we need public authority, acting on behalf of local communities, to protect and even restore localism where possible. Any such undertaking will be piecemeal and indirect - and I recognize that it's "not bloody likely." But unless citizens demand it - which they cannot do when they think government is everywhere and always an enemy - then the public order will not be so moved. It will protect and defend private things, as it does now much of the time, instead of res publicae.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Very nicely put, Patrick. I might quibble with a few things (did it, in fact, make sense at the time of the founding to be an Anti-Federalist? I find that I am not entirely persuaded by either the traditional account nor by the democratic revisionists), but overall a sound response. And I appreciate your tying Bryan in with the republican tradition. The concern for "public things" means acknowledging the prior existence of a "public," and publics are shaped by--and continually evolve under pressure from--numerous social, historical, economic and cultural forces. The public Bryan faced was a national one; consequently, the "republican" means to making it a more fair and decent polity (and not coincidentally conserving as much of its agrarianism as possible) would similarly have to be national.

Caleb Stegall said...

Prof. Deneen has used the word realist to describe his position. Robert Frost once noted that there are two kinds of realists, one who serves dirt with his potatoes to prove that it is a potato, and one who doesn't mind scrubbing it clean. When it comes to the gu'mint, I prefer seeing the dirt.

So I think it strange, as one of the targets of Prof. Deneen's "optimist" charge, to see him equating gu'mint-and-dirt realism with a sunny outlook.

However, Prof. Deneen's later point about the destructive nature of globalized markets is well taken. We agree on that, simply disagree as to solutions. I do not think there is any rational reason to think that the federal government is capable of protecting local communities from the creative destruction of globalizing markets. Does Prof. Deneen have any evidence to support this view? (And it is not true that corporate interests disfavor large government. Large government is their primary weapon against independent producers and yeoman competition.)

History, at any rate, does not bear him out. Byran cannot be called to this cause either, for while he did in fact seek to use centralized powers to further his ends, this was his biggest failure. Nationalizing trasportation, creating a federal income tax, and nationalizing politics through the direct election of Senators were all policy disasters for populist causes. Russell, I am not sure how you can state otherwise.

I am certainly not discounting the need for authority and order. A simple return to the Federalist compromise would be sufficient.

But when it comes to resisting the disorders of the globalized markets, I think the only sane response is to depend on strong local governments (if you can get one) and to depend even more on cultivating the freemen spirit of republican equality which will naturally resist such market incursions by simply standing on its own two feet.

I suppose this is where the charge of "optimist" might become plausible. However, history, and even contemporary life, give us many examples of free society undergirded by the free farmer, living in strong local inter-dependent communities, and resisting heavy handed power grabs from without, whether they come from Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue, or more likely, both working a tag-team. I do not consider hope that this may again be possible, on a small scale, in scattered places, to be sunny optimism. It is a hard-bitten life, not easy, not pretty. But it is sturdy, and in coming times of economic scarcity, it may be the only bulwark against tyranny.

To me, the Fox/Deneen approach is far more "optimistic" while at the same time disregarding the real possibilities for and habits of a virtuous, free, and sturdy life. In this, it is very Rousseauian. It suggests that mankind is not capable of living a free life on his own two feet due to the overwhelming power of the forces arrayed against him (we simply can't expect people to resist walmart and reality TV), so to preserve "freedom" we have to call in the national government expressing a "general will." We will force you to be free is the basic Rousseauian principle.

Perhaps Fox/Deneen would not go this far, but this is where things seem to be going.

That said, if all we are saying is the we must be shrewd Machiavellians and use the tools and power available to us to pare back the central state, you won't get any disagreement from me. But that does not seem to be the thrust of these comments.

Caleb Stegall said...

I should add that there are many things that a central governemnt probably can do, and which it is uniquely situated to do, to protect home and hearth from destructive globalizing pressures. Enforcing immigration laws would be a good start. Keeping us out of unneccessary foreign wars would be another good step.

Anonymous said...

Professor, you have created a lively and edifying public forum here, for which you apparently invite participation and discussion. I think it is rather petty of you (childish, really) to derisively mock as "courageous" someone who chose to participate and engage you in a discussion anonymously. Now, there are a great many valid reasons why someone might desire to post anonymously (especially those of us in academic departments without tenure). There is no prohibition against donig so listed anywhere on your blog, and as the sole master of this blog you could obviously eliminate the anonymous option if you were so inclined (which would greatly reduce participation). But you should not belittle someone who chose to participate anonymously. It is unbecoming of you and it suggests that you are at a loss to deal with the substance of their points when you resort to personal slights.

Anonymous said...

I am happy to have found the blog and send my thanks to Russell for the link. One way of overcoming what seems to me to be an exaggerated opposition between Patrick's position and the position of Caleb Stegall (among others) is to admit that the signs of the eminent collapse of Western civilization are both more portentous and more benign than most would admit.

On the one hand, I would reject certain forms of anti-modernism as impossibilities. For me this only suggests that if we cannot find the resources to deal with our problems from within our own traditions (and the appropriation of neo-classical philosophical arguments is very much a modern idea), then we are lost already. I admit that I prefer Michael Oakeshott’s (or Charles Taylor’s or H.-G. Gadamer’s or Michael Polanyi’s) modernist critique of modernity to Alisdair MacIntyre's (or Leo Strauss’ or Erik Voegelin’s) rejection of it, for example. Thus, I think that Patrick's identification of an alternative tradition should be modified to read 'an alternative modern tradition'. Those of us who admire the same group of eccentric (un)American thinkers (my favorites include Randolph of Roanoke, Hawthorne, Melville, and Henry Adams) recognize that the univocal rationalist and ideological political tradition expounded by so many of our public intellectuals is a myth created to be self-perpetuating.

On the more pessimistic side of things, I would merely state that one element that has been neglected in the discussion, which might explain the disagreement between Patrick and Caleb, is a discussion of practical skepticism and the possibilities of political activity. The idea that a group of intellectuals, even brilliant folks like the interlocutors on this blog, can formulate a rational plan of national or international political action to combat the Leviathan State (and Leviathan Market) and return the political world to a prelapsarian communitarian political condition seems to me to the same kind of thinking as offered by the modern masters of the world. As Oakeshott famously said in a different circumstance of Hayek, ‘a plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.’ I don’t want to speak for Caleb, but skepticism of this sort might justify cultivating one’s own garden. And, to the extent that the modern world is the one we have to live in, the US as it is currently governed still allows for that possibility.