Toward a New Form of Laissez-Faire

There recurs, from time to time, a strange nostalgia for Robert Nisbet and his form of conservatism.  Strange is this nostalgia because it comes from Progressives who claim to pine for some endangered species of Republican or some extinct communitarianism.  These Progressives are disingenuous, at best. A recent example comes from an increasingly addled E. J.  Dionne Jr.  His essay follows a trend among liberal writers to characterize the current Republican Party as radical and to do so by suggesting that the party has fallen away from its long tradition of moderation.  These writers profess great respect for the moderate version of the GOP, now morbid, and argue that the party has been hijacked by “extremists.” According to this story, a new breed of conservatives destroyed the great American tradition of centrist parties, thereby leaving only one truly moderate, sane, and even “American”, political party.  These Progressives feign lament for the death of this bi-partisan tradition and pledge to make the Democratic Party the sole protection in America against extremism.  The Republicans have now become the “other” against which Democrats must define themselves.

To give historical heft to this narrative, Dionne and others conjure up dead “communitarians” like Nisbet as proof of an erstwhile American conservatism that cared about community, that warned about excessive individualism, and that endorsed a positive role for the federal government.  The historical and philosophical distortions perpetuated by this narrative are part of an effort to “frame” contemporary political issues and to declare for the Progressives the all-important middle ground of American politics.  I’m sure that Dionne has read some of Nisbet’s work.  He is either very stupid or he is willing to deceive in order to create an ersatz history that allows the left to claim to be the center.

At the heart of Dionne’s framing of American conservatism is a deep confusion about the meaning of community and communitarianism.  Indeed, the distance between Nisbet’s and Dionne’s species of communitarianism is greater than that separating Dionne and his contemporary Republican targets—the label supplies a convenient cover to hide vast differences in meaning.  Left communitarians envision communities organized by government and having as their moral justification the public crusade against private vices.  At the heart of this vision of community is the protection of the individual from social forms of authority—family, church, or any number of local and face-to-face social networks—in order for individuals to stand as equal clients before the state.  This liberated individual is educated by the state and toward the ideals of the state; is provided extensive protections through laws and bureaucratic regulations against any and all non-governmental institutions; and is supplied with economic and health protections by the state.  The state as community becomes an expression of the will of the “people” and the individuals of this political community are supplied with the meaning of this public will through the therapeutic and coercive means of the state

If contemporary Progressives dismiss this characterization of their vision of community, it is worth noting how frequently they rhetorically conflate “society” and government and how much they think of government institutions as serving public purposes despite having no meaningful public (non-administrative) check on their function (public schools are the best example of this as government schools are responsible to state-level administrators rather than local citizens—the very people they presumably serve).  Consider how often these Progressives speak of government (public) in terms of community values that private institutions threaten.  For all Progressives, the attack on “individualism” is really an attack on economic systems that are insufficiently regulated or controlled on the belief that private individuals and institutions ought to be checked by public power in the service of the public good.  For this species of communitarian, community really means public provision and public virtues should always be understood in contrast to private vices

Against this conception of community Robert Nisbet took his stand.  Rather than the state being the remedy for individualism, Nisbet understood the state to be a major cause for that atomization of modern life.  While many other forces have eroded the complex network of social institutions to which people had loyalty and in which they could develop their distinctiveness, since World War I the destruction of mediating institutions has been overwhelmingly a project of the state.  The modern presumption of the ethical superiority of the state over society (as well as over more localized forms of government) has spurred a relentlessly more bureaucratic, more centralized, and a more legal-centric political community.  Such a conception of community can only develop when the mediating institutions have been pulverized, leaving individuals separate and apart, equal and vulnerable.  Political community is not the solution to individualism but the perverse expression of deracinated citizens

However much the rise of the political community in the West was the product of a monistic political vision that wished to transform all human relationships into equal, interchangeable, and legal or contractual relationships and sought to impose a socially just and equal distribution of goods and power on the public, the project of a political community must rest on public resources to satisfy the demands of the citizens.  At some point in the development of a political community it must cease being essentially political and become administrative.  An administrative state retains legitimacy only insofar as it has the economic resources to satisfy its citizens.  Once the state has reached this stage it cannot easily tap into the patriotic sentiments of the people since they have largely separated from the institutions that supply them with the values, purposes, and higher goals that loyalty and patriotism produce.  When disconnected from relationships that require small and regular duties and when people become undifferentiated individuals who stand equally before the administrative state, citizens turn into clients.

Robert Nisbet’s critique of modern atomization and the corresponding loss of the kind of social life in which a person can find meaning, purpose, and direction, has attracted people from a wide variety of political perspectives, but especially from those who find something deeply disturbing about centralizing, bureaucratizing, and unitary government.  Many from the New Left found Nisbet’s critique compelling and the new conservatism of the fifties and sixties owes a great deal of its intellectual power to his defense of localism, pluralism, mediating institutions, and hierarchy.  Nisbet keeps coming back.  But an emerging crisis in the West (there have been many and of different sorts)—in Europe and in America—makes this return of Nisbet more compelling and, no doubt, more radical.

In the 1970s Nisbet wrote about a “twilight age” in which the political community, and its “whole fabric of rights, liberties, participations, and protections,” are threatened because the structure of authority it represents is decaying.  In America, after the Great Society and Watergate, the nation and its government did not serve well as the source for deep patriotism or the inspiration for a political crusade that might supply the people with a sense of collective purpose.  If there was some truth in Nisbet’s claim that the West was entering a twilight age and that the political community was at risk, how might we understand the deep political and economic strains of the European Union and the contemporary American debate about the role and size of government?  If we face a crisis of the administrative state in the West, what does Nisbet offer in the way of remedy?

One of Nisbet’s most famous claims is that the human desire and need for community is ineradicable and that if people cannot find healthy community then they will gravitate toward unhealthy communities.  He made this claim in the 1950s in light of the totalizing communities of Nazism and Communism—but the principle applied to liberal states as well.  The problem that Nisbet faced throughout his career was how to think forward to alternative social forms that would serve human need well after people have become disenchanted with the existing forms of power and authority.  Because his examples of previous social forms all emerged out of circumstances in which they grew out of need (the medieval forms of monastery, village community, manor, fief, guild, university, for instance, were functional social orders that emerged out of needs and resources peculiar to that era), there is no going back to pre-existing social forms or to social patterns that fit a different era.  Moreover, the very nature of organic social relationships precludes an abstract, universal, intellectualized approach to solving this problem.  One cannot design a society complete with the necessary institutions, obligations, loyalties, and authority

Today, in the United States, one of the most visible political expressions takes the form of suspicion of political community and of government provision.  It is this expression, I think, that drives commentators like Dionne to intellectual conniptions.  But one cannot invoke Nisbet as an antidote to the Tea Party or other forms, left or right, of disillusionment with the administrative state.  Beyond any policy agenda, Nisbet would see these as symptoms of the twilight of authority as expressed in the political community.  The way forward cannot be, Nisbet asserted, directed by the state.  Rather, he called for a “new laissez-faire” in which we recognize that the “human need for community [could] be met through ways other than politics—political action, political crusade, political Leviathan.” He called for opening up new space for “social invention”—the creative capacity of humans who need and yearn for associations, institutions, and relationships that help constitute individual identity, supply forms of authority, and provide persons with a sense of purpose and meaning

Nisbet’s general guidelines are instructive but vague.  We must recover social pluralism, stress localism, accept and embrace some forms of hierarchy, and allow social institutions to have real functions that can’t be abridged by a single governing power.  Perhaps most important and difficult, Nisbet argues that we must rely on tradition.  The contrast—or part of it—that he wishes to make here is between formal law and administrative regulation, on the one hand, and, on the other, the “mechanisms of social order, custom, folkway, and all the uncountable means of adaptation by which human beings have proved so often to be masters of their destines in ways governments cannot even comprehend.”  The obsessive drive to uniformity of power and authority, to legal standardization, to the modern notion of fairness and equality and of justice based on that notion, is the greatest enemy of a healthy social order.  The administrative state promises to give us what we want, but when the means of satisfying wants as determined by a political community of atomized individuals are no longer adequate to the task, we can expect the rise of alternative understandings of human need that challenge the state’s monopoly.  Only then can we hope that the legal and administrative uniformity of the state might vacate space for social pluralism and tradition.  The return of Robert Nisbet in such a time as this helps us think afresh about social inventions not dreamt of in the philosophies of our guardians

This is not the Nisbet that Dionne wanted, but perhaps the Nisbet that we need.

Reader Discussion

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on June 22, 2012 at 23:49:20 pm

The obsessive drive to uniformity of power and authority, to legal standardization, to the modern notion of fairness and equality and of justice based on that notion, is the greatest enemy of a healthy social order.

Quite so. The ideological defect is that uniformity, standardization and such are desirable or possible in the first place. Societies, no less than individuals, must confront novelty, ambiguity, change and varied circumstances. Healthy individuals must retain capacities to respond to circumstances in ways that are polar opposites: fight or flight; daring or cautious; magnanimous or coldblooded. We must have the capacity for risk taking and risk avoidance; if our ancestors had simply fled from peril, they might not have been mauled by animals, but they would have starved to death. Survival does not allow these opposites to be homogenized into a bland apathy. This is not a new notion: Plato's horses, the Taoist notion of yin-yang, Aristotle's categories and the litany of purposes in Ecclesiates all recognize that life sometimes requires one extreme and sometimes another. The center is a place of conflict between opposites, not of harmony that exists in the absence of them.

The same is true of societies. They must sometimes be selfless, sometimes self-interested. There are times for them to be frugal and times to be generous; they must be jealous of peace, and when necessary enthusiastic about war. There is no way to purge life of these dichotomies, either in the quest for flighty notions of uniformity, fairness, or standardization, or in some abstract notion of government authority and "justice." Freedom demands extremes. If you eliminate them you are left not with Utopia, but with an abyss.

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on June 24, 2012 at 14:30:30 pm

The State is Expendable, the People are not.

Independents are free of the extremism of party, but radical in the final analysis, for absent party subservience, their view is for people to stand on their own, politically, and not follow the exclusive groupthink dogmas.

Liberty of self and freedom of political views are further hallmarks as is the greater element of responsibility in all actions. This last point entails the fundamental that as long as people form into groups, i.e. require and have government, the health and well-being of each person, i.e. their property, is required and must be attended to. This does not imply or require the 'DemoPublican-nanny-state'* we have today.

Without the health and well-being of its people - all held as absolute necessities - society, i.e. the political group referred to as a country, state, or nation, will fail its obligation and reason for being. The people are the state. The state is not separate from the people. Harm to one person harms the state. There is nothing which precedes the people in relation to the state. The state does not come before the people. Protection of the state is protection of the people - all of them. The state is expendable, the people are not. The people will be the people with or without the state.

* Or more simply put - We-will-take-care-of-you-if-we-can-have-all-the-weapons-in-the-world, because we are control freaks and scared.

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Eric Hodgdon
on June 24, 2012 at 14:39:45 pm

Because of the imprecision of language and my, admittedly, ignorance, any confusion or consternation between the people and the state in the above piece is easily resolved using quantum mechanical theories.

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Eric Hodgdon
on July 24, 2012 at 20:33:11 pm

I"m puzzled by a phrase you use, 'mediating institutions" which have been destroyed, even 'pulverized.'
Could you be more specific and name a few of them? It would help me understand your ideas.
Thank you.

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Lincoln Hunter
on July 25, 2012 at 14:15:21 pm

There's not much with which to disagree here. Well done.

I would merely add that William T. Cavanaugh is providing us with some useful amendments and extensions of Nisbet's description of modern, state-enveloped society.

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Joseph R. Stromberg
on July 31, 2012 at 13:20:21 pm

Thanks for that post. The one overriding and practical consideration that comes to my mind in all of this is that people like Dionne, while they lack anything near to a convincing argument, have brute force on their side: they represent a class that controls the institutions and whose line of reasoning appeals to a very broad crossection of the public. In short, I don't see how the good things that you suggest can be implemented short of a general rebuilding from the ground up following a collapse of some sort. Perhaps if Republicans could find the wherewithall to make abortion the main issue, lose an election cycle or two, keep at it and live to see victory by way of hearts being changed. The Left has been, if anything, persistant. Why can't we? And if readers say it won't work, well, what has?

Above all, however, we need to keep the big picture in mind. We want to live in a free, orderly society but we must also understand that our life in this world is fleeting. Should our best efforts fail, we know that the suffering is only for a time. As for the Dionne's of the world I say: 'What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?' But he'd likely figure out some way to claim that verse for his own.

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Steve Prescott
on April 17, 2019 at 15:34:53 pm

[…] am trying to say. Again, until I get to this topic later on on this blog, here are some resources: here, here, here, here, and […]

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Image of Roderick Long: Libertarianism and Leftism – Atlas Puked
Roderick Long: Libertarianism and Leftism – Atlas Puked

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.