December 4, 2012
The Deterioration of New England Local Government (and of the United States)
Paul Rahe's written an excellent essay explaining why libertarians ought to be social conservatives (via Instapundit), which is a point on which I'm writing for future publication. For the moment, though, this paragraph is more immediately relevant:
In America, [Tocqueville] found institutions, mores, and manners antithetical to what he took to be democracy's natural drift. Vigorous local self-government drew the inhabitants of New England townships out of their homes and into the public square. Initially, they made this move in self-defense, but the experience of participating soon became a pleasure all its own, and it induced individuals to abandon what he called "individualism" and to devote themselves to public concerns. In the process, these Americans learned to think ahead, they developed a powerful sense of their own capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of life, and they learned to cooperate with their neighbors and even with strangers in forming private associations for public purposes.
Rahe attributes much of the erosion of American civic society, including the ideas of local governance, private organizations, and moral self-control, to the sort of apathy that arises when generations forget what their ancestors saved them from, and what was necessary in order to accomplish that end. There's certainly a point to be made, in that regard, but I find myself returning to his phrase, "initially, they made this move in self-defense."
On the local level, it doesn't take quite the dramatic threat that is necessary to bring out the self-defense vote (so to speak) in big-time politics, which is one of the reasons pushing governance toward the local level is generally advisable. So why do we not see the apathy of prosperity looping back every now and then to a rejuvenated public engagement?