December 4, 2012

The Deterioration of New England Local Government (and of the United States)

Justin Katz

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?

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To be honest, I'm not really sure what "social conservative" means. If it's just a synonym for impulse control, then you'll find that libertarians tend to be socially conservative in their personal lives. The idea that an absence of government mandates necessitates a culture of individual responsibility is well understood and appreciated in libertarian philosophy. On the other hand, it's unclear if Paul Rahe is using the term "social conservative" to mean advocacy for government prohibitions on individual behavior, such as drug use or homosexual relationships. This would lead to a fundamental contradiction for libertarians, like the "freedom is slavery" newspeak of the 1984-world: give government more control so that government isn't as necessary. The appropriate means of encouraging societal impulse control, to me, are establishing a strong moral culture that rejects ends-justifying-the-means progressive utilitarianism, and setting up civic institutions so that individuals bear the consequences of their own destructive behaviors rather than being automatically bailed out by a faceless and shameless administrative bureaucracy. An individual-responsibility culture has always been the alternative to the state suggested by libertarians, but to use the force of the state to prohibit individuals from self-destruction would be to violate the non-aggression principle at the heart of the philosophy itself.

Posted by: Dan at December 5, 2012 8:47 AM
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