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Thinking Big to Act Small

American Compass proposes that conservatives revisit the question of whether a nation can afford an economic order without a “compass,” a guide that can provide a sense of direction national policy and shared intention.  The question is essential, and the answers on offer on this site portend a new course for the American political order.

Libertarians have long argued that markets are wiser than government, that the accumulated choices of many people acting without plan or intention results in more efficient economic outcomes that reflect their true preferences. In a truly free market society, people’s initiative and inventiveness are unleashed, allowing for massive prospects of innovation, transformation, and disruption.  It was for this reason that Friedrich von Hayek declared that he was not a conservative, since conservatives resist transformative change, instead preferring a society marked by stability, generational continuity, and slow change that accretes rather than transforms.

This forum will regularly have libertarianism in its sights, but we should acknowledge that libertarians are half-correct: the accretion of choices by people indeed is a deep source of wisdom and a storehouse of knowledge.  Libertarians often are mistaken, however, to conclude that the accumulation of “common sense” is a major spur to innovation and disruption.  Rather, what we know instead to be the case is that the collected wisdom of ordinary people tends toward, and prefers not the transformational, but the stable, the continuous, and the slow accretion of change. The greatest drivers of transformative change typically arise not from the people, but various elites – the educated, the wealthy, commercial interests, believers in progress and disruption.  In our time, what many have argued were the workings of markets were actually the manipulation of private and public entities, working in concert to “generate change,” but which actually deprived ordinary people of the ability and opportunity to direct their societies toward the ends of stability and continuity.  The moral and material collapse of the working class has been the fruits, or price, of the “progress” urged by left and right liberal elites alike.

Nineteenth-century progressive thinkers were keenly aware of the conservative force represented in “the people.” Marx regarded the people as a force for conservatism and opposition to revolutionary fervor – often reflecting “false consciousness” –  and looked instead to elites, often the intellentsia, to guide the the lower classes in the overthrow of the capitalist order.  John Stuart Mill believed ordinary people to be a repository of conservative inclinations who reified their traditionalism in the “despotism of custom.” He argued that, if necessary, the levers of public power should be used to overthrow the “despotism of custom” so that a small minority of elites could achieve liberation from the constraints of custom and thus become the engines of progress and transformation.

Marx would inspire the modern project of “cultural Marxism” that Augusto del Noce understood would have a far more lasting influence and staying power than his economic theory; Mill and his seemingly minimalist “harm principle” remains a touchstone to the libertarian right.  Arrayed against these figures – one adored by the Left, the other, valorized by the Right – were thinkers who understood that the ordinary people, and their preference for stability and modest goods of life, needed to be shielded from these like-minded opponents to stability.  Foremost among them was G. K. Chesterton, an early “populist” who unfashionably defended the backward rubes from the progressives – both capitalist and socialist.   Recognizing that the deepest foundation of tradition, and defense against both Left and Right “innovationism,” was to be found in the popular preference for stability, he eschewed both main parties of his age, whether Socialist or Capitalist.  “If I have a bias,” he wrote in Orthodoxy, “it was always a bias in favor of democracy, and therefore tradition….  I have been more inclined to believe the ruck of hard-working people than to believe that special and troublesome literary class to which I belong.”[1] Chesterton put his faith in the common wisdom of ordinary people – one that stressed the centrality of home, fellowship, and family, all based on stability and generational continuity. In contrast to the liberal emphasis upon “things peculiar to men” [i.e., individualism], Chesterton asserted his allegiance to democracy, which rested on that which was “common to men.”

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common….  In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves – the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.[2]

Chesterton, along with his collaborator Hillaire Belloc, perceived a deep alignment between the two main ideological parties of his day (and ours), capitalists and socialists. Both were hostile to a society grounded in stability, continuity, and piety. Both sought the liberation of people from constraints of traditional society.  While they apparently differed over the means – the one preferring the expansion of the market and its detachment from traditional norms and limits, and the other preferring the crusades of the reformer state – they saw that the two would become blended while maintaining their apparent hostility, becoming what Belloc called “the Servile State.” Centralization of both political and economic power was the inevitable course of such a purported division, with the loser being the decentralized system, the small shopkeeper, the town, the Church, and the family.

Today, massive corporations that favor the open, non-traditional Millian society and embrace “cultural Marxism” operate in concert with government to push for open markets, open borders, and elimination of social policies and practices that constrain individual consumerist choice (for instance, seeking the elimination of Sunday closing laws).  Both government and massive private actors shape our contemporary world to prioritize consumption as the source of individual and personal satisfaction, offering a dizzying and constant barrage of teachings: “Just Do It,” “Think Different,” “Be Your Way,” “I Will What I Want.”

Perhaps we might not call this a “free market,” but what we have achieved is a market of increasingly “free radicals” – people unmoored from contexts of meaning, communities thick with inheritances, practices born of limits, exercises in self- and social constraints.  Above all, we have created a national environment hostile to the natural conservatism of “the people,” destroyed by a combination of private and public powers aligned to encourage social disruption, financial instability, and economic insecurity.

Make no mistake: this “market of free radicals” is a construct and the direct result of both public policy and huge expenditures of private industry. It is not merely a “given preference” that arose from purely market forces, but the culmination of an alignment of left and right liberal policies designed to shape our identities into creatures above all that consume.  Most of us today are debtors rather than owners; consumers rather than producers; wasters rather than fixers.  While apparently dynamic and innovative, our economic and social order is profoundly fragile, built upon assumptions of never-ending growth financed by debt that demands we consume the future, sacrifice (or refuse birth to) future generations, and madly continue expanding a civilizational Ponzi scheme.

A true alternative requires moving beyond the debates over socialism vs. capitalism, and instead asking and answering the question: what will allow the building of ordinary lived human knowledge and common wisdom that arises from the bottom up, essential for building stable and flourishing communities that are resilient and can survive the various global shocks that daily seem to accelerate?  Why should we remain invested in and loyal to a system that has to be bailed out at least once a decade by massive creation of fictive money because the cessation of “growth” built on debt would instantaneously collapse the entire global economic, political, and social order?

The answer is not merely to get the right national economic plan in place, but to make sure any policies have as their “compass” the creation and preservation of human communities that are built from the bottom up, and can thus persist for a long period of time.  There needs to be a consilience between broad national policies that inevitably shape the political order, and the kinds of bottom-up local resilience that arises from the unplanned, the tentative, the slow building-up of communities in ways that allow for adaptation and even the possibility of local failure that does not result in systemic collapse.

The best exposition of such an alternative approach has been developed by Charles “Chuck” Marohn in his recently-published book Strong Towns.  Marohn’s work in city planning, engineering, and finance has led him to recognize that a range of national policies ensure the failure of most American communities within the next decade.  This failure is ensured, quite simply, because almost every local community has taken on more liabilities than it can or ever could afford, out of the false belief that top-down growth policies could replace the slow and tentative sedimentation of bottom-up accretion. Older forms of collective wisdom were abandoned because we had come to collectively believe we had outgrown slow-and-patient in favor of fast-and-now, and that no cost or mistake couldn’t be papered over with what seemed to be infinite wealth.  Following World War II, we began building not according to the old human pattern of starting small and building out only as a community could support such expansion, but rather, of creating massive top-down and “completed” projects that were the hallmark of the suburbs and the new post-war cities of the Sunbelt.  We constructed pre-fab human societies out of a deep belief in our incomparable power and newfound limitlessness.  These were driven by national policies that have ended up destroying any resiliency of local communities, and have increasingly forced all of us to hitch our economic fates to a national system that guarantees the weakness of our local places.

Marohn describes the natural human way of building places which begins small out of necessity, and, confronted by natural limits, demands the ability to adapt, alter, and even abandon them. He writes, “Traditional cities weren’t stable because they lacked chaos; they were stable because routine forced the community to constantly adapt, to continuously harmonize competing objectives. To say it another way: Things were tough and so people had to work together to figure it out. When they did, they survived and possibly thrived. When they didn’t, those places went away.”[3]

National policies that emphasized mobility, suburban prosperity, consumption and impatience encouraged a wholly different way of building our communities.  By aligning ourselves with these national objectives, we ensured a collision course between a set of national commitments that were based ultimately on unreality, and local requirements that would be first to adversely experience a confrontation with limits. Local governments are discovering that they do not have the means, nor real and sustainable prospects of economic growth, to continue much less maintain the non-productive build-out that occurred at the expense of historically productive cores.  As those bills come due, local leaders still hope that they will receive the largesse of national economic growth, hitching their wagons to the prospects of limitlessness. Having sacrificed the common sense born of the bottom-up, they – we – are now prisoners to our own illusions, incapable of seeing the confrontation with reality that continually punches us in the gut.

Marohn thus writes that we should re-align our commitments to the needs and requirements of more local forms of reality.  “What is good for the national economy is not necessarily well-aligned with what is good for a local economy. The national economy is focused on growth…. In contrast, the local economy depends on wealth accumulation, long-term reality that correlates with stability.”[4]

Local places flourish when they are stable.  Properly built, they are adaptive and resilient. They arise, require, and reinforce practices that emphasizes frugality, humility, stewardship, and reverence. By contrast, when dominated by a national policy that requires their opposites – avarice, hubris, consumption and impiety – our common ruin is ensured.  These are freighted words and moral language, for an economic order is inevitably framed by moral and even religious commitments.  Only if the national economic policy we adopt is guided by properly moral commitments will we properly direct our compass.  Anything less is to wander further into the wilderness.

Chesterton understood that “progressives” valorize a certain homelessness, the kind of homelessness that can offer a man the illusion that he is free.  The elite of his time, no less than ours, hold the view that “domesticity is dull and tame.”

The rich man knows that his own house moves on vast and soundless wheels of wealth; is run by a regiment of servants, by a swift and silent ritual. On the other hand, every sort of vagabondage or romance is open to him in the streets outside. He has plenty of money and can afford to be a tramp. His wildest adventure will end in a restaurant, while the yokel’s tamest adventure may end in a police-court. If he smashes a window, he can pay for it; if he smashes a man he can pension him….  And because he, the luxurious man, dictates the tone of nearly all ‘advanced’ and ‘progressive’ thought, we have almost forgotten what a home really means to the overwhelming millions of mankind.

For the truth is, that to the moderately poor, the home is the only place of liberty.[5]

Marohn concludes his book by commending “an extended period of humility.”[6] America is now a poor nation, subsisting on debt that it heedlessly accrues due to past glory and a false belief in invulnerability.  Our localities, he argues, “need to intentionally reorient themselves to experience more direct feedback, particularly hardship.”[7] Any national economic policy that simply assumes we can continue to build without regard to ongoing costs of maintenance and sunk costs will merely avoid this reckoning.  Our compass needs a fundamental reorientation toward the encounter with a reality of limits, humility, and hard choices.  But such reorientation need not just be difficult, but has as its reward a renewal of the preeminence of wisdom and experience born from the bottom up, and the attendant virtues of such discipline.  May our compass orient us toward such an economy and ecology of the common good.

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Patrick Deneen

Patrick J. Deneen is the David A. Potenziani Memorial College Chair of Constitutional Studies and a professor at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Why Liberalism Failed.

@PatrickDeneen