This summer gave me the opportunity to participate in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Honors Program, a week-long conference that met in Baltimore aside the Inner Harbor. Apart from marveling at how much “Charm City” has developed since my days in graduate school at THE Johns Hopkins University, I also benefited from the lectures, discussions, and friendships renewed and established. One of the most provocative presentations came from Patrick Deneen who rehearsed arguments from Robert Nisbet’s Quest for Community to undermine the Fox News-CNN polarities of contemporary American politics. Instead of conceiving of conservatism as the preservation of individual freedom in contrast to liberalism’s big government regulation of so many aspects of human existence, Deneen pointed out that big states and free individuals have a co-dependent relationship:
. . . for liberal theory, while the individual “creates” the State through the social contract, in a practical sense, the liberal State “creates” the individual by providing the conditions for the expansion of liberty, now defined increasingly as the capacity of humans to expand their mastery over nature. Far from there being an inherent conflict between the individual and the State, – as so much of modern political reporting would suggest – liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection between the liberal ideal of liberty that can only be realized through the auspices of a powerful State. The State does not merely serve as a referee between contesting individuals; in securing our capacity to engage in productive activities, especially commerce, the State establishes a condition in reality that existed in theory only in the State of Nature – that is, the ever-increasing achievement of the autonomous, freely-choosing individual. Rather than the State acting as an impediment to the realization of our individuality, the State becomes the main agent of our liberation from the limiting conditions in which humans have historically found themselves.
The entities to suffer in this relationship are the bystanders to this dance between big governments and free individuals – the associations and institutions that comprise a healthy civil society and put the order in ordered liberty. According to Deneen:
A vast and intrusive centralized apparatus is established not to oppress the population, but rather to actively ensure the liberation of individuals from any forms of constitutive groups or supra-individual identity. Thus, any organizations or groups or communities that lay claim to more substantive allegiance will be subject to State sanctions and intervention (e.g., Belmont Abbey College), but this oppression will be done in the name of the liberation of the individual. Any allegiance to sub-national groups, associations or communities come to be redefined not as inheritances, but as memberships of choice with very low if any costs to exit. Modern liberals are to be pro-choice in every respect; one can limits one’s own autonomy̧ but only if one has chosen to do so, and generally only if one can revise one’s choice at a later date – which means, in reality, one hasn’t really limited one’s autonomy at all. All choices are fungible, alterable, and reversible. The vow “til death do us part” is subtly but universally amended – and understood – to mean, “or until we choose otherwise.”
If students and faculty at the conference thought very long about the implications of Deneen’s remarks, they may have gone home depressed both about the current state of affairs and the simplistic understanding of the Left and Right. But if they proceeded to the hospitality suite and thought a little longer, they would have realized that despite the limits of current political theory and reporting, people in communities are still capable of attempting to form thicker associations and enjoy a richer understanding of liberty than they currently experience. Little did I know that I would experience such embeddedness only a few weeks after the conference upon my return to Hillsdale, Michigan, where the Ladies Beautification League has been trying to enhance the town’s existing natural and architectural heritage. The main activity to this end for the summer of 2011 was a mural project that transformed one of the bare downtown brick walls into a painting of Wilhelmina Stock, the wife of a local mill owner, who created a large private garden that later became a city park. In addition to beautifying downtown Hillsdale, the good ladies also enlisted contributions from donors and energies from volunteers. The former provided the resources to pay the artist and purchase the materials. The latter (as this video attests) climbed ladders, chairs, and scaffolding to apply paint to wall in carefully marked segments – the way we used crayons as children. The result was an appealing renovation of one of downtown’s facades. Even better was the spirit the project nurtured among the participants. It was an instance of community that transcended the long-arm of the state and the self-interest of free individuals and let everyone know, however briefly, that cooperation on a small-scale is still possible and, more important, valuable.