A conservative from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) must be shocking some Atlantic readers with his new article, “All You Need Is Love: How Community Can Save Conservatism.”
Author Michael Strain quotes and endorses the claim Rep. Paul Ryan recently made in a speech at AEI: People “hunger for a community,” because “we’re happiest when we’re together.”
What are these right-wingers doing talking about love, happiness, and community? Isn’t conservatism only about marginal tax rates, budget stats, and rugged individualists?
Not exactly. Strain lauds Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” and stresses, above all, “the mediating institutions of civil society,” which include the family, churches, soup kitchens, scout troops—everything, in short, that mediates between the naked individual and the nation-state.
“Mediating institutions” isn’t a graceful phrase, but it has a long and deep history at AEI. For the best account of that history, read this 2009 lecture at AEI by William Schambra of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Schambra spent some years at AEI himself in the glory days of “mediating institutions” at the think tank (I was there, too, in a lowly capacity).
Robert “Quest for Community” Nisbet was there, as was Robert “Center for Neighborhood Enterprise” Woodson and Michael “Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics” Novak. In 1977 AEI published one of the gospels of the movement: To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus (second edition available here.)
Kudos to AEI president Arthur Brooks for maintaining this heritage by bringing on board Mr. Strain and for himself stressing that free enterprise should be defended, not simply on the basis of statistics, but on the basis of morality, including the “moral imperative” to care for those in need through both job creation and charity.
Strain’s Atlantic essay is firmly in this tradition. A few highlights:
● it is in our little platoons—“enmeshed in a layered, vibrant web of social interactions and commitments—that manners are learned, habits of virtue are cultivated, tradition is discovered and appreciated, and young people are taught who they are and how to live.”
● “Many on the right correctly emphasize individual liberty, but they do not emphasize what conservatism knows to be true: It is in community that people learn how to be free.”
● “Government should distance itself enough from the individual that civil society—which exists in the space between government and citizen—can flourish.”
Even more surprisingly, Strain is a serious number-cruncher who’s worked as an economist at the Federal Reserve and the Census Bureau. Thus he goes on to apply his philosophy to a host of policy issues, including unemployment insurance, immigration, corporate cronyism, school choice, child tax credits, entitlement reform, prison rape, and more.
You can argue over the particular policies Strain advocates on those issues, but it’s hard to argue with his claim that a political party that tries to sell a vision of “properly ordered community” just might have “better luck at the ballot box than the modern-day GOP.” No doubt he was thinking of the 2012 exit poll that asked, “Which ONE of these four candidate qualities mattered most in deciding how you voted for President?”
1. Shares my values.
2. Is a strong leader.
3. Has a vision for the future.
4. Cares about people like me.
The pollsters found solid majorities of voters preferred the Republican nominee on 1, 2, and 3. But on 4 they were repelled—by an overwhelming 81% to 18% margin—by the same man’s supposed lack of communal feeling.
I doubt the voters were right about Mitt Romney the man, given his high rates of donating time and money to charitable works. But I think Strain is dead right that foes of big government/national community must paint a clear and appealing picture of the local, non-governmental communities they want to take the place of the Leviathan nation-state.
FOOTNOTE: For evidence of the appeal that mediating institutions have for non-conservatives, consider this passage from a Supreme Court opinion joined by Elena Kagan, President Obama’s Solicitor General before she became his second high court nominee: “Throughout our Nation’s history, religious bodies have been the preeminent example of private associations that have ‘act[ed] as critical buffers between the individual and the power of the State.’” (I discuss the case here.) Another great source of arguments championing all that mediates between State and Individual is Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. See his essays here and here. For another Paul Ryan speech on the topic, go here.
UPDATE: Paul Ryan has tweeted his thanks for Michael Strain's article. And a RedState diarist has written a long post on the topic of compassionate conservatism that deals with these issues, including Arthur Brooks' work in this vein.