Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Freedom, Free Riding, and other Front Porch Business

A few notes on some recent goings-on involving Front Porch Republic, and the discussions taking place thereabouts.

1) Soon after my post reflecting a bit on the appearance of FPR--which has remained a constant source of informative and provocative reading pleasure ever since I discovered it--John Schwenkler wanted to know what, exactly, I was saying about "freedom" when I mourned that so often the dissident/reactionary/populist/traditionalist conservatives whom I like to read so much take end up taking an essentially libertarian line in their defense of "freedom" from the government:

[I]f pressed to give an account of why it is that I think liberty is such an important political value, my initial response tends to be exactly the sort of "instrumental and prudential" one that Russell sketches here; liberty is so important, I want to say, because in a pluralistic society like ours there is simply no alternative to liberty, because any attempt to impose significant governmental restrictions on individual liberty will tend in a society like ours to worsen the situation rather than bettering it....It may be that this is another one of these cases where, as I suggested the other day, the essential differences boil down to the vagaries of disposition rather than abstract theories....Hence Russell writes...that he wants "to find and defend social policies and arrangements which acknowledge the need for collective (hopefully democratic, and occasionally compulsory) action and institutions to preserve the cultural and economic infrastructure which local communities and traditions and families depend upon"--which seems fine to me so far as it goes, though I’d tend to go on and on a lot more about how we also need to find and destroy those policies and arrangements that undermine the cultural and economic infrastructure that sustains the local and familial and traditional as opposed to the national and global and collective.

John may well be correct that this is really just differing dispositions; that we mostly want the same thing, and that we just have two different (and hopefully complementary) ways of looking at our goals. However, take a look at that last line--"as opposed to the national and global and collective." What John lists these things so as to express the need to destroy those cultural and economic practices which sustain them, in opposition to "the local and familial and traditional." Here, I would stop and ask: what are localities and families if not, well, "collectivities"? That kind of sociological language may be an odd fit in that context, and perhaps it implies things that really would mitigate against the unique nature of the ways families and neighborhoods can potentially come together. But still: what is this "collective" that stands out and apart from all the traditional ways that people bring themselves together? I suspect John might mean by his comment groups and associations and communities that did not, in fact, collect themselves together, but rather, were "collected" by government action. In which case I would have to put it to him: can you find me a group, an association, a community, that was not, on some level or another, the beneficiary of a cultural and economic context that included some kind of state or national or governmental "collecting"? The Homestead Act, which allowed hundreds of thousands of people to move into the Western states, and establish communities there? The Wagner Act, which empowered the unions whose demands helped give economic and cultural support and stability to innumerable ethnic and blue-collar neighborhoods across the nation? We could go on and on with such a list.

Again, maybe it's just a matter of dispositions; no doubt John and many others could come up long lists of laws and regulations which have been decidedly anti-communitarian in their consequences. And perhaps, they could look at the above two examples, and call the whole thing a foul: those are pieces of federal legislation, and John speaks against the "national" the same way he speaks against the "global," perhaps suggesting that he wouldn't have a problem with similar legislation which arose from the states (or from the counties, or towns, etc.). But that, of course, just brings up another sticky set of issues--what kind of allegiance, what kind of affective attachment, can or should one reasonably have for a "nation"...and, if said attachment has a legitimate basis (whether in history, language, religion, demography, or whatever), then why is it unreasonable to think about a "national community," and collective action which may be taken on behalf of such? Of course, not all things upon which the myriad human associations we make with one another depend or involve can be or should addressed on such a broad level, and I'll not deny that there are many ways in which our national government, and in particular the Supreme Court, has nationalized--via the necessary yet often insidious ideology of "rights"--that which ought not be. But still the point remains: if community and attachment and sovereignty is what you values, then keeping an eye out to take apart that which gets done in the name of the "national" or the "collective" (don't worry--I won't defend "global," that's for sure)...well, it may be, as I originally said about freedom, a pretty prudent and valuable thing to do. But it's not an essential task, not so long as we live in the modern civilization we do. If anything, I think it's our essential task to build up and buttress what capitalism and modernity and individualism keep taking apart

2) This talk of "modern civilization" leads to a comment which Mark Shiffman wrote on that same blog post: "Could you perhaps say something more specific about [the claim] that...modernity has added something to our ability to think about justice and equality and community which most of the ancients simply lacked"?

There are certainly a lot of ways in which I might respond to this question; it'd be easy, for example, to talk about how I realized when I was an undergraduate that certain exclusions which my parents took for granted while they were growing up--about black people and white people, for example--simply weren't present for me, or at least weren't present in the same way, and hence my ability to think about justice and equality and about those whom I could see as my fellow beings was larger than theirs was. But that falls into the progressive trap, the belief that a constant agitation against limits, a constant broadening and flattening of the body politic (which, I would be quick to add, isn't the whole story on the Progressives, but it is undeniably a portion of what they were all about), is equivalent to mental or moral growth, and it isn't. So it might be better to back up, and speak more deeply about the modern condition overall. My favorite author on this subject is the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who near the conclusion of his magisterial work Sources of the Self wrote: "We are now in an age in which a publicly accessible cosmic order of meanings is an impossibility. The only way we can explore the order in which we are set with an aim to defining moral sources is through this of personal resonance....We either explore this area with such language or not at all" (SS, 1989, pg. 512). Taylor sees himself as a defender of holistic meanings, of religious truth and moral significance, of communities that can potentially reify or instantiate that which is the actual spiritual condition of the real world, in an environment which denies the spirit in favor of a language that is strictly utilitarian, naturalistic, and/or subjective. And he makes a good argument for such. What does any of this have to do with justice, equality, and community? Only this: that any attempt to construct or defend such goods in our present world must be done in ways which incorporate the affective sensibility, the feelings of resonance, of actual persons. Which means that simple declarations to the effect that such-or-such a race, or a religion, or a way of life, disqualifies any individual who is characterized by such from serious consideration as a rights-holder, as a fellow citizen, as a person whom merits our recognition, can and will be defeated, or at least moderated, by simple human sympathy and familiarity. That is a great, and terrible, modern accomplishment, an accomplishment that controverts all sorts of age-old presumptions about the rich and poor, the strong and weak, the neighbor and the foreigner. Communitarians and localists and populists and conservatives all must work through and see what can (or should!) be preserved in the midst of such a controverting; that's what distinguishes us from simple-minded boosters of philosophical liberalism, who assume that all old presumptions should be brought down, reduced to individual discretion. That's not any way to build a good society...but neither will simple reactionary or counter-revolutionary or resentment moves against the transformations of modernity do any better at enabling us to articulate themes of justice or equality or community that can actually be believed--by others, or even, if we are honest, about ourselves.

To descend from such abstract philosophical heights, this tension in modern life--a difficult but, when it comes to how we deal rightly or fairly or compassionately with our fellow beings, ultimately good tension, I think--is perhaps of a piece of exactly the tension which Patrick Deneen and Daniel Larison discussed in connection to "free riding." (See also Rod Dreher's wonderful post and comments thread about the same topic.) We are born into and, properly, should respect and honor the liberal world as we have received it, with all the ways it both empowers us and limits us, even as we seek to bring it into alignment, in whatever small manners are available to us, with a larger "order of meaning," as Taylor put it. Or, as Daniel put it, ours is "a precarious position, but...also paradoxically the strongest position available inasmuch as we are always trying to be very conscious of our debts and the obligations they impose on us." It also puts me in mind, to get really down to the give-and-take of political life, to an old exchange between Henry Farrell and Ross Douthat, which obliquely builds upon the idea that almost anyone who calls themselves a "conservative" in America today is free riding upon the liberal accomplishments of the 1950s and 60s which helped drive out what the great majority of so-called conservatives today would agree were racist crimes which stained our polity. But of course, as Patrick made clear, liberals are free riding too--and indeed, anyone with a communitarian bone in their body would have to admit that liberal--or, better, modern liberationist--free riding upon the moral order of the law-abiding communities of the world is immense. But that just goes to show that modernity affects us all; hence, my casual statement that it is modernity which has strengthen, at the same time it has made difficult, the old, straightforward, strong and strongly exclusive, arguments upon which our moral actions rested.

3) Okay, now that I've gotten all that out of the way, I feel comfortable with going forward with my announcement: Front Porch Republic has extended to me and invitation to blog there for the next month or so. I'm delighted and honored by the invite, and hope to make the most of it. I do plan on cross-posting anything I put up there over here, but do check out that site as well, if you aren't already. Wish me luck! (At the very least, hopefully the schedule they're committing me too with prevent me from having a bunch of unresolved business piling up, as was demonstrated by all this.)


John Schwenkler said...

Congrats on the FPR invite, Russell.

And you're absolutely right about "collective": that was sloppy on my part, and indeed inexcusably so. "National" is tougher, though, especially in a nation as big as ours; I suppose my biggest concern here is the way that national concerns tend - in our age, anyway - to override all the others, taking time, money, energy, and so on away from the local and familial concerns and keeping us focused on the drama surrounding the presidency and whatnot instead of playing with our kids. Does that ring true for you at all?

Michael E Morrell said...


Congratulations and good luck with the Front Porch invitation.

I wanted to know something about what you wrote:
"Which means that simple declarations to the effect that such-or-such a race, or a religion, or a way of life, disqualifies any individual who is characterized by such from serious consideration as a rights-holder, as a fellow citizen, as a person whom merits our recognition, can and will be defeated, or at least moderated, by simple human sympathy and familiarity. That is a great, and terrible, modern accomplishment, an accomplishment that controverts all sorts of age-old presumptions about the rich and poor, the strong and weak, the neighbor and the foreigner."

I am unsure why you call this a "terrible" accomplishment. It certainly cannot be the fact that it "controverts all sorts of age-old presumptions" that makes it terrible, can it? Could you explain?

Russell Arben Fox said...


I can't disagree that our age is one that displaces the attention (and money!) which ought to be on, as you say, local and familial concerns with an obsession over national politics. I see it in my own writing; I can't help but have opinions about and want to say something about and argue over what is happening in Washington DC, rather than what is happening in Topeka, or at my local city hall. I try to fight it, but I find myself drawn that way nonetheless. But I don't think that speaks to the problem with our existence as members of the American nation so much as it speaks to the centralization and superficiality of the electronic media, and the way (of course) that national elites have used that centralization to their advantage. One more reason to read and defend your local newspaper...

Russell Arben Fox said...


Excellent to hear from you!

I am unsure why you call this a "terrible" accomplishment. It certainly cannot be the fact that it "controverts all sorts of age-old presumptions" that makes it terrible, can it? Could you explain?

I'm using "terrible" in a lazy, quasi-Biblical sense there; I could have just as well said "awesome" or "mighty" or just "huge." Making "simple human sympathy and familiarity" a player in our moral evaluation of ourselves and the world around us changed everything, and such changes--such "controverting"--are never a simplistic good-or-bad proposition. The Civil War was "terrible," in every sense, and I would say overall a good and necessary thing too, but that doesn't mean that everything about it, or everything that came from it, could or should be so defended.