Closing the Meaning Gap: Toward a Reconciliation of Communitarianism and Libertarianism

 
 

Libertarian insights may be able to help communitarians close the meaning gap and build communities that matter.

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While Theresa May ran a terrible campaign in Britain's June elections, it seems that she was trying to do something bold, albeit in a somewhat bumbling way. She wanted to move Britain’s conservatives away from a fiscal and small-government-oriented conservatism and toward a more communitarian approach. Writing at American Conservative, writer David Cowan praised May for breaking with Thatcherism and wrote that she was providing “a strong example of how center-right parties ought to respond to the challenges of populism and globalization.” Ross Douthat wished her well. May’s much-too-narrow plurality victory is clearly a setback for the Tories, but it was a gloomy day for communitarians everywhere. Britain’s conservatives tried to pilot a modest and responsible alternative to the belligerent anti-globalism of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. They failed.

The coming years could be high times for communitarians, as the world grapples with the challenges of widespread alienation, loneliness, and a gaping “meaning gap.” If communitarians can find a way to combine concern for the common man with sound policy ideas, their ideas could become enormously influential. That’s a lot to ask, though, and it’s unclear whether they can deliver.

Communitarians have plenty of enclaves nowadays. Publications like The American Conservative air right-leaning communitarian ideas. In the Tea Party years, the so-called “reform conservative” movement had a noteworthy communitarian streak. Intellectuals like Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have had a significant impact on right-wing thinking, and the American Solidarity Party (ASP) offers a complete political party dominated by communitarian thinking.

Why Haven’t Communitarians Won?

Of course, the ASP is a minor player on our national political scene. Unfortunately for communitarians, that’s somewhat representative of the impact their ideas are having on our broader political sphere. While strident populists have successfully taken the helm of the Republican Party, moderate communitarians have continued to struggle in their efforts to gain traction.

Intransigent party officials might bear some of the blame. Moderate communitarianism has had its shining moments in the Republican Party in recent years, but the conservative base as a whole was unreceptive. Beyond reform conservatism, political personalities like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum offered a broadly communitarian political vision, but these personalities were marginalized in the GOP. Was Donald Trump the price the Republicans paid for rejecting a more reasonable breed of reformers?

It could be so. We can’t know, of course, what a Santorum or a Huckabee might have done at the top of a Republican ticket. There were real weaknesses in the platforms of both of these politicians. Culturally, they struck a chord with many Americans, but they failed to convince the bulk of the party that their policy orientation was sound. Reform conservatism had a slightly different problem: it was bursting with policy ideas, but unable to find a popular base. Reform conservative proposals were bandied about at the level of wonky intellectuals, but they never penetrated the base in a lasting way.

Right-leaning communitarians seem to have had difficulty aligning reasonable policy with a broadly appealing message (or messenger). Obviously, this doesn’t prove that their ideas are bad. Politics is always difficult, and a few changed variables (such as a more successful campaign on the part of Marco Rubio) might well have vaulted reform conservatives to a more central place within the party. Insofar as that hasn’t happened, it may just reflect vicissitudes of fate, or (more grimly) deep moral deficiencies in the American right. In their more bitter moments, disgruntled communitarians often complain of a doctrinaire and perhaps plutocratic commitment to free-market principles, which (as they see it) prevents the party from embracing the kind of common-good agenda that might actually take root.

Beyond Community

There may be some justice to this, but communitarians should also consider whether their broad-based complaints may be masking deeper inadequacies in their own thinking. Communitarianism does have its characteristic weaknesses. A myopic focus on community can lead to an unhelpfully reactionary posture, which may underappreciate the external goals toward which a healthy community is necessarily oriented. Community is an essential ingredient of a thriving society, but communities don’t exist just for their own sakes.

Quite often, communitarians find themselves at odds with libertarians and neoconservatives, both enthusiastic “globalists” whose agenda can be inimical to the goods of community. Their critiques of these movements can be cutting, but the reverse may also be true. Communitarians should consider whether these other conservative camps may have reason to warn them: “There are important features of the world that you haven’t adequately addressed.”

At the heart of the communitarian project is the insight that man, as a political animal, can thrive only in the context of a healthy community. As Aristotle explained, a person’s character and identity are shaped in deep ways by his community, and his happiness is contingent on the love and support he shares with other (particular) people. We are, quite simply, communal beings.

These are deep and important insights. They are also very timely. Modernity and globalization have made us painfully aware of our dependence on community, as the bonds that hold us together become increasingly strained. Still, as with other crucial human relationships, however, community doesn’t justify itself. Like marriage, friendship, parenthood, or religious life, political communities need to be about something.

Communitarians are not simply blind to this fact. They typically have rich insights into faith, family, and cultural traditions, all of which are critically important to the common good. Economic development is a thornier topic. Is free enterprise an important aspect of a healthy community? Communitarians tend to be suspicious. We can understand the reasons, but a hostility to economics may still create some significant blind spots. Commerce is, after all, a major ingredient of any community or society; we can’t build a lasting solidarity around a defiance of economic realities.

The Libertarian Counterbalance

Libertarianism, as I have recently argued in these pages, can serve the conservative movement well as a kind of disciplinary force, reminding us of the dangers of over-intrusive government. Libertarianism has another beneficial feature as well. It is highly sensitive to the benefits of human progress.

Communitarians and traditionalists are likely to recoil at this assertion, for good and understandable reasons. Too often “progress” has been cited as a justification for ignoring traditional wisdom and the precepts of the natural law. Many social conservatives are still understandably angry with libertarian-minded conservatives over their widespread refusal to defend traditional marriage. Libertine libertarians offer an even clearer illustration of how badly Randian precepts can go astray.

As often happens, the libertarian ethos may be least beneficial to those (the libertine young) who find it beguiling and most needed by those (mainly communitarians) for whom it is distasteful. An undiscerning infatuation with “progress” is a dangerous thing indeed. But a healthy culture does need some ability to adapt. Libertarians can be quite adept at discerning ways to turn changing circumstances to good ends. Whereas the communitarian reflexively views change as a threat, the libertarian is more disposed to see it as an opportunity. Might one be a suitable counterbalance to the other?

That balance may be crucial in our own time especially. We happen to be living through an era of unusually rapid change, which to a great extent reflects global trends beyond the control of any particular person, institution, or government. Applying traditional wisdom to contemporary circumstances is always difficult, but now especially, it is necessary. Traditionalists cannot afford to waste our energy on a purely reactionary response. Libertarian interlocutors may be helpful as we think through the real implications of changes in our economy, our labor markets, our demographics, and our geopolitical situation.

People Need to Matter

What does a libertarian see when he looks at a healthy community? Compared to the communitarian, he is considerably less likely to notice family structures or daily worship. His eyes probably turn to the community’s signature “achievements”: a great cathedral, a flourishing financial sector, a bustling community of artisans, impressive scientific advancements.

Libertarians care immensely about these kinds of advances. Although the libertarian outlook is often dismissed as “atomistic,” all of the great libertarian thinkers have been extremely interested in the great achievements that free societies make possible. The enslavement of the state is their greatest fear, while unlocking real human potential is their passion. All of the great libertarians have shared this interest: Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, even Ayn Rand. Freedom, as they see it, is the path to human excellence.

As communitarians well appreciate, that kind of “advancement” may put significant strain on natural human relationships. They often argue that the costs of “progress” aren’t worth the gains. Who wants to sacrifice a healthy family and community just to build the next Wonder of the World? It would be better to love the people close to us and accept obscurity.

It’s a compelling argument. Here, though, we encounter a fascinating conundrum. Great achievements are not just an obsession of the rich and powerful. Ordinary people also crave a share in noteworthy social projects. That kind of project is itself one important component of a vibrant community.

Years ago, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan, I used to ask people what they most missed, and didn’t miss, about the Soviet Union. Their answers were always interesting, but one recurring answer was particularly noteworthy. Several people told me how they missed being citizens of a great empire. Once, they felt like the movers and shakers of the planet. They were mighty Soviets! Today, those same people are citizens of an obscure nation with a flailing economy and an insignificant military. They experience this as a real loss. They miss the days when they seemed to matter.

In some ways, this fixation on global affairs seemed truly bizarre. These former Soviets (ordinary citizens of the Andijan region in Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley) were light years away from the USSR’s ruling elite. They lived at the far margins of a Soviet backwater. They were the epitome of rank-and-file. Nevertheless, they preferred to be rank-and-file in an empire of geopolitical significance. The loss of that connection left them deflated, struggling with a kind of national identity crisis.

We can see a relevantly similar phenomenon in the fate of native tribes after an encounter with Western civilization. Even if relatively little is done to oppress them, living in the shadow of a more advanced civilization can be culturally crippling. In some cases a native faith, customs, or rituals may be suppressed, but even if not, the sense of being culturally eclipsed seems to open a gaping “meaning gap” that is very difficult to fill. This may partly explain why so many native sub-cultures around the globe are plagued by unemployment, addiction, and other social problems.

Regardless of the relevance to their day-to-day activities, ordinary people do seem to care about their society’s place in history and in global affairs. Life feels more meaningful when you feel situated within a culture and society that is moving, advancing, mattering.

Only a tiny percentage of human beings will ever achieve a level of excellence that would lead historians to remember them as “great men.” A far greater number can be part of cultures that boast significant and memorable accomplishments, and this can be a significant source of the social solidarity that communitarians crave. Is it possible that the libertarians are holding the missing piece of the communitarian puzzle?

Markets and Meaning Gaps

Communitarians undoubtedly have important insights to bring to our political conversation. The things they value matter, and the problems they highlight are real. To fulfill their larger goals, though, they may need some help from the people they are least inclined to respect.

Populists and communitarians have lately grown accustomed to acting as though a broad range of diffuse global trends can be distilled into a concrete enemy. We read about places being “devastated by globalization,” as though an army had marched through. The “global war against globalism” becomes a cause célèbre. It’s easy enough to see the political value of this personification of broad-ranging trends that are otherwise quite difficult to understand and explain. But is there any reason to think that a healthy community life can grow out of a defensive stand against commerce, development, and even “the globe”?

Rapid change can indeed be destructive to natural human bonds. We are often tempted just to dig our heels in and resist. If we truly care about the common good, however, we must find ways to reconcile the communitarian’s cultural wisdom with the libertarian’s adaptive genius. It’s a daunting project. In the end, it’s not clear that we have any choice.

Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.

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