Plumb Lines

March 5, 2009

Are Localists Parasites?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Keith Staples @ 11:29 am

Let’s face the question directly: Aren’t the opponents of liberalism (and here, as elsewhere on this blog, liberalism includes much of what is now called conservatism in the United States) hypocrites? Don’t we benefit from the abundance, security, and mobility created by strong, bureaucratic states and global markets? Aren’t our attempts at living in defiance of consumer values really just particular “lifestyle choices” within the culture of choice we loudly criticize? Isn’t even our advocacy and complaint on electronic forums like this tainted, because dependent on technological developments driven by our civilization’s restless will to novelty and power?

Over at Front Porch Republic, Patrick Deneen offers a good and thoughtful response.

He points out that the “fragility” of our position as anti-liberals who enjoy considerable benefits under liberalism at least makes us self-conscious, humble, disinclined to fanaticism. So, your average localist, seeing the consumerist beam in his own eye, will not simply demonize or condemn his opponents, nor will he try to smash the present order with Jacobin zeal, because he realizes that contemporary man is not equipped to survive and flourish without many of the supports and conveniences of the liberal order.

The doctrinaire liberal, by contrast, believes all that is not liberal to be unjust, deserving only destruction. He is blind to the fact that liberal society:

has always free-ridden on the health and vitality of a pre-liberal, even anti-liberal culture. Most basically it assumes the existence of, but does little to support or replenish, the culture of good families. It relies upon the virtues of children raised in those settings, even as it is suspicious of–even destructive of–what are necessarily “paternalistic” (or “maternalistic”) features of those settings. It has sought to open every closed association and civil institution, ultimately emptying them of the capacity to elicit loyalty, memory and stability. It relies on the good will and sacrifice of citizens even as it assumes that we are fundamentally rational actors driven by self-interest.
. . .
[O]ver the past century and a half, liberalism has free-ridden on the millenia-long accumulation of “resources” that it has shown exceptional ability in accessing and utilizing, but very little capacity to spare or save. “Drill baby drill” is akin to the adolescent refrain of “it’s MINE, it’s MINE,” uncognizant of the work and fortune that went into every inheritance that we may have come into. We have been free-riding on the back of mountaintops removed, all the while congratulating ourselves for our hard work and accomplishment.

So, Deneen concludes, the main difference between liberal and anti-liberal free-riding is that, in its “willful (or ignorant) disregard of its free-riding, [liberalism] permits itself a self-certainty and ideological rigidity, perhaps ironically–and ultimately–undermining its own basis for existence, but not before leaving some considerable amount of devastation in its wake. . .”

I agree that liberalism, with its aspiration to perfect rationality and comprehensiveness, is rigid and blind to its own weaknesses. But surely the most significant difference between liberal free-riding and ours is more straightforward than that: Liberalism arguably needs the things it opposes (and destroys), while localism does not. If, as I think, we live in a world where there can be no effective agency wholly outside of liberalism, then of course localists will have to be in some sense “parasitic” on liberalism. But liberalism is not necessary for localism in the abstract. Perhaps liberalism has so enfeebled us that localists couldn’t survive if it vanished overnight, but localists could eventually be weaned off it. Liberalism is like a snake eating its own tail, while contemporary localism is like an ex-smoker chewing Nicorette.

-Keith Staples



  1. I’m sure traditionalism can survive without liberalism, but would it really be the sort of society worth living in? I don’t think anyone here is looking for a reversion to feudalism.

    I suppose that’s an extreme example, but it’s worth considering that traditionalism and liberalism are in some respects symbiotic. Do traditionalists really want to jettison every beneficial legacy of liberalism, from economic growth to an admirably restrained approach to social pluralism? Some of these tendencies may need tempering, but I get the sense that Deneen is a bit too eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Comment by Will — March 5, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  2. First, traditionalism doesn’t require discarding all institutions and practices of liberalism, and it would require extraordinary effort to simply eliminate many of the things we most appreciate. There is, believe it or not, nothing inherently liberal about voting, constitutions, or protections of individuals under law, and I doubt we will somehow uninvent penicillin or stamp out bourgeois congeniality. As Wendell Berry has often said, we can only begin where we are. We may admire and learn from other ages, but not simply go back to them. Traditionalism is not a formula or a scheme (it is, in short, not an ideology), but a set of general priorities and attitudes brought to bear on particular situations. I, for one, find the Front Porch summary adequate (if not quite exhaustive): “Place. Limits. Liberty.”

    Second, we need to recognize how many good social, legal, economic, and technological developments are possible in non-liberal societies. (See for instance, Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change.) The Whig history we all learn in school impoverishes our historical imagination. The choice is hardly between liberalism and eating dirt in a cave.

    Third, and most importantly, we need to stop being such sissies. Seriously, how much of what we’ve come to expect do we need to be happy? To ask whether a non-liberal society could be worth living in is essentially to ask whether maybe life wasn’t worth living before the mid-eighteenth century (and then only in parts of the western end of Eurasia). This is a classic liberal claim: “Say what you will, but at least we made life worth living.” False. Some things get better and others get worse, but the human condition is basically what it always was: We find ourselves in a good but fallen world; we wrestle with the delusions of pride and the impulses of concupiscence;we struggle to love God and each other; we are puzzled and terrified by the mystery of death; we are terrified by the fact that we are not in control–any number of things may happen that smash the little worlds we’ve carefully built. There is only one viable proposal for the categorical and permanent improvement of human life, and it is the final elimination of sin and death offered by Jesus of Nazareth.

    Comment by Keith Staples — March 5, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

  3. Keith, excellent response, especially your last point. It addresses all of the insinuations of the the reference to “feudalism”, which, as you know, I could never let go by unclarified.

    Comment by P. Langdale Hough — March 5, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’d suggest a few additional points:

    1.) I think it’s wrong to argue that constitutions, individual rights, and limited government are the sole province of liberalism, but the liberal influence on these institutions is undeniable. Again, I think this highlights the complicated and frequently inter-dependent relationship between Western liberalism and traditionalism.

    2.) I don’t think anyone denies that pre-modern societies were dynamic, innovative places. But liberalism clearly enhances that rate of technological and scientific innovation. This is a bit of a mixed bag, but there’s something to be said for preserving not only penicillin, but the conditions that encouraged the development of penicillin in the first place.

    3.) I agree that blanket statements about the desirability of pre-modern vs. modern societies are unhelpful. With that in mind, it’s worth remembering that certain elements of the status quo are also worth preserving and expanding upon.

    Comment by Will — March 5, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

  5. 1. Not sure I agree that individual rights aren’t the sole province of liberalism. To be sure, the idea is older, but is there a coherent human rights framework that we can characterize as illiberal? Perhaps more to the point, why is this even desirable? Belief in fictional properties isn’t a condition of a just polity.

    2. Many people deny this. Glad, though, that you don’t, Will.

    Comment by David Schaengold — March 5, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

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