Working with what we’ve got….
I’m sure I’ve run this course long enough. I’ve been in constant contemplation of the merits of the individual vs. the community. I’ve written endlessly about the subject and read a good deal on Catholic social teaching, distributism, mutualism, anarchy, dignity of labor, new urbanism, choice, free trade, etc. etc. etc. This will be my last post (probably) on the matter for some time. I will quit boring all of you with these ramblings.
I tend to write idealistically a lot of the time, and too broadly on topics that require specificity. Forgive one more post in this vein. I also write the Utopian angle into some of my posts (or my Utopian angle at least) and that can lead to a sort of tangible disconnect from, well, reality I suppose. Not to malign any of the agrarians or small government types or anarchists or paleos or any of the folks that write about these sort of “back to the community” localist themes, but in all honesty – in all practicality – this sort of argument is a little fantastical given the realities of the world we live in. Really, there are good, solid arguments to be made for more local autonomy, but then we need to apply real, solid and practical means by which to regain this autonomy.
I really do think that with a little intelligence and dialogue certain moves toward a better, more self-determining, and less militaristic society can be achieved. In the end, I think a reform conservatism that embraces practical return to self-determination and sustainability is the best option. The idealism of the paleoconservative cause is simply too burdened by the idealism of its vision. Politics is not a time machine and we are not ever going to travel back to whichever pre-modern, small government existence that many paleos envision.
The system as it stands is imbalanced, however. There are competing visions of how to realign capital into the hands of more people, but the fact is property and liberty are inextricably bound, and so some form of realignment is necessary or we face losing our middle class altogether. This is becoming ever more important as we see our retirement money, our mortgages, our jobs all begin to vanish with the collapse of the financial industry. Philip Blond has argued for creative solutions to this, including looking to subsidiarity (or a better, more localized tier-system for our credit lenders) and even suggested looking to Islamic finance models for new ideas to what is obviously a system too wedded to high risk and deceit.
Others argue for freer trade and fewer regulations. There is a lot of validity in the argument that truly free trade would not have allowed AIG or Lehman Brothers (et al) to ever get this big – rather they would fail if they outgrew themselves. I like this concept a lot – that companies who are not running their businesses properly should go under rather than being bailed out, but I worry that it creates too much chaos, and leaves the little guys too vulnerable. Letting these companies fail would hurt – a lot – and adopting a system that was prone to the rise and fall of big corporations is obviously a dangerous thing. Some would argue that really, truly free trade would keep this from happening, but I think there is a real possibility that such freedom would only lead to monopolization. Such economic chaos demands strong safety nets.
Nevertheless, we are stuck, at least for now, with a big federal government and a lot of big multi-national corporations and neither of these facts is going to change any time soon. The quest to return to more localized control is a worthy one, but I think it will only happen in this day and age within the confines of a much more federalized state. Can a compromise be reached whereby we allow for much greater local autonomy? In other words can funding continue to flow from the federal government to the local communities and individuals without the feds micro-managing how that money is spent? One example of this might be better distribution of federal and state dollars to public schools while at the same time removing all the nonsensical standardized testing and other bureaucratic inanities that such funding often requires.
Similarly is there a way to redirect private capital into more local, autonomous control? To re-structure how our markets work to enable more people control over their own property and capital and use markets? Blond argues for a cooperative/guild model, whereby the state turns away from subsidization of large corporate entities and encourages the growth of competitive cooperatives. He also argues for more employee ownership in private companies. I’m not really sure the best way to implement this sort of change, but I do know from experience that smaller companies are more efficient, and that employee-owned companies are some of the most efficient out there.
Freddie makes some really compelling arguments for strong usury laws, something that could also go a long way toward reigning in both frivolous spending habits and bad business practices. Sanity in how we leverage and operate our banks is essential. What we’ve seen is a weird marriage of low rates at the Fed and extremely high consumer interest rates that naturally lead to banks scoring huge profits and, as Freddie notes, not only consumers but also other industries suffering from the imbalance in investment into the financial markets. This is what Blond has described as modal monopolization.
Freddie also writes:
Being at all skeptical about globalization for too long has meant being excluded from the ranks of the “serious”. The idea that globalization is good for the United States, the world and its people is an attitude that people insist on with incredible zeal, and this insistence comes from conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans. But the consequences of globalization for the United States have meant a hollowed out economy, where we produce very little of actual value, and where a huge amount of our growth comes from the accumulation of imaginary money. Unfortunately, the policies that could spur a return to the ancient and tested method of generating growth– making products people want to buy– have been derided by many of the pro-globo set as mere protectionism, nativism or simple naivete. We have to begin to push back against the rigorously enforced idea that globalization is some wonderful tonic that spreads money and stability around the globe. Some degree of globalization is necessary and welcome, but we cannot allow our dedication to a global economy to leave us with no domestic capacity to generate growth through the buying and selling of internally produce commodities. We’ve got to resist the Tom Friedmans.
Sanity in how we globalize our economy is also essential. Don’t get me wrong, we are and will continue to globalize, but that doesn’t mean we have to do it as fast as possible and mostly to the benefit of the financial sector to the detriment of all others. There’s a lot more to be said about Freddie’s post but I’ll have to get to that at another time.
So clamping down on usury is another practical step we could take, as well as reigning in the financial interventionism of the Federal Reserve.
Other practical means that I have mentioned before are the community driven efforts behind new urbanism. I’ve said often enough that the 45 minute commute and 70 hour work week is probably as detrimental to”family values” as all the “immoral” television shows and rap music out there. I think it would be better if those of us who do need to work long hours could make it to work in five or ten minutes rather than an hour; if businesses and communities were more elegantly weaved together so that we could walk to our shops and spend less time in traffic we’d save time, money, and stress.
Essentially, though, all of this needs to be considered through the lens of pragmatism. Idealism is all well and good but it can blind us to the imperfections of our theories. Many of these “practical” solutions I discuss here are not easily implemented, and may not even be terribly practical. I’m working through this. I’m thinking out loud.
We are not going back to an agrarian society or a totally localized economy or some mythical Utopian medievalist society (with all the perks, of course, that come part and parcel with liberalism and modernity). That is not to say that local farms and businesses shouldn’t be given a fairer shot at success, and leveling the playing field in their favor is essential. The best way forward, then, is for conservatives to really, truly divorce themselves from big business. Public/private partnerships are often incestuous and too prone to corruption. Then again, in this current crisis I highly doubt we’ll see a real move away from this – nobody will let the big banks fail. If McCain had been in office now we’d probably be seeing a very similar plan emerging. On that front, I’ve decided to cut Geithner some slack. I’m not a fan of the bailout in any of its manifestations, but I’m no economist either, nor a seer (unfortunately). I will cross my fingers with the rest of the world and hope somebody knows what the hell they’re doing.
Perhaps small, incremental steps are the only way forward. David Cameron seems to understand this. I think on a certain level some of these ideas can be found in Grand New Party as well, though Douthat and Salam don’t go as far as I would like in many of their policy prescriptions.
Finally, I’d like to touch once again on the matter of spending vs. saving. I want to emphasize that I do believe, very strongly, in the value of spending. It is obviously the act of buying and selling that allows our economy to even exist, and if people cut spending down too much that’s bad for the economy. Hoarding is bad, but reasonable spending and proper investment are good, and the only way we can spend securely is to also save. The rainy day has come and few of us were prepared. Balance must be struck and the fact is we really haven’t been doing that as a society. That’s the problem we’ve gotten into – that I’ve gotten into more often than not. It’s hard to be smart with your money. I really like going out to eat but it’s expensive. Culturally we are encouraged to spend, but not to spend wisely. So my critique of this is not the spending but the fact that we do so on too much credit, with too little thought for our future. I am as guilty of this as the next. I am wagging my finger at myself as much as anyone else.
Along these lines I think there is really a strong case to be made to invest our money in the stock market rather than just gold and guns. The stock market, when well-tended, can be a really valuable way to provide for our futures. We just need to make sure that we have ways to see when trouble is brewing ahead of time.
There is a lot to be thankful for in the modern world and a push for pre-modernity is silly on quite a few levels. Modern medicine has saved countless lives; modern technology has allowed for better computers, better communication, and a general upswing in standards of living – it could be argued that many of the solutions to our current detached state of being could be found in improvements in technology, though certainly not a technology devoid of moral concerns. So I refuse to rail against modernity en masse. I prefer to approach the subject in terms of compromise. We must do a cost/benefit analysis of the world. Not everything is wholly good or entirely bad about society today, nor was yesterday a “simpler” or “better” time. Some things we could very well do away with, others we should keep. Isn’t that the perogative of wisdom? G.K. Chesterton once said, “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision.” I think this is a smart way to look at progress – and paradoxically, to look at conservatism. Now we just need to remember what exactly the vision was to begin with.