When there is no turning back, then we should concern ourselves only with the best way of going forward.
The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, by Robert Nisbet
In an industrial and mobile age, of what relevance is the understanding that “community” (family, kin, tribe, church) plays a foundational role in maintaining a relatively libertarian order? It is a question I often ask myself; it is a question that will begin to be explored in this post.
There was a time when life was not possible outside of these traditional community institutions; this is no longer the case. Today the individual is set almost absolutely free from reliance on family and church. Absent these functional roles, is it reasonable to expect that such institutions are capable of playing a culturally binding role?
The problem is moral, intellectual, social and political – in an environment drastically different than the traditional. The solution will not be found in a longing for the past:
[The solution is in no way] compatible with antiquarian revivals of groups and values no longer in accord with the requirements of the industrial and democratic age in which we live and to which we are unalterably committed.
I am reminded of something from chapter 15 of Rothbard’s For A New Liberty:
The clock cannot be turned back to a preindustrial age….We are stuck with the industrial age, whether we like it or not.
Yet I am offered a conflict, as Rothbard continues:
But if that is true, then the cause of liberty is secured. For economic science has shown, as we have partially demonstrated in this book, that only freedom and a free market can run an industrial economy. In short…in an industrial world it is also a vital necessity. For, as Ludwig von Mises and other economists have shown, in an industrial economy statism simply does not work.
Liberty, it seems to me, cannot be secured strictly on a foundation of industrialization. We see – both in our age and Nisbet’s work – that it is that same industrial age that has helped to reduce the influence played by the institutions that traditionally afforded man liberty.
Returning to Nisbet:
Historically, our problem must be seen in terms of the decline in functional and psychological significance of such groups as the family, the small local community, and the various other traditional relationships that have immemorially mediated between the individual and his society.
Such groups played a perceptible difference in the maintenance of life. Such groups play little if any functional or psychological role today. Absent playing such roles, on what basis would these groups then have standing to play their traditional mediating role? We see today that they have no standing.
Our present crisis lies in the fact that whereas the small traditional associations, founded on kinship, faith, or locality, are still expected to communicate to individuals the principle moral ends and psychological gratifications of society, they have manifestly become detached from positions of functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions of our society.
Mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, economic production – no longer are these provided by “small traditional associations.” Without this functional and psychological role, it cannot be expected that these associations can play their mediating (decentralizing) role. The reasons for an individual’s allegiance to these associations are absent.
But is this to be blamed solely on the industrialization and mobility of our age? Nisbet offers an examination of the impact of humanitarian reforms brought to economically underdeveloped regions, yet his words ring true even for the most advanced economies:
Some of the most extreme instances of insecurity and conflict of values in native cultures have resulted not from the nakedly ruthless forces of economic exploitation but from the most commendable (by Western standards) acts of humanitarian reform.
We see this even in the West. Government has taken on the role traditionally played by family, community, church. Government has subsidized local-community-destroying behavior, resulting in ever-increasing local-community-destroying behavior. The examples are not limited to the undeveloped world, as Nisbet offers:
What is to be observed so vividly in many areas of the East is also, and has been, for some time, a notable characteristic of Western society.
Physically (and virtually), man is in many ways less isolated than ever; yet he is more isolated than ever from any “sense of meaningful proximity to the major ends and purposes of his culture.” No amount of material welfare will replace man’s need for meaningful community.
…irrespective of particular groups, there must be in any stable culture, in any civilization that prizes its integrity, functionally significant and psychologically meaningful groups and associations lying intermediate to the individual and larger values and purposes of his society.
Today, there is no intermediation; instead we have governmental agencies, large industrial concerns, unions and large charities. And football.
The solution will not be found in a longing for the old, but in recognition of the new: where authority and function was found in traditional community, it has now been fully incorporated into the modern state.
I cannot help but see in this a theme that we have visited often: liberty will be found in political decentralization – the all-encompassing role of the modern state must be destroyed.
But this decentralization isn’t just for the benefit of giving us each more choice regarding the type of society in which we choose to live. There seems to be a mutually reinforcing relationship: political decentralization will return authority and functionality to evermore local institutions, returning meaning to relationships and allowing governance to form in a more voluntary manner, via intermediating institutions.