Home > Uncategorized > Important call for ethical leadership in civil society at American Conservative; is LvMI up to the challenge?

Important call for ethical leadership in civil society at American Conservative; is LvMI up to the challenge?

Daniel McCarthy, senior editor of The American Conservative, posted a thoughtful essay the June 1 issue, Better Red.

Here are a few excerpts (emphasis added); skip to the last paragraph if you’re in a rush:

Everyone’s worst fears for America are coming true. The traditional Left sees increasing inequality and falling real wages for workers. The libertarian Right grows alarmed at the federal government’s ever heavier hand in the economy—from bailouts to healthcare reform—and the steady erosion of civil liberties before the flood tide of the national-security state. Cultural conservatives, meanwhile, lament a toxic environment of competitive sex and recreational violence. Americans still enjoy freedom of a sort, but not old-fashioned economic or political liberty, only the chimeras of lifestyle choice.

You can sleep with whomever you want, but there will be no legally binding commitments, and whether you keep your house or your children will be up to a judge. You can quit your job at any time, but good luck finding another. You can vote for the Republican or Democrat of your preference, and they will both give the country bigger government and more wars. Even which church to attend is a consumer choice, as self-interested and trivialized as which soft drink to buy. For all the fetishization of choice, Americans are taught by their institutions that there is only one way to live: casually, unconcernedly, without strong connections to anything but the provider state and its flag.

This is not the world that conservatives or progressives, or for that matter libertarians, wanted to make, but all deserve a share of the blame. The welfare state has deprived millions of Americans of the will, as well as the ability, to manage their own lives. Indiscriminate application of a free-market ethos to other spheres of life has reduced attachments to whims, atomizing society. And for all their hand-wringing about culture, conservatives have not applied themselves to creating art or literature, but have spent their energies glorifying militarism and shivering in fear of leftist and Islamofascist phantoms. They locate the ills of society not in the state or the oligopolized market, but in bad people—Commies, terrorists, McGovernites [and envirofascists! ed.] —who can be bombed, jailed, or tortured away.

A different kind of economy, politics, and society can be imagined, one characterized by smaller government, more widely dispersed property, and an interesting local life not defined by big bangs delivered from a glowing screen. Progressives like Christopher Lasch have tried to describe such an alternative. So have left-libertarians like Karl Hess—they are Left not because they are “libertines,” as the canard goes, but because they look critically at concentrations of power. And so, too, have traditional conservatives—and now Red Tories like Phillip Blond. …

In practical politics, too, American conservatives have often made a point of promising to tame the market and create what George H.W. Bush called a “kinder, gentler America.” Yet the results have been disappointing. Richard Nixon entertained the idea of creating a negative income tax to benefit the poor—but his escalation of the war in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) and the Watergate scandal put the lie to the myth of Nixon’s bleeding heart. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and vows to foster an “ownership society” may have sounded distant echoes of G.K. Chesterton’s distributism. Yet Bush, too, is remembered for other things—like Enron, Abu Ghraib, Lehman Brothers, and “Mission Accomplished.”

Conservatives of many stripes have recognized that there is something deficient in the American tradition. Yet attempts to supply the missing element have not only failed, they have served to provide rhetorical cover for further consolidation of wealth and power in Washington and Wall Street. …

McCarthy’s appeal is echoed in Tom Friedman’s recent essay calling for greater personal and civic responsibility (and “more and better” regulations, too, of course).

In the U.S., however, the greatest escalations of police powers have taken place under Republican presidents elected in the name of “values voters” or the “silent majority.” Anti-liberal leaders like Nixon and the second Bush have only made matters worse—the culture coarsens all the more while the demands of national security displace those of hearth and home.

As actual morality disintegrates, politics becomes deeply moralistic. This is not a paradox: it is always easier for the virtucrat to demand that government reform society than for him to reform himself or his own neighborhood. Conservatives no less than liberals have indulged in morality by proxy, according to which the measure of a man is not how he behaves but how he votes and what ideology he professes. Control of government has become a substitute for leading a good life …

America does not just suffer from the absence of similar institutions to give authoritative voice to counter-values. We have national institutions, but not of the traditional, pre-liberal kind. Ours are the White House, the Pentagon, and the Federal Reserve. Everything else is the domain of wealth and private interest—including Congress and our churches. …

Here is McCarthy’s challenge, which to me speaks directly to the mission of The Ludwig von Mises Institute and other Austrian institutions of excellence:

There is no way around that: without formal institutions of authority, informal hierarchies rooted in excellence of character will have to do. George Washington, after all, had a higher place in the hearts of his countrymen than George III did in those of his subjects. Today the place for such ethical leadership is not in the White House, but in legislatures and the splintered institutions of civil society—perhaps most of all in the nonprofit sector of think tanks and universities, the closest things we have to what Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as the clerisy. Our universities have fallen far short of their missions, but institutions such as the Tocqueville Forum, which hosted Phillip Blond at Georgetown, may yet provide seeds of regeneration.

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