Ross Douthat responds to a question I threw at him on Bloggingheads a few months ago about what kind of society he wanted to live in. His response to that question seems fine to me (I suspected that he and other Catholic conservatives wouldn’t much have enjoyed living in Ireland when the church had effective hegemony, and he has more or less confirmed this), but I’m pretty sure that he’s wrong when he says that:
I incline away from [left communitarians] on questions of economic policy not out of any delusion that unfettered capitalism hasn’t played a significant role in the cultural trends that I find worrying, but because I think that economic freedom was one of the freedoms that the 1950s order went too far in stifling – and more importantly, because the most likely alternative to Reaganism and Rubinomics wasn’t some low-growth crunchy-communitarian utopia, but rather a steady expansion in government power that would have crowded out the “little platoons” even more quickly than free-market capitalism undercuts them. Traditional forms of social organization are weaker in today’s America than they were fifty years ago, but they’re still much, much stronger than in Europe, where the economic left has held the whip for decades.
For countervailing evidence about what has actually happened in leftie-whipped Europe, see fellow conservative-ish Catholic (and Georgetown political theorist) Patrick Deneen.
For the past three weeks I’ve stayed and traveled in southern Germany (Swabia, between the Black Forest and Bavaria), Switzerland (the central region, around Lucern), and western Austria … In these parts of central Europe (all German speaking), I have been mightily impressed – as ever – by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence. … This impression – admittedly somewhat biased by the particular areas where I’ve been staying – does not easily fit with the predominant American Left-Right views of Europe, both of which respectively praise or condemn “Europe” for its progressiveness. …According to the Right wing narrative, Europe is in the throes of cultural suicide, with its churches abandoned, its cradles empty, and incapable of dealing with the threat of internal Islamic domination given trajectories in the birth rate and the feebleness of the “multicultural” response. According to both narratives, Europe is largely … reducible to Amsterdam, Bruxelles and the Hague. … Indeed, the combination of local economies, nearby productive farmland outside every town, viable public transportation and widespread use of alternative energies points to a culture that has never abandoned sustainable communities in the way that America willfully and woefully has done over the past fifty years. You can also get some sense why there is even resentment here toward America’s wastefulness: the Europeans pay higher prices for everything in an effort to use less, and whatever “give” there is in the worldwide production of resources is a kind of unintended sacrificial gift that many Europeans are making so that America can continue its energy gluttony. That said, the last laugh will be theirs, I think, when our civilization corrodes with increasingly worthless suburban housing tracts, our incalculable debt, and our inability to finance the American way of life. … Here’s something funny: my German father-in-law – no friend of big government, and about as anti-60s one could find – describes this way of life (including the solar panels, etc.) as conservative. And what could be more conservative than the Swabian motto – “schafe, spare, Häusle baue” (work, save, build a house)?
This argument travels beyond the Schwäbisch lands. Dutch friends of mine assure me that if you travel 20 minutes outside of Amsterdam you find highly conservative small town communities. My own dissertation research focuses on the ways that strong communities work in north-eastern and central Italy (Putnam’s original stamping ground, although I disagree with many of his notions about social capital). Interestingly, the most important sociological research on this suggests that not only have these communities not been corroded by the left, but that many of them (those in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna in particular) are the result of Socialist/Communist organization and mobilization of peasants and workers in the late nineteenth century (see Arnaldo Bagnasco, passim ). The one European country where local communities got stomped was France. However, this isn’t the result of post-WWII leftist domination, but rather of earlier strategies by state elites of both right and left (on this, and its perverse consequences, see Jonah Levy’s Tocqueville’s Revenge )
I suspect (perhaps wrongly) that Ross is conflating “traditional forms of social organization” with church attendance. That aside, there’s a more important point here. Ross argues that even if the US model gives too much free rein to the market, it still is better for conservatives, because it allows them to construct their little beehive communities without outside interference. But Deneen offers strong arguments against this claim – he points out that German regulations protect small businesses and communities against large firms. If Deneen is right, the leftist dominated European model (which is more accurately described as a compromise between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) is far more conducive to supporting the kinds of dense communities that conservatives prize than the US deregulated free market model. For the same reason, it’s likely to be unattractive to libertarians, and problematic, at least in part, to leftists of many persuasions (leftists who are committed to gender equality should be very troubled by, for example, the regulations on shop closing hours that Deneen likes so much). But these are problems for libertarians and leftists – they aren’t problems, as best as I can tell, for the kind of social market conservatism that Ross wants to push.