For “Great Projects,” Against “Great National Projects”

Reprinted from Libertarianism.org

New York Times columnist David Brooks doesn’t understand what community means. And like Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, he’s so enamored of the federal government that he can’t imagine anything outside it.

In a column today, Brooks notes that “Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates.” This leads him to cast the Republican party on display at their convention as a bunch of individualist libertarians.

According to Brooks, Republicans infatuated with libertarianism now obsess on “hyperindividualism.” Set aside the absurdity of seeing the party that just nominated Mitt Romney as one committed to limited government and excessive respect for the individual. What matters here is just how much such individualism terrifies Brooks.

Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Libertarianism, you see, is incompatible with community, works against compassion, and doesn’t believe in things like customs and traditions. Libertarianism radically underestimates the impact our social environment has on us. For instance, Brooks argues that libertarian Republicans are ignorant of—or uncaring about—this rather mundane truth:

The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces… The skills that enable people to flourish are not innate but constructed by circumstances.

Does anyone really think our destines aren’t greatly shaped by social forces? Does anyone actually believe that our skills—as opposed to our natural abilities—don’t depend on circumstances? Of course not. Unless we drop out of society entirely, nearly everything we do will be impacted in some way or another by the social. And unless we somehow think people are born with the skills necessary to do biomedical research, paint a house, write a book, or throw a perfect spiral, then we have to see circumstances (i.e., stuff external to us) as significantly constructive of them. You can’t learn to write without first reading a book, after all.

The reason Brooks can’t see how silly his attacks on libertarianism really are is because he’s confusing “limiting government” with “abolishing community.” Otherwise how are we to explain the weirdness of moving from Republicans disliking government programs (even though most Republicans clearly love them and want more of them), to the claim that “they celebrate the race to success but don’t know how to give everyone access to that race?”

Here’s how—speaking as an individualist libertarian—you give people access to the race: You break down barriers preventing their participation. Then, with nothing in their way, you let them enter the race (Which race? It’s not like there’s just one!) in the way most fulfilling to them. And you do this knowing that what’s “most fulling to them” will be a product of individual choice, yes, but also of the tastes and values instilled in them by their family, friends, and community.

The core of Brooks’s confusion emerges with this line, while he’s praising Condoleezza Rice’s convention speech:

The powerful words in her speech were not “I” and “me” — the heroic individual. They were “we” and “us” — citizens who emerge out of and exist as participants in a great national project.

There’s nothing wrong with speaking about “we” and “us.” Each person, after all, is at every moment both an I/me and a we/us. I am part of a family, with which I am also a “we.” You are an individual, but also a member of the community of your church, your town, your school, and so on.

What clearly isn’t needed for discussing “we” and “us” is “a great national project.” In fact, national projects very often harm community, turning “we” and “us” into “us” and “them.”

After all, a national project, one gathering in its glory all 300 million of us, demands that all 300 million of us embark on the same journey. It demands that we all share the same goals, the same sense of good life, the same notion of flourishing. In Brooks’s cramped view of community, there can be only one: the nation state. You’re either part of it, contributing to it, and swept along its “larger national goals,” or you’re some kind of social misanthrope, forever standing by yourself on the edge of civilization. I’d rather like to see him take this message to the Amish.

What Brooks fails to understand is “community” is never singular. All of us are part of multiple, often overlapping, communities. Some we chose, others we didn’t, but all work just fine without Washington bureaucrats coming up with “national goals” for us.

Brooks can only see one community: the federal government. And for the life of him, he can’t figure out why everyone else doesn’t love it oh-so-very-much as he.

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