11 March 2017

Towards an American Conservatism

Consecutive Saturday posts offered reflections on Aristotle's of the state. Aristotle's historically rooted account of the emergence of family, village, and state seems to be more historically accurate than contractual accounts based upon explicit consent.. Moreover, it provides a framework for the conservative view on the private and public institutions critical to the socialization of individuals and the pursuit of the "good life."

As noted in earlier posts, socialization begins in the home. The most fundamental task of the family is personality formation of its members, particularly the young. The family is where individuals acquire their first beliefs, skills, habits, and customs.

The family receives support from the "village," i.e., the neighborhood.  Who does not remember growing up under the watchful eyes of the neighbors? If mischief was on the menu, we waited until we turned the corner beyond the vision of anyone we knew. And the family expects that other local voluntary associations that constitute society at large--such as churches, clubs, and county park and recreation programs to reinforce--or at least not to subvert--the teachings received from home.

Finally, the ultimate authority enabling "the good life" and inculcating virtue is the state.  Aristotle wrote that training in virtue comes through "education and laws." For Aristotle, the state meant the polis, or Greek city-state. The modern nation-state was probably inconceivable to political theorists of the classical world. We can, however, make some application to the modern age. Our modern city-state--the city, or county, or even state can and in some ways does serve the purposes ascribed to it by Aristotle. Despite the attention of the media on what is going on in Washington D. C., it is the local laws which should--and in fact do--register the greatest impact on individuals and families. Public schools, the local HOA, city and county governments, and state governments play the greatest role in training through education and laws.

This distinction between local authorities and the national government for some reason receives little attention from conservative writers except when discussing so-called "constitutional" issues.  For number of  years conservative writers contended about whether virtue or liberty was the most important core value of conservatism. "Traditionalists" argued that virtue of the citizens should be the chief task of statecraft; "libertarians" argued that virtue has moral value only if  chosen freely and that consequently  liberty should hold primacy in  our county's public philosophy. And in this debate,  the "state" always referred to the national government. The factions in this debate never seemed to distinguish between the national government and local authorities.

This illustrates one reason why the Constitution can be considered a conservative document. It leaves the bulk  of legislative authority, especially morals legislation, to the states.

But recent history shows how an expansive national government slowly erodes the traditional and constitutional role of local authorities. Usually through the usurpation of the United States Supreme Court, the states and other local legal jurisdictions have lost much of the authority to regulate what is often considered morals questions such as sexuality, abortion, marriage, welfare, and narcotics.

The national government has not become a force that threatens the liberties of citizens through enforcing some version of virtue. Instead, it has become one that threatens the liberties of local communities by subverting virtue close at home.

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