Let Us Pause For A Moment In Remembrance Of The Strawmen Set Ablaze By Peter Wehner
Peter Wehner has a post at Commentary that is the cause of much discussion on the right, thanks in part to Jim Geraghty highlighting it in his Morning Jolt newsletter today.
It strikes me that this ancient insight–of how we do not live in isolation, that we are part of a continuum–has been a bit neglected by American conservatives in recent years. The emphasis one hears these days has to do almost solely with liberty, which of course is vital. But there is also the trap of hyper-individualism. What’s missing, I think, is an appropriate appreciation–or at least a public appreciation–for community, social solidarity, and the common good; for the obligations and attachments we have to each other and the role institutions play in forming those attachments.
It’s not exactly clear to me why conservatives have neglected these matters. It may be the result of a counter-reaction to President Obama’s expansion of the size, scope, and reach of the federal government, combined with a growing libertarian impulse within conservatism. Whatever the explanation, conservatives are making an error–a political error, a philosophical error, a human error–in ignoring (at least in our public language) this understanding of the richness and fullness of life.
Conservatism has never been simply about being left alone. It is not exclusively about self-reliance, individual drive and “rugged individualism,” as important as these things are. We need to be careful about portraying life in a constricted way, since our characters and personalities and sensibilities are shaped by so many other factors and forces and people all along the way.
Oh, poor strawmen! Cut down and burned in your prime!
At no point does Wehner ever point to any conservative who claims to “live in isolation”. He never mentions anyone who denies the Burkian idea of “a continuum” (an idea much in the news with conservatives defending that very concept against Keynes’s famous, some might say infamous, quote that “in the long run we are all dead”.)
Wehner never points to any examples of conservatives retreating from the community. Does he think conservatives are eschewing participation in churches or other religious communities? Have they stopped participating in their children’s schools, Little Leagues, or Scouting programs? Have conservatives abandoned volunteer groups or charities? Are there no conservatives who serve as volunteer firefighters? Or on the local school board?
We are never told by Wehner how conservatives actually have demonstrated a lack of “an appropriate appreciation” for the “common good”. It is simply asserted.
There is one hint as to what Wehner maybe referring to. He speaks of, “the role institutions play in forming those attachments”. Whener never identifies what “institutions” he is taking about but having already identified a number of communal “institutions” I think conservatives are very much attached to, I’d say it’s fair to infer the institution that dare not speak its name is “government”.
If Wehner thinks conservatives are insufficiently appreciative and supportive of government he should be willing to say that. It’s a debate worth having, and in other articles he has made an explicit call for a bolder, more pro-government form of conservatism. But he should be willing to lay his cards out on the table to support that argument and not cast vague assertions that conservatives as a whole have removed themselves from society and attempts to improve the common good.
Conservatives are very much involved in Burke’s “little platoons”. On the whole however we are not interested in signing up for a crusading army of government mandated and funded “obligations and attachments”. To conflate the two is the kind of cheap rhetoric one would expect from the statists.
(Thanks to Nathan Wurtzel for pointing out I spelled Wehner incorrectly throughout the post. I apologize for the mistake.)