24 August 2014

What Conservatives Need To Do

Go here to read an excellent piece in the American Conservative by Brian Brown titled "Why Conservatives Should Reform Philanthropy." In short, even though conservatives, following Burke and Tocqueville, often speak of the value of mediating institutions, broadly characterized as civil society, they don't do as much to create and sustain civil society as they could:
While today’s conservatives agree that the space is important, they are much more interested in the “protecting” part than creating and sustaining. They fiercely man the wall, defending the citadel against all threats, while the city inside decays
Thus, instead of conservative-leaning folks at the helm of American philanthropic organizations, most have been led for many years by the progressive sort who seek use modern management theory to team "civil society" with the state to achieve ends that in many respects are inconsistent with an ongoing, vibrant civil society.

Brown goes on to explain the origins of thinking about the importance of civil society, tracing the concept to Cicero, and suggests that a defensive focus, virtually limited to the family (ignoring "the countless other pieces that make up, or have made up, civil society: philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, social entrepreneurship, fraternal organizations, and the like"), means that conservatives have in effect withdrawn from civil society. As Brown puts it, "Conservatives say they want less government, they say they value civil society, but they can’t have less government unless civil society actually does the things it’s supposed to do." And without, committed and time-consuming personal involvement, we can expect the multiple elements of civil society to continue to wither and die.

Brown doesn't spend much time on the question of why conservatives have retreated from the messiness entailed by being part of civil society. I would attribute it in significant part to the virtual eclipse of conservatism by libertarianism. (Go here, here, and here for some comments on the inadequacy of libertarian political theory.) Ideologies are particularly inept when it comes to working in reality and libertarianism is no better than progressivism when it comes to a vision of what civil society is for. Being against the Leviathan state is not enough. Being for a few strands of the tapestry of civil society isn't enough, either.

Philanthropy should be "about effectively structuring and empowering human relationships, not replacing them. But with a few quiet exceptions, conservatives working in the nonprofit sector have mostly gone along with whatever the Big Philanthropy trend happens to be." Effective philanthropy involves working with and learning from others, especially those "others" who are on the ground. Until conservatives do more and squawk less, American civil society, including those strands most dear to most conservatives, will continue to fray.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure conservatives are entirely absent from these type of organization but, in either case, it does seem conservatives still have much ground to make up since the rise of progressivism. I wonder if the reasons are similar to the problem of the philosopher king. Those who are best fit to rule lack the desire; they would rather contemplate the higher things?