Your faithful correspondent donned a collared shirt and ventured into Georgetown last night to listen to Philip Blond’s presentation on “Red Toryism” (Blond’s Wikipedia entry is here; the Porch has a good introductory post here). Blond’s ideas have attracted a murderers’ row of the League’s favorite bloggers, so I thought I’d (briefly) summarize his presentation and offer a few thoughts of my own.
As I understand it, Blond’s argument goes something like this: Both the political Left and political Right have embraced a philosophy of radical liberal individualism, which undermines civic virtue and communal solidarity by valorizing individual choice above all else. Consequently, our political system oscillates wildly between government encroachment and radical deregulation because political rights have become wholly contingent on our relationship to the state. Blond seeks to revitalize conservative politics by restoring what he terms classical liberalism, which emphasizes civic virtue, subsidiarity, and explicitly moral political goals that go beyond maximizing choice. In the realm of ec0nomics, Blond calls for breaking up “corporate oligopolies,” local competition, and encouraging poor and working class citizens to become “stakeholders” in the economy (shades of Bush’s “ownership society?”). In the realm of politics and civic life, Blond stressed the importance of civil society and spoke out in favor of radical decentralization, a concept he explicitly links to Catholic subsidiarity.
Despite my nasty libertarian streak, I found a lot to like in Blond’s talk, particularly in his enthusiasm for decentralization and local competition. My only quibble is that while Blond’s diagnoses are often compelling, his proposed solutions are sometimes less so. When talking about the importance of political subsidiarity, for example, Blond spoke of “giving democracy back to the streets,” which sounds more like a Students for a Democratic Society slogan than a concrete political program. “Driving capital to the periphery” and decentralizing our financial system sound great in theory, but I’m still left to wonder how economic subsidiarity works in practice. One important caveat: I’m new to Blond and was late to the lecture, so my first impressions may not do justice to the Red Tories’ program.
Blond’s philosophy also seems better suited to cultural renewal than, say, political or economic reform. His most compelling examples of Red Toryism in action – A Birmingham neighborhood taking back the streets from pimps and drug dealers; the persistence of Northern Italy’s artisan economy – struck me as the result of cultural factors that aren’t easily replicated or recreated through state action. When we do transmogrify a cultural agenda into a political one, the results are sometimes messier than anticipated, which may have been what Ross Douthat was getting at when he asked Blond about the parallels between his philosophy and Bush’s compassionate conservatism at the end of the presentation.
One last observation: Blond spoke movingly of the plight of poor and working class citizens stuck in low-wage service jobs with no prospects for social mobility. His economic vision stresses the importance of creating stakeholders – skilled artisans, small businesspeople, and so on – who feel more invested in their communities. This reminded me of the American experience after World War II, when millions of returning GIs received free college educations and federally-backed homeownership loans helped create the American middle class. But while these programs were largeky successful, they’re not exactly models of decentralized governance. Is Blond willing to compromise or moderate his small government sympathies to create new economic stakeholders? I ask because state efforts to create or impart social capital – from public schools to the Federal Housing Administration to Bush’s compassionate conservatism – are rarely characterized by decentralization or subsidiarity.
Exit question: Is liberal society, as Blond suggests, fundamentally dependent on older traditions, cultural practices, and civic institutions? Does radical individualism undermine these institutions? I know Blond isn’t the first to make this argument, but his prognosis was both unusually grim and surprisingly persuasive. I’d be curious to hear what the League’s commenters and contributors have to say on the subject.