The Price of Community

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The
writers who have been most influential in my thinking are R. J.
Rushdoony, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nisbet. The first defended
covenant, the second defended contract, and the third defended
community. Somewhere in the interaction of these three C’s we
seek to resolve the social dilemma of our age: the preservation
of covenants — personal faith, church, family, and civil government — and
communities in an economy based on contract.

Politically conservative nationalists warn us against internationalism,
but they hesitate to remind us that they speak from experience:
the destruction of local communities by the rise of the nation-state
and nationalism. In America, community has always been on the
defensive. Its price has been perceived as too high.

In American history, cheap land and, after the invention of the
railroad, cheap transportation undermined communities before the
Progressive movement gained control over tax-funded education
and politics. One of the best books on this process is Sumner
Chilton Powell’s monograph on mid-seventeenth-century Puritan
New England, Puritan
Village: The Formation of a New England Town
(1963), which
won the Pulitzer Prize. Powell presents the history of the town
of Sudbury, Massachusetts. The older generation sought to maintain
control over the allocation of land and power. The younger generation
moved down the road and founded the town of Marlborough. Cheap
land down the road, or across the state, or across the continent
eroded community in a way that was unknown in Europe, where family
land stayed in the same family for centuries — and still does.

Americans have been involved in real estate speculation from the
day that the first immigrants got off the boat. Americans have
always been on the move. Consider the social effects of the railroads,
then the automobile, then Eisenhower’s system of federally subsidized
highways. The price of moving has fallen. The price of staying
put by ignoring a better offer in a division-of-labor economy
has risen. So, we keep moving.

Consider the cost of international transportation after the invention
of the transoceanic steamship. Local community ties were swamped
by waves of immigrants. But the internal movement of people has
been the greater factor in undermining local communities in America.

How many of us have had driver’s licenses issued by half a dozen
states? Millions. The average American family moves once every
five years. Localism was a major social factor in the Middle Ages
because of the high cost of moving and the absence of contracts
for land. Localism has been undermined here because of the absence
of these two restrictive factors.

If you are wondering what ever happened to community, think about
the right of contract, especially real estate contracts. Nisbet
understood this relationship better than most contemporary economists
or sociologists. He praised kinship and community, but he recognized
that freedom of contract has eroded both factors almost to invisibility.
His own career was representative: from the University of California,
Berkeley, to the University of California, Riverside, to the University
of Arizona, to Columbia University, and finally to the American
Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. He was not naive enough
to imagine that a modern university provides community — surely
not Clark Kerr’s "multiversity" — and not any department
of sociology.

Nisbet argued that the rise of the totalitarian states in the
twentieth century came as a result of what he called the quest
for community. By 1900, community in the West had been lost to
the forces of the modern economy, or, in the phrase of sociologist
Ferdinand Tnnies over a century ago, from Gemeinshaft to Gesellschaft.
The bonds of community had been broken, and messianic totalitarianism
offered a substitute. Today, this ersatz substitute has fallen
on hard times.

There is a price for community. Very few people are willing to
pay it, and even if more of them were willing, they would not
find many takers. We speak of "gated communities" today,
but they are commercial real estate enterprises, not communities.
Their bonds are broken with the signing of a deed. The community
golf course is not a viable substitute for the parish church.

Communities before capitalism meant a lot less privacy and a lot
more peer pressure. Communities meant the threat of ostracism.
We speak of residents of totalitarian societies voting with their
feet. In America, they voted with their wagons, on trains, in
Model T’s, and with Greyhound Bus tickets.

The automobile ended community. Nobody ever said it better than
Will Rogers in the depths of the Great Depression: "This
is the first nation in history that has gone to the poorhouse
in an automobile." The Oakies went west. Rogers’ own career
pointed to the end of community. He died in a plane crash in Alaska.
The only other Oakie whose career may better have illustrated
the road out was Gene Autry, whose exodus was launched by Rogers,
who found him strumming his guitar in a telegraph office at 3
am. Rogers told him to go to New York City, which he did. He died
a billionaire, or close to it, leaving behind a Western museum.
Somehow, that seems fitting. That is where community exists today:
in museums.

R. J. Rushdoony, the son of Armenian immigrants, said that his
father had told him that in the church cemetery back home in Van,
there were Rushdoony graves going back eight centuries. In the
pulpit Bible in the old church, his father told him, there was
a note in the margin saying that on that day, the Mongols had
passed through. That is community. I have never seen it.

Virtual
Community

The phrase, "virtual community," has become popular.

It
generally refers to popular Web sites with forums. FreeRepublic.com
is an example. We sit in front of computer screens, read digits,
and enter into keyboard interaction. Is this community? It is
to community what TV travel shows are to travel.

Community was always the product of covenants, and covenants are
binding, at least for a while. Family covenants used to be quite
binding, but divorce rates indicate that this community is fading.
In any case, arranged marriages and four generations living under
one roof disappear soon after the immigrants hit America’s shores.
The nuclear family was a nuclear bomb to the European family structure.
There is nothing like increasing per capita wealth to extend the
nuclear family and to undermine community.

Church covenants? Maybe in a parish system. Except for Catholics,
anything resembling a parish system has been alien in America
since the First Great Awakening (1730-50).

Civil covenants? We have been voting with our feet since about
1630.

Two generations ago, Joseph Schumpeter argued that when private
property went predominantly from land to invested capital — fiduciary
property — private property lost its socially binding effects. I
think he was correct. The Nashville Agrarians argued the same
thing in 1930, echoing the Southern apologists of 1850.

Confession

Community grows out of covenants, and covenants grow out of confessions.
We are a nation of rival confessions. Libertarianism favors this
development, but there is a price to pay: reduced loyalty to any
community strong enough to defend against the incursion of the
ersatz community of the messianic state. This was Nisbet’s message
in The
Quest for Community
in 1953. In a way, Oxford University
Press was not completely wrong when it changed the title to Community
and Power in 1965, just in time for the breakdown of any semblance
of community on campus. (Oxford switched back to the old title
a few years later.) Nisbet’s point was this: when communities
erode, political power replaces them.

What will happen when national political power breaks down? This
is a great unanswered question. When the state’s guaranteed retirement
programs and its guaranteed old age health programs sink in a
wave of red ink over the next generation, what will replace the
bankrupt behemoths that made the promises and will forfeit legitimacy?

I would like to say community. But community has long been the
inverse of the division of labor. What will be the basis of new
communities in a world of red ink? I fear that we will find out
only through on-the-job training. It is likely to be an expensive
process.

Conclusion

If efficiency has eroded community, if contracts have eroded covenants,
if the relative price of maintaining community has been raised
by the power of the free market to lower the price of our options,
then on what basis should we defend freedom as a moral ideal and
also as a viable political option? When mom and pop enterprises
have been completely replaced by Wal-Mart, who will defend the
cause of community?

These are not rhetorical questions. They have long divided the
Old Right from the New Right, libertarians from conservatives,
economists from regional poets.

I have spent my career trying to demonstrate the case for contract
to defenders of what remains of covenantal Protestantism. I would
not say that I have been successful. But unless the defenders
of the tattered remnants of the covenants — church, family, and
civil government — are persuaded that contractual liberty is a moral
imperative as well as a creator of wealth, they will be tempted
to join the local head-bangers in the aftermath of the looming
bankruptcy of the messianic nation-state.

To every defender of liberty, I recommend this: become part of
a local association in the hope that it may someday become a pillar
in a local community. Make the case for freedom as a trusted member
of the group, after you have gained their trust. This was the
strategy used by the Communists, so powerfully described by the
Communist defector, Douglas Hyde, in his book, Dedication
and Leadership
(Notre Dame University Press, 1956). We
need to do more than remain transient members of on-line virtual
communities.

May
8,
2001

Gary North [send him mail]
is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary
on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion:
An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded
free of charge at www.freebooks.com.

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