by Gary North
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 Tönnies 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.
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.
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.
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.