One Hand Washing the Other

The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, by Robert Nisbet

From the back cover:

…as the traditional ties that bind fell away, the human impulse toward community led people to turn even more to the government itself, allowing statism—even totalitarianism—to flourish.

From the time that classical liberalism reached its zenith until totalitarianism achieved the same was a matter of a few short decades – from utmost respect for the individual to utmost devastation for all individuals.  What happened?

Robert Nisbet examines this question, and I will examine Nisbet.  I will begin with the Introduction to this current edition, offered by Ross Douthat.  Recognizing, by the end of World War Two, that history could no longer be described as a long, unstoppable march from dark to light, conservative thinkers began to explore…what happened?

…the central thinkers of the emerging American Right labored to explain how “progress” and “enlightenment” had produced the gas chamber and the gulag. The Quest for Communit... Robert Nisbet Best Price: $12.02 Buy New $6.10 (as of 10:45 EDT - Details)

Into this intellectual field stepped Nisbet; what he found was that individualism and collectivism were not enemies struggling for hegemony, but two philosophies that supported each other:

It seemed contradictory that the heroic age of nineteenth-century laissez faire, to which free men, free minds, and free markets were supposedly liberated from the chains imposed by throne and alter, had given way so easily to the tyrannies of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

But it was only so if one ignored the human desire for community.  Where man once had guilds, churches, universities, villages and family, he was now free to be a separate, autonomous individual – freed from such inhumane and patriarchal chains.  Absent any other acceptable possibilities for community and in place of separate and competing authority structures, he was left with nothing but the technocratic state:

Man is a social being, and his desire for community will not be denied.  The liberated individual is just as likely to be the alienated individual, the paranoid individual, the lonely and desperately-seeking-community individual.

No longer finding community on a personal level, he finds community in the totalizing state.

Thus liberalism can beget totalitarianism.

It “can” beget totalitarianism, but it need not be so:

…it’s possible for both liberal government and liberal economics to flourish without descending into tyranny, so long as they allow, encourage, and depend on more natural forms of community, rather than trying to tear them up root and branch.

In this statement is the crux of the matter.  Can it be so?  Is it possible? It requires more than the defense of the individual against the state – as the individual, a creature that desires community, has had his other meaningful communities stripped or neutered:

It must be the defense of the individual and his group – his family, his church, his neighborhood, his civic organization, and his trade union. (Emphasis added.)


In my very early, dogmatic, years, I struggled with Gary North’s assertion that people will always ask “who’s in charge around here?”  I do not struggle with this anymore.  I have come to learn that there will always be somebody or something in charge – all that is left for those who desire liberty is to consider well our most libertarian master.  I have offered culture and tradition – and the culture and tradition to be found in the best of Western Civilization seems to have best fit the bill in history.

Otherwise not choosing (or pretending that humans do not have a desire for community) is also a choice – and the fruits of not choosing are to be found in our current condition.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.