Update: This piece has been updated to include material from a piece that greatly influenced the author’s argument here
In recent years there’s been an uneasy but growing alignment between those social conservatives primarily concerned with building and sustaining strong local communities, and civil libertarians, primarily concerned with protecting us from intrusive government. This kind of rapprochement isn’t an entirely new thing in American history. Those who want to devolve power away from the federal government to local communities have more than once seemed to make natural allies with those who want to roll back particular encroachments of the federal government.
However, the civil libertarian side of this equation, in particular, seems to have come into its own recently, bolstered by voices like Glenn Greenwald, Conor Friedersdorf, and Radley Balko—and certainly helped along by trends like the militarization of police forces and government privacy violations seemingly without end.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity, social conservatives have used these libertarian fears to make the case for strengthening local communities. They argue that the disappearance of strong neighborhoods and towns created a void into which the overbearing hand of the state has entered. In this way, a roughly overlapping vocabulary of concerns has developed between the two groups.
There’s less to this seeming alignment of interests than first meets the eye. The harrowing story of Debra Harrell serves as a good case in point. Harrell, a single mother employed at a McDonalds in Georgia, usually took her nine-year-old daughter to work with her. There, the child sat inside all day with little to do. When her child asked her mother if she could play in a nearby park, Harrell dropped her off with a cellphone and went to work. After three days of this, someone in the playground asked Harrell’s daughter where her mother was. When she said her mother was at work, the bystander informed the police. Harrell wound up in jail for “unlawful conduct towards a child.”
Concerned parties on the internet dutifully dredged up many more incidents like the Harrell story: a single mother who had her children temporarily taken away from her because she couldn’t afford daycare while she attended school, a woman charged for leaving her child in a locked car for a few minutes. Apparently, we were looking at a trend, not an isolated incident.
Civil libertarians vehemently denounced Harrell’s arrest. Here’s Conor Friedersdorf:
Parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children. There are obviously limits. The state ought to intervene if a child is being abused. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone doesn’t come close to meeting that threshold […]
By arresting this mom (presumably causing her to lose her job) and putting the child in foster care, the state has caused the child far more trauma than she was ever likely to suffer in the park, whatever one thinks of the decision to leave her there.
Likewise in the Washington Post, Radley Balko wrote, “The mere fact that state officials were essentially micromanaging these parents’ decisions is creepy enough. That the consequences for the ‘wrong’ decision are criminal is downright scary.” Here you see the central civil libertarian concern: the state (or society joined to the state) is overstepping its bounds in “creepy” ways that infringe on the “latitude” everyone ought to have to order their own lives.
Social conservatives took the analysis one step further, arguing that the state only had to step in because we no longer live in neighborhoods where people watch out for one another. In the NYT Ross Douthat drew on a few pieces written about these arrests to highlight four trends driving this “criminalization of parenthood.” The third trend concerns us here:
Third is an erosion of community and social trust, which has made ordinary neighborliness seem somehow unnatural or archaic, and given us instead what Gracy Olmstead’s article in The American Conservative dubs the “bad Samaritan” phenomenon — the passer-by who passes the buck to law enforcement as expeditiously as possible. (Technology accentuates this problem: Why speak to a parent when you can just snap a smartphone picture for the cops?)
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. But does it tell the whole story? What if we aren’t merely dealing with state power filling a vacuum created by fraying mediating social institutions, but are rather seeing a comprehensive attempt to replace one model of social trust with another? What if we’re not witnessing a loss of community, so much as the disorientation that comes from a society that is redefining itself across political, economic, and social dimensions?
In his masterwork, The Great Transformation, Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi sets out a model for thinking about all of this. In describing what he terms the “double movement” of history, Polanyi outlines the ongoing tension between the way market economies atomize society and societies’ natural tendency to reassert themselves against these forces. Polanyi himself may have thought that this phenomenon was one big movement as opposed to a continual oscillation throughout history. He closes out his book with a slew of predictions about the imminent arrival of a great socialist society—a belated reaction to centuries of market-enforced change and repression. But the “double movement” is a compelling way to think about the tension under which our society operates at all times. That is to say, though modernity inevitably atomizes societies, society always reasserts itself in new forms.
Human beings are inherently social creatures: We seek out social interaction, and we have needs that cannot be met when we function only as autonomous individuals. Even basic economic transactions require social trust. Consider something as common as going to a restaurant. In dense communities, people probably didn’t need help knowing what restaurants had good food, service, and cleanliness. Reputation and word-of-mouth ensured everyone had sufficient knowledge about all the business in the area. In a more atomized culture, that’s no longer guaranteed. As a result, we have evolved new trust mechanisms like Yelp that let us compare and contrast the ratings and reviews of other customers we’ve never met before.
As our former local communities of trust erode, society pushes back to maintain some cohesion, albeit in a somewhat nebulous form. Here’s Jon Askonas on this pattern, discussing the rise of a new surveillance society, in which impersonal surveillance replaces personal knowledge as the glue holding social life together:
The kinds of knowledge your neighbors [once] possessed were not so different from the kinds of information the NSA may monitor today—with whom you correspond, what you purchase, and what you hold dear [. . . .]
Surveillance is cool, detached, and objective. Modern organizations provide a substitute for trust: they conduct transactions purified of care, emotion, or personal judgment [. . . .]
. . .There is no reality in which one’s activities are of no interest to one’s neighbors; any sober observer realizes that cyber-space is still political. The only real choice is whether you and your neighbors entangle each other in personal knowledge, judgment, and mutual obligation or rather entrust a third party to vouchsafe you to one another.
Instead of your neighbor’s say-so on a restaurant, you have Yelp. Instead of local Yenta matchmakers, you have eHarmony. Instead of businesses knowing what you want because the owners know you personally, you have Google’s detailed profile of your buying and web-surfing habits. Instead of everyone knowing everyone else’s business, you have impersonally administered surveillance.
It’s important to note what’s true about all those paired transformations: both involve a kind of invasiveness and a limitation of strict anonymous autonomy. And more importantly, we don’t all necessarily always prefer the old-fashioned, traditional way of going about business to the new way. A neighbor watching our child while we are at work obviously seems preferable to a cop “protecting” a child by arresting her mother. But lots of people very much value the greater anonymity and freedom that come from a society where matchmaking, shopping, and surveillance are all more impersonal than they are in a dense, nosy community—where everyone knows everything about you and your personal affairs.
And this is where the inchoate civil libertarian-social conservative synthesis tends to break down. What civil libertarians seem to want is to preserve the new, more indirect models of social trust, but with minimal infringements on privacy: no overweening state, no cop raids, no panoptic companies. As a general feeling, this is sensible enough. Certainly some discrete reforms for the worst overreaches of Leviathan are possible and necessary. The first steps taken by Congress to reform some of the NSA’s operating procedures and the broad-based outcry against ongoing police militarization are certainly welcome and necessary developments. The reaction against the Harrell incident is another matter, though.
As Friedersdorf put it, civil libertarians ultimately want latitude and freedom from restraint. Insofar as the motivating worries of the civil libertarians are about limiting the power of others over the autonomous self, the social conservative has little to offer him. The dense local communities that social conservatives pine after and advocate for as an alternative to the nationalized panopticon society ultimately point in the opposite direction: more restraint, not less. Askonas again:
For traditional communities, too, are sites of “oppression.” They demand participation, on threat of exile. They oblige the individual to enact social roles he may not desire, they limit his possibilities, and they censor behavior and belief. Except for its pre-modern scale, Colonial Boston was just as restrictive as contemporary Tehran. And so, while our preeminent technologists (and average Americans) agree that government surveillance institutions need to be tweaked with more safeguards against abuses and more transparency, they also would rather live in a society with PRISM than live without it.
The restraint of local communities might seem less scary when paired against some of the worst abuses of the panopticon society, but when paired against the civil libertarian dream world, they might appear very undesirable indeed to those same civil libertarians.
Social conservatives are right to point out that traditional forms of social trust and community have eroded. There is a real sense of loss and tragedy to all this. But one shouldn’t let a desire to construct a bigger tent for Americans concerned about the growing power of the state lead one to the unwise conflation of two different views of human flourishing. If Polanyi’s thesis, as applied here, has a germ of truth to it, it should ultimately be heartening to social conservatives. The very essence of our relations with each other pulls us back towards society. That our need for society expresses itself in troubling ways in our tech-fueled and atomized modern existence should not be a call for more atomizing autonomy, but rather the opposite. We need more real, face-to-face, un-intermediated community—with all the noisy meddlesomeness that it entails.
Technology can even help with this. Take a social media network like Nextdoor. Some call it the “anti-Facebook” because you can see messages posted by people in your area. It serves kind of as a message board for neighbors, giving them the tools to live back into a kind of localized community in which members help, know, and provide for each other. Society reasserts itself, again. But with more people getting involved in your life through forums like Nextdoor will necessarily come loss of anonymity and privacy. Society brings costs and burdens just as much as it brings help.
Does this mean that the big tent anti-statist project, which writers like Ross Douthat are no doubt committed to, is doomed? Not necessarily. There remains common ground to be found between social conservatives and civil libertarians. Insofar as we’re talking about discrete abuses that can be reformed, they should enthusiastically make common cause. But in the end, social conservatives want restraint in dense communities, whereas civil libertarians want all the benefits of the new model of social trust without any of the costs. This is ultimately not a reconcilable difference, and it rests on two very different views about anthropology. Only one can win.