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Published on: August 19, 2014
Trust in the 21st Century
The Anti-Statist Alliance That Wasn’t

A burgeoning alliance between social conservatives and civil libertarians to oppose the nanny state might help end some particular abuses, but in the end the two camps want very different things. Their different goals represent two very different understandings of what human beings are and how they should live.

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. 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 an impersonally administered surveillance society.

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. The restraint they advocate for 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.

Peter Blair is a staff writer at TAI, where he covers health care policy and religion. Follow him on Twitter: @PeterBlairAI.
show comments
  • Fred

    Yes, there can be only one. Unfortunately, it is likely to be the Libertarian’s dream turned nightmare. As I’ve argued many times in many places, Libertarianism is untenable due to its false philosophical anthropology. Ironically, it is the Libertarian throwing off of constraint that necessitates the state stepping in to restore it. Someone or something has to clean up the mess left by Libertarian destruction of intermediary institutions like church, family, and local community, what Burke called society’s “little platoons.” Enjoy your “utopia,” Libertarians. You deserve it. And to the degree America lets you get away with it, we all deserve it.

    • vepxistqaosani

      I have made the same argument, but see a different reason for the evisceration of the little platoons. The problem is not libertarianism, but liberalism, which insists that every individual be able to insist upon his rights at all times and in all places and gives ever-increasing power to the Federal government to guarantee those rights against families, churches, schools, civic organizations, cities, counties, and states. At the end, which we are fast approaching, there will be nothing but the State and the Individual, coequal in autonomy, but not in power.

      • Fred

        I don’t disagree, but there is quite a bit of overlap, if not outright identity, between liberalism and Libertarianism on social issues. To the degree that’s true, liberalism and Libertarianism, paradoxical as it may seem to some, are objectively allies. One might even say that Libertarianism is an inadvertent “fifth column” for liberalism. Libertarian abandonment of constraint necessitates the state restoring or maintaining order, which plays directly into the hands of the statist left.

        • vepxistqaosani

          I should say that I’m neither a liberal nor a libertarian. I am, more or less, a libertarian conservative with communitarian leanings. Or something like that.

          From my perspective, I do see noticeable differences between liberals and libertarians. The latter would never countenance speech codes; the former insist that they be able to enforce associations (bakers must bake gay wedding cakes, folks looking for roommates cannot discriminate based on religion, gender, or sexual orientation).

          The reason I’m not a libertarian is that I recognize — unlike most (all?) libertarians — that most people aren’t as smart as I am and are therefore unsuited to survive without supportive communities.

          The reason I’m not a communitarian is that I recognize that communities can be appallingly closed-minded and intolerant (especially of smart people!).

          The reason I’m not a liberal/progressive is that I recognize — even though I’m (trust me!) really, really smart — that I lack the knowledge, the intelligence, and the wisdom to run everyone else’s lives.

          So I’m a conservative, willing to change for good reason, but able to see that existing societal patterns usually exist for some reason other than chance or moral turpitude. And, among conservatives, one never has to prove how smart one is ….

    • rheddles

      It seems to me that libertarians are not trying to destroy the little platoons at all. They simply want individuals to decide to which platoons they will belong with out coercion from anyone else. And libertarians do not expect to implement a utopia. They simply want to give individuals maximum power over their lives with minimal influence of government.

    • hooharhar

      Philosophical anthropology is just astrology for autocrats.

  • Kevin

    This posits too much of ideal types which ideologues in the media and intellectuals espouse. In practice most people are a mix of these ideal types rather than purely one or the other, and further most individuals will changes their preferences as the pendulum swings too far to one side or the other.

    In practice many such alliances are possible, no member of the alliance will get everything they want (rather each will get 3/4) and eventually all such alliances will break down as they succeed and some members become concerned about overreach and the pendulum swinging too far in any direction and defect.

    To focus just on whether the ideal types maximalist demands are compatible is to overlook how real politics works.

    • stanbrown

      Exactly. This reads like an academic, having divided the world neatly in his model, treats the model as if it were reality.

      • hooharhar

        Nonsense. What sound reasoning there is to be found in his thesis, that the libertarian trend in political policy is a non starter because social conservative cave men should be wiped off the face of the earth, dammit, kill them all, hate those dirty social conservatives, kill kill kill etc.

  • Andrew Allison

    Isn’t the key point that both social conservatives and civil libertarians to oppose the nanny state? That they differ about how and with what it should be replace is surely secondary.

  • LarryD

    I expect the ideal of most social conservatives is the small town community, not dense, but small enough that there are only a couple of degrees of separation between everyone. In this sort of community, little government is needed, the built-in human social control mechanisms are enough. It is in larger communities, where people become anonymous that these mechanisms break down.

    The ideal of the only Libertarians I’ve read that had thought that far ahead, is based on the Kelts, whose kings domains were small enough to ride outside of in a day.

    The big problem is the Kelts were crushed piecemeal by the Romans, because the Kelts couldn’t organize themselves above the large war-party.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The social conservative vs. libertarian issue is a good conversation to have. Unfortunately, Blair selected child neglect as his example. First, he if factually wrong. Parents are not charged with criminal wrongdoing and put in jail and hauled into court on criminal charges unless it is a case of severe child abuse. Child neglect and abuse cases are generally heard in civil courts. However, unsupervised children can be taken by police and with the assistance of social workers placed in a foster home until the circumstances that led to the situation can be sorted out.

    Secondly, it is hard to imagine in this day and age that a single parent can’t find subsidized or free child care.

    Thirdly, if you’re going to leave your child without parental supervision all day why have the child? Find an adoptive home for the child if he or she is not too old to do so.

    Moreover, are child neglect interventions eroding trust and community or is it the other way around, that child neglect erodes trust of the community that parents don’t need involuntary police and social work intervention?

    Having experience for a short while doing court social work, most such cases as described above are resolved by the court granting grandparents custody of the child. This keeps the mediating institution of the family intact.

    In most cases of public policy where there is value conflict between social conservatives and libertarians, it is best to frame the issue in terms of economic interests anyway. But this gets hard to do when dealing with the welfare of children.

    Taking Blair’s logic to its ultimate conclusion, the kidnapping of 60 girls in Ethiopia is merely violating social trust not doing evil. Conversely, police and social workers and nannies who call in the police are violating social trust not carrying out the limited rule of law. That is why police and social workers have to be held to account by the court system.

    I can distinctly remember two cases from when I did court social work. One case was a mother who somehow got separated from her children at a huge mall and the kids eventually were taken into custody by the police. The mother went to the police station and found her children. No case was filed for court supervision. A social worker however was assigned to follow up with the mother. The mother was very appreciative and took her children back to visit the police station and the social work office so that her children understood that these authority figures were not breaking the social trust of the community.

    Another case was of a fellow social worker who was supervising a father whose child was removed from the home because of severe abuse. The social worker opposed a judge’s decision to return the child to the parental home. The judge called the social worker a judgmental Nannie. The judge overruled the social worker’s recommendation and ordered the child returned to the home on a Friday. By Monday morning when I got to work the social worker was at her desk alternating from sobbing and outrage — the father had fried the child in a frying pan over the weekend!

    You be the judge.

    • vepxistqaosani

      Relevant to your point #2: My brothers and I were routinely left without parental supervision from sunup to sundown. We all turned out fine.

      It is not, or should not, be the parents’ job to be breathing down their children’s necks every second of every day.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        Not the same as leaving one child without siblings in a park all day. But your point is well taken.

        • vepxistqaosani

          But with a cell phone! C’mon — that’s way more than we had as kids, where we’d be called upon to deal with nearly-severed toes, concussions, scorpion bites, poisonous snakes, etc. without easy access to any communication.

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Did it say child and parent had cell phones? I missed that. And was the age of the child disclosed? 6 year old no; 12 year old maybe depending on the kid. And what was the level of neighborhood safety? Not stated. And as said in my first comment, this probably would not be a situation where a child is removed from the parent except perhaps in a rare case for a very short 2 days until the situation was sorted out and even then the kid would be placed with aunt and uncle or grandparents. Probably no reason for social work intervention other than to offer parent help with child care. I assume the child was young because child care isn’t usually for 12 year olds. My original comment gave two cases: one at each end of the spectrum where no intervention was needed and the other where intervention was needed but the court system failed. You can’t tell a baby “hey if your dad wants to fry you in a frying pan, you’re on your own!” But you can tell a 12 year old with other siblings that they are on their own but to “stay out of trouble.”

            The author of the article failed to recognize we live in a society of laws not of men and are not “your on your own” to do as you please. When trust breaks down then there is law. And the law cuts both ways and holds those in authority accountable and limits the authority they can exercise.

            The police in Ferguson aren’t probably looking for people to shoot (unless we find a case where that is established by facts). Neither are social workers looking for kids to take from parents.

  • mc

    “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.”

    This is a weird way to minimize libertarian concerns. Replace “creepy” with “unconstitutional” and “latitude” with “liberty” and I might be willing to trust the argument. As it stands I have to ask what other sleight-of-hand is employed here.

  • http://www.reticulator.com Reticulator

    This is a good thing to be talking about, but I’m not so sure the civil libertarian vs social conservative viewpoints are so incompatible. In fact, if they did get into a big fight, I have no idea which side I’d be on. It depends on the specifics.

    It takes a village to raise a child. We all agree that “village” doesn’t mean totalitarian police-state in the way that Hillary means it. But does village mean completely voluntary social groupings or does it mean other local governing corporations? Depends.

    • http://www.reticulator.com Reticulator

      I almost forgot to mention that I hate TAI’s new web site. The old one had a lot more information on a page. That’s why I have a large monitor for my computer – to display more information. I presume this kind of design is a passing fad. It can’t pass soon enough for me.

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