It’s a very odd thing (and many have remarked on its oddness) that in America today “conservatism” suggests both support for families and hostility to the claims of community, both intense opposition to a culture of choice and intense devotion to the ideal of the freely choosing individual, both hatred of consumerism and a quasi-mystical trust in the market.

That way of putting it is of course deliberately tendentious—there are good and plausible understandings of “synthetic” conservative politics according to which these apparent contradictions become tensions at worst and outright corollaries at best. (One thinks, for instance, of Michael Novak’s Catholic arguments for “democratic capitalism.”) Still, utterly predictable “conservative” opinions like this suggest that the prevalent version of American conservatism is simply incoherent:

For many generations—before automobiles were common, but trolleys ran to the edges of towns—Americans by the scores of millions have been happily trading distance for space, living farther from their jobs in order to enjoy ample backyards and other aspects of low-density living. And long before climate change became another excuse for disparaging America’s “automobile culture,” many liberal intellectuals were bothered by the automobile. It subverted their agenda of expanding government—meaning their—supervision of other people’s lives. Drivers moving around where and when they please? Without government supervision? Depriving themselves and others of communitarian moments on mass transit? No good could come of this.

I can understand and respect the cautious “conservatism” of one who thinks extensive nurturing community is beyond the competence of the government (and indeed, that seems to be the point of Will’s concluding paragraph). But to mock the goal of community-oriented transit itself as an impious attack on the deity of the American Way of Life “happily” chosen by (presumably sovereign) individuals, and to gratuitously imply that only base desire to control others could explain communitarian transit policies . . . how can such expressions of bargain-basement libertarianism come from the same mind that produced Statecraft as Soulcraft ? How can these attitudes be squared with Will’s Aristotelian view that politics exists not just for the sake of life, but for sake of the good life (which often differs from what some individuals happen to want)?

If Will really believes in the politics of virtue, he’d better reconsider his position on transit.

Articles by Stefan McDaniel

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