“Conservatism and Crisis”

Since becoming familiar with the work of Frank S. Meyer, one of the greatest and most overlooked conservative-libertarian thinkers of the twentieth century, I’ve scoured the internet trying to find as much of his work as possible. Meyer was one of the original editors of William F. Buckley’s National Review back when it was a respectable intellectual journal and not the pop-conservative rag that it has become. He wrote a fortnightly column in the magazine’s early days titled Principles and Heresies. Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any easily and freely accessible National Review issues from the 60s and 70s. In addition to writing and editing several books (most of which are on my bookshelf at home), Meyer also contributed to Modern Age, The American Mercury, and a number of other conservative and libertarian publications.

Thus far, I have managed to find several of Meyer’s essays published in the lesser-known venues. Among them, is one titled “Conservatism and Crisis,” from the Winter 1962-1963 issue of Modern Age. In this essay, Meyer discusses one of the topics on which he spends the most time: the relationship between the individual, the State, and virtue.

 Because Fr. Parry [a conservative who whom Meyer is responding] conceives freedom only as a by-product, not as a primary condition, of a good social order, does not understand the character of the sickness of our society: the displacement of freedom in behalf of what those with power think the good to be. It does not matter here that I would agree with Fr. Parry that their [the secular collectivist] concept of the good is disastrously wrong, totally out of accord with the constitution of being; the evidence of historical experience confirms what the founders of the Republic drew from the insight of the West: if the freedom of individual persons is not guaranteed by the arrangements of the political order, power always corrupts, even when the motives of those who use it to enforce their beliefs are beneficent. This is not to deny the necessity of devotion to virtue in the persons who make up a social order, and particularly in those who hold positions of influence in it if such an order is to survive. But to affirm the necessity of virtue as an end for men does not require a subordination of freedom. Rather, if individual persons, who are the only spiritually significant entities in the social order, are to achieve virtue, they must be free. The responsibility for recognizing the demands of virtue, articulating the modes of virtue, and inculcating the virtue cannot rest in any social organism, but only in individual persons. The coercive organs of society cannot establish or enforce virtue, since by its nature must be the free choice of persons. The attempt to enforce it by the power turns gold into dross….

The deep understanding that the Founders of our Republic derived from the essential Christian and Western recognition of the mutual independence of virtue and freedom, they made socially actual in the institutions and the ethos of the Republic. Fr. Parry rejects that high point in Western history; he maintains that to posit virtue as interdependent necessities of the social order, and to place the responsibility for virtue upon the individual, is to neglect “the problem of right social order and in doing so [to neglect] the central problem of civilizational crisis.” But this “spiritual individualism” is our tradition. It is the understanding that still remains in the hearts of the American people, inarticulate, instinctive perhaps, but firmly held. And it is to the articulation, the renewal, the development in contemporary conditions of their vision that the rising American conservative leadership is devoted….

It is not only from the collectivist riders of power abroad and at home that defeat can come. The tenuous tension between the claims of virtue and the claims of freedom can be upset as well by men who—although they hate tyranny and collectivism with a fierce hatred—blind themselves to the central truth of the West, that neither virtue nor freedom can be made the end in a social order at the expense of the other without spiritual disaster.

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“Modern Mass Society”

Modernity has brought mass production of everything, from automobiles, to neighborhoods, to even one common way of life

I’ve been reading a book called “A Humane Economy” by 20th century German economist Wilhelm Röpke, one of the founders of neoliberalism. In many ways, Röpke seems to be a type of “small is beautiful” localist conservative in the strain of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, particularly in his critique of what he calls “Modern Mass Society.”

From Chapter 2:

What the words mass society first call to mind is the visible crowdedness of our existence, which seems to get irresistibly worse every day: sheer oppressive quantity, as such, surrounding us everywhere; masses of people who are all more or less the same–or who are least assimilated in appearance and behavior; overwhelming quantities of man-made things everywhere, the traces of people, their organizations, their claims. Merely to get along with all of these quantities requires constant adjustment, accommodation, self-control, conscious and practiced responses, and almost military uniformity….

Nor is it easy nowadays to escape the crowdedness of life and the flood of people in order to be alone for a while. In my experience, a typical Sunday outing in New York means taking one’s car and driving out of town along an exactly prescribed traffic lane and in the midst of other endless columns of motorcars, stopping at the edge of a wooded area and parking the car in the space provided, paying one’s entrance fee and looking, with thousands of others, for a free square yard to sit down on, stretching one’s legs by walking up and down a few paces, and then returning, in the same manner as was used in coming out, to one’s flat on the fifteenth floor of an apartment building. After that, one is supposed to be refreshed and ready to face the week’s subway tips and office work somewhere up on the fiftieth floor, and perhaps might even be energetic enough to spend an evening at the movies in Rockefeller Center, in company with ten thousand others, having first, as part of an endless human serpent, shuffled through a cafeteria in order to stoke up with the necessary calories and vitamins.

To try to escape from the giant honeycombs of city dwellings into the suburbs is to jump from the frying pan into the fire…Suburbia has its own very charming brand of mass living. The price of having a little house and garden of one’s own may be a gregariousness that surpasses anything known in the center of town. There can be no question of one’s home being one’s castle. Everybody is forever “dropping in” on  everybody else; the agglomeration of people stifles all expression of individuality, any attempt at keeping to oneself; every aspect of life is centrally ruled…Everyone is under pressure to join in, to take part in communal life, even if it means giving up or neglecting his private occupations, unless he wants to be known as a spoilsport. Classes on “family group living” end up by being more important than natural and free family life itself. Yet the development of a natural community is impossible, if only because of the constant coming and going of people….

As we increasingly become mere passively activated mass particles or social molecules, all poetry and dignity, and with them the very spice of life and its human content, go out of life. Even the dramatic episodes of existence–birth, sickness, and death–take place in collectivized institutions. Our hospitals are medical factories, with division of labor between all sorts of health mechanics and technicians dealing with the body. People live in mass quarters, superimposed upon each other vertically and extending horizontally as far as the eye can see; they work in mass factories or offices in hierarchical subordination; they spend their Sundays and vacations in masses, read books and newspapers printed in millions and of a level that usually corresponds to those mass sales, are assailed at every turn by the same billboards, submit, with millions of others, to the same movie, radio, and television programs, get caught up in some mass organization or other, flock in hundreds of thousands as thrilled spectators to the same sports stadiums. Only the churches are empty, almost a refuge of solitude. Whether we travel or stay at home in our sprawling cities–and more and more of us are at home in them–it is becoming ever harder to escape the rising flood of people which drags us down and makes us creatures of the herd or the mass machinery which canalizes this flood. More and more we are becoming a part of this human compound, and I imagine that few of us can still harbor doubts about what this means for man’s spiritual and moral existence or for the health of society as a whole.

Personally, I’m not a communitarian, and I’m certainly not a localist, but I do find the imagery that Röpke conjures up in this passage to be compelling.

He wrote this in 1960. I can’t imagine what he would think if he were to see the world half a century later.

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Why College Republicans?

This article was originally posted by the Empire State Tribune, the official student newspaper of The King’s College.

Over the summer of 2011, almost two years ago, I set up a poll on Facebook to gauge interest at King’s in a politically-oriented student organization. For all of our readings and discussions of politics, both in and outside of class, I had noticed that, there was minimal involvement by King’s students in the political process.

In the fall of 2010, when I had first gotten to the city as a freshman, I volunteered for a campaign on the Upper East Side. I didn’t know anyone involved. I didn’t know anyone interested in getting involved. But I was an ambitious freshman who didn’t know any better and had time to kill, so I volunteered for a young lawyer’s quest to oust a more than ten term incumbent.

Over the next two and a half months, I woke up at 6:30am every weekday to hit the streets and hand out flyers for a couple of hours before heading to my nine o’clock class. When I was done with class for the day, I’d run uptown to campaign headquarters for another couple hours of phone-banking, or assisting the candidate to an event. Most weeks, I ended up clocking in 15 to 20 hours.

Despite the fact that my candidate lost, I’m glad I did it. Dino LaVerghetta and the people who ran his campaign were great to work with, and I learned a lot of things. I learned that….

Read the whole thing here.

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