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Front-Porch Socialism

March 06, 2009

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I’m always glad to see the proliferation of websites and blogs of the “Alternative Right” (broadly defined), and I was thus delighted to learn of the launching of “Front-Porch Republic.” My initial sense was that it might capture some of the spirit of the “front-porch anarchists” Bill Kauffman (who’s a contributing editor) went searching for in Look Homeward, America.

The editors say they created the ‘zine in response to the financial crisis, which, according to them, occurred, at least in part, due to a deficit of “concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future” in public discourse.  Okaaay. I’m not sure what this blog will end up being, but as signposts go, it’s worth discussing its first article, an anti-Rush Limbaugh screed by editor-at-large Rod Dreher, a man I drank a few beers with the last time I was in Big D.  

As it should be obvious to all, I and the rest of Takimag weren’t too enthusiastic about the recent CPAC and Rush Limbaugh’s assumption (or is it appointment by Rahm Emmanuel?) as the new Chairman of the Conservative Movement/GOP. This being said, a reading of Rod’s critique of Rush makes me want to enlist with the Dittoheads.

Says Rod,

[I]n brief, the gist of what’s wrong with Limbaughism is that it’s right-wing Rousseauism. That is, he believes that man is born free, but is put in chains by the government. He believes in living without limits is the essence of conservatism, which is just … crazy. If traditional-minded conservatives know anything, it’s that human nature is fallen, and there are natural limits that must be respected. Conservatism is a form of humility. I see none of that in Limbaugh and what he stands for.

Where to begin? The whole Rousseau comparison is exceedingly odd; it almost makes one think that all Rod’s knows of the philosopher is the famous opening line of The Social Contract, “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” (Though he might also know that other really famous line—“[W]hoever refuses to obey the General Will shall be compelled to do so … forced to be free”—which Rod might have heard about when in 2002 the Pentagon instituted it as its new motto, replacing the term “General Will” with “The Pentagon.”) Anyway, Rod seems to conceive “right-wing Rousseauism” as a kind of radical individualist-hedonistic-“do what you want, consequences be damned” libertarianism. On his “Crunchy Con” blog, he’s more explicit, associating Limbaughism-Rouseauism with support for entrepreneurism and technological advancement—both of which he doesn’t seem to like very much, calling Rush’s words of praise for American business and innovation “crack” and “uncut Progressivism” (which, for me, evokes an image I’d rather not repeat…). If Rod had read The Social Contract, he might have discovered that Rousseau’s abiding concern is not that government is going to smother anyone’s freedom but that particular and personal interests might not be patriotic and public-spirited enough, and thus might need to be submerged in the General Will. Moreover, Rod might find some elective affinities (pretty obvious from my standpoint) between Rousseau’s primitivism—his sense that we were all better off in the days of yore and that man has been corrupted by civilization (not government)—and Rod’s own “Crunchy” project.

“El Rushbo” has many failings, but advocating hedonism and moral depravity is not one of them (putting aside his forgivable prescription-drug addiction and his unforgivable advocacy of the destructive Iraq war, which Dreher also supported, by the way.) No hedonist, Rush does, however, market himself as a defender of free-market capitalism and minimal government (though many of us wish he’d been a little more of a vocal defender of these things when Bush was jacking up regulations, entitlements, and government employment.) Anyway, these “front-porch Republicans” like to talk a lot about “limits,” and Rod himself emphasized the “natural limits that must be respected.” All this sounds vaguely environmentalist, or religious or something—except Rod juxtaposes “limits” with Rush’s advocacy of the free-market, indicating that the “limits” he’s really interested are those set down for us by the welfare state. On the Crunchy Con blog, he makes this clear, fretting that in talk-radio land, “Any attempt to grapple in a public way with the sins and failings of America, the errors that got us into this ditch, is to be seen as unpatriotic.” 

Thus under the guise of being an “old fashioned” conservative (but certainly not Old Right), Rod joins in the chorus announcing that the current financial collapse was created by unrestrained “capitalism,” or Gordon Gekko-style “greed,” and that we must repent—in part through talking about “human scale” and in part through embracing the welfare state.  And though I know Rod has many criticisms of Obama’s “stimulus” bill, does it not get a tacit nod of approval from him since it’s a means of dealing with the failing of capitalism “in a public way”?

I don’t have the space or time to go into to all the ways that free-market capitalism is not to blame for the financial crisis, but let me just throw out this one.

As I think most everyone would agree, the catalyst that set the economic meltdown in motion was the housing crisis—specifically subprime lending and the pooling of consumer debt into those “mortgage backed securities” and similar financial instruments cooked up on Wall Street. In an actual free market, subprime loans never would have been made; they were only possible with the piles and piles of easy money provided to us by the Fed, as well as those “public spirited,” semi-governmental organizations with the cutesy names: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae. (And Dubya, of course, spurred on the whole thing, as he hoped getting people into no-money-down mortgages would expand the Republican base, especially amongst minorities.) Indeed, one might imagine that if we actually had a free market in lending, Rod would always be complaining that those tight bankers never gave poorer Americans a chance to own a front porch of their own, with no money down.

Nevertheless, the whole government-sponsored scheme was dependent upon home values rising indefinitely, and when they began to fall, it all blew up.

What’s important is that after the party was over, Fannie, Freddie, and Ginnie haven’t been chastened; to the contrary, they’ve been empowered—they’re going to try to make more and more loans, now backed up by the government and the Fed’s printing press. With the latest TALF program, the Fed itself is getting into the act—no longer just re-capitalizing banks but making credit available for hedge funds, consumers, and car and home buyers. My point in all this is to emphasize that in dramatically expanding the state over the past six months, Obama and Bush have never claimed that greed is over and now we have to focus more on faith, family, and … “limits.” To the contrary, Washington is attempting to re-start debt-financed consumption. Obama’s programs are “socialist,” “Marxist,” and “Left-wing,” as Rush & Co. say they are, but then in the very vulgar American sense that Obama’s trying to use the power of the state to get everyone to go out there and spend, spend, spend—buy that new McMansion or Lexus, take out a student loan, buy more stocks, etc. etc. etc.

I doubt that Rod would support any of this. But then he might want to think seriously about his assumption that accepting the contemporary welfare state—and not, like Rush, believing that it’s something close to slavery—brings one closer to traditionalism and old-fashioned morality. To the contrary, the contemporary state promotes exactly the kind of unsustainable (in the sense of “we can’t actually afford any of it”) consumerism and irresponsible individualism Rod claims to oppose. Something to consider, lest “Front-porch Republicanism” become equivalent to a non-critical “Family-Values Socialism.”     

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