The recent con­ference hosted by Front Porch Republic’s title, “Making a Home Fit for Humans,” describes what our con­tem­porary political dis­course lacks. The con­ference, held Sept. 27 at the Uni­versity of Louisville by the online con­ser­v­ative pub­li­cation, treated ideas such as place, home, and com­munity, and pro­vided 30  Hillsdale stu­dents, faculty, and myself with 11 insightful talks.

It’s hard to under­stand the attraction of Front Porch Republic, founded in 2009. At first glance, “scale, place, self-gov­ernment, sus­tain­ability, limits, and variety” all sounds like impen­e­trable jargon, and some of the con­trib­utors to FPR can seem reac­tionary. Con­ference speakers denounced cities (all), suburbs (a “fiasco”), edu­cation (espe­cially “higher”), tech­nology (like web­sites?), etc. Yet their essential localist focus is too often ignored by the main­stream left and right.

At the Enactus-Praxis socialism debate on Sept. 19, Socialist Party USA vice pres­ident John Strinka’s position was attractive to many stu­dents I talked to not because socialism is a more com­pelling system of gov­ernment, or because they believe central planning and redis­tri­b­ution is a panacea. Rather, it was because, in one student’s words, “He [Strinka] talked about human beings.”

That “humans are com­modities to be bought and sold” was in effect the worldview of Buckeye Institute’s Rea Hed­erman, regardless of what text­books say. Respon­sible, self-reg­u­lating free markets might unlock enhanced eco­nomic pros­perity for all, but if it detracts from other, fuller kinds of pros­perity that will lead us closer to the full human flour­ishing our society ought to aim at, then our values are out of whack. An iPhone, dish­washer, and money in the bank may make you happy, but that isn’t the eudai­monia Aris­totle talked about, and it falls far short of what it means to be human.

FPR speakers can go too far in ascribing bleakness to our modern state, but their focus on “a Home Fit for Humans” refreshes an argument often con­ducted in numbers and sta­tistics. Terms like market demand and GDP are only abstrac­tions about real people. They can only help find the optimal policies to sustain eco­nomic  growth (or at least claim to try).

Since, as Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Eco­nomics Charles Steele reminded us last week, “eco­nomics is a social science, not an ide­ology,” then we should ask, as Helen Andrews did in an essay for the journal First Things (“Bloodless Moralism,” Jan. 2014), “What is gained, and what is lost, when political dis­cussion must be con­ducted in util­i­tarian and social-sci­en­tific terms?”

Andrews wrote that breaking down poverty to com­ponent symptoms like unem­ployment and net worth “robs their expe­rience of its coherence. It takes a rich identity and shatters it to pieces. Described in the terms that pol­itics permits us to use today, as ‘socioe­co­nomic dis­ad­vantage’ (or worse, ‘lack of priv­ilege’), it sounds like nothing more than a list of things to com­plain of.”

This is one of the localist project’s greatest insights: Terms like “place” and “health” are “key terms with which any fruitful debate about our cor­porate future must contend.” They describe the wholeness of expe­rience and com­munity so par­ticular to each person they defy easy def­i­n­ition or abstraction.

We’re lucky advo­cates of dis­trib­utism and agrar­i­anism are not social-science econ­o­mists (though obvi­ously their ideas have impli­ca­tions for oper­ating our economy). We should never, in blindness to true flour­ishing, sub­or­dinate all other forms of pros­perity to material getting and spending and leave our­selves in what Mar­garet Mead called “a spir­itual and moral void,” alienated from com­munity.

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A senior from Long Island, New York studying English, McCaffery is a student columnist on the Collegian Opinion page this year. He is also editor-at-large for The Hillsdale Forum campus magazine. McCaffery completed an editorial page internship at USA Today last summer. email: | twitter: @cmccafe