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.