I believe in what sociologist Robert Nisbet called “conservative pluralism.” Nisbet, in his book The Quest for Community (affiliate link), recognizes the value of what he calls “intermediate society,” the level of social organization that lies between the individual and the state. He, building on Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, rejects a growing centralized government, while simultaneously refusing to place the individual at the center of it all. Small towns and rural communities often do better at living out Nisbet’s picture of small, diverse local centers of authority, cohesion, and order, situated between the autonomous individual and the government. Churches, clubs, sports leagues, school boards, and other community groups often play a much stronger role in the everyday lives of residents of rural towns than in the lives of city dwellers. So, there’ something about a lot of flyover country that makes my conservative predilections tingle.
I won’t fall here into the occasional conservative trap of fetishizing small-town middle America, though. Fran Lebowitz wrote in her humorous essay “Manners” in her book Metropolitan Life (affiliate link) that “the common good is usually not very and there is indeed such a thing as getting carried away with democracy. Oppression and/or repression are not without their charms nor freedom and/or license their drawbacks.” Fran’s got a bitter New York wit, but she’s also got a point.
Conservative pluralism does, however, point to the fact that there are many ways to lead a good life. Many of those ways don’t look like what we immediately recognize as good lives for ourselves. I find suburbs numbing and rural areas paralyzing. But people make good lives for themselves there, creating communities that meet the particular needs and desires of the people who inhabit them. It’s folly to think that lawmakers hundreds or thousands of miles away know much about how individual communities should govern themselves. It’s folly to think that we frequently know what is best for them. (Read more.)