To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.
– Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution
New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat challenges the facile characterization that liberals are in favor of community while conservatives are in favor of individuals. On the contrary, he argues that conservatives are also in favor of community. The question concerns which communities are better equipped at serving the common good: the federal government or “little platoons” (families, neighborhoods, churches)?
WHEN liberals are in a philosophical mood, they like to cast debates over the role of government not as a clash between the individual and the state, but as a conflict between the individual and the community. Liberals are for cooperation and joint effort; conservatives are for self-interest and selfishness. Liberals build the Hoover Dam and the interstate highways; conservatives sit home and dog-ear copies of “The Fountainhead.” Liberals know that it takes a village; conservatives pretend that all it takes is John Wayne.
In this worldview, the government is just the natural expression of our national community, and the place where we all join hands to pursue the common good. Or to borrow a line attributed to Representative Barney Frank, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”
Many conservatives would go this far with Frank: Government is one way we choose to work together, and there are certain things we need to do collectively that only government can do.
But there are trade-offs as well, which liberal communitarians don’t always like to acknowledge. When government expands, it’s often at the expense of alternative expressions of community, alternative groups that seek to serve the common good. Unlike most communal organizations, the government has coercive power — the power to regulate, to mandate and to tax. These advantages make it all too easy for the state to gradually crowd out its rivals. The more things we “do together” as a government, in many cases, the fewer things we’re allowed to do together in other spheres.
Sometimes this crowding out happens gradually, subtly, indirectly. Every tax dollar the government takes is a dollar that can’t go to charities and churches. Every program the government runs, from education to health care to the welfare office, can easily become a kind of taxpayer-backed monopoly.
Read the rest of the column to learn about how Obama’s health care plan intimates “a darker American future, in which our voluntary communities wither away and government becomes the only word we have for the things we do together.”