LECTURE 2: FIXING THE COUNTRY AND THE CITY
By Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind (source)
In my next two columns, I intend to write about two places the next conservatism needs to consider: the countryside and cities. Perhaps because most conservatives, including myself, live in suburbs, we don’t think about rural life or cities very often. But there are good reasons why the next conservatism should think about both.
Earlier generations of conservatives were agrarians. They thought that life on a family farm was a good life for many people. It built strong families and communities, communities where faith and morals could flourish. I believe that is still true, and I therefore think that bringing back the family farm as a viable way of life should be an important part of the next conservatism.
Some people may object that such a program is simply not possible. The family farm cannot be made economically viable in today’s world. I am not certain on that point. I do know that most of the billions we spend each year for agricultural subsidies go to support big agribusiness, not family farms. What if we changed that? What if instead of subsidizing factory farming, we provided financial support for people who were trying to start new family farms? Such support should not go on forever, but if it were in the form of a revolving fund, it could help them get started.
This is also a situation where we, as conservatives, need to learn from others. One place to start is with the Amish. The Amish are cultural conservatives. They live according to the beliefs most conservatives espouse: Christian faith, strong families, close-knit communities where people depend on each other, communities based on the church.
The Amish are also
successful, often prosperous, family farmers. One of my colleagues has a friend
who is an Amish farmer. He has a herd of 40 to 50 dairy cows. He recently
The next conservatism can also learn from the organic farming movement. Many people, including some conservatives, want organic products and are willing to pay a premium for them. That helps the farmer receive a fair price for his products, one that makes his farm viable. As conservatives, we should not see cheapness as the highest virtue. Russell Kirk wrote, “So America’s contribution to the universal ‘democratic capitalism’ of the future . . . will be just this: cheapness, the cheapest music and the cheapest comic-books and the cheapest morality that can be provided.” He might have added the cheapest agricultural products, regardless of what that does to agrarian life. That is not the direction in which the next conservatism should go.
Agrarian life is a whole culture, not just a way to make a living, and we should seek to protect that culture and make it available to more and more families.
A recent article in Farming magazine, “Conversations with the Land” by Jim Van Der Pol, gave insight into that culture:
Beyond the family farm itself, the next conservatism should seek to make the countryside available to as many Americans as possible. The Mennonites have a wonderful program where they bring inner-city children to their farms for part of their summer school vacations. What a tremendous and health-giving change for kids who have never known anything but asphalt and crime! Many cities and towns now have farmers’ markets, where people in the city and the suburbs can buy fresh farm product directly from the farmers. Both the farmers and the city-dwellers benefit.
conservatism should look toward a world where, as Tolkien put it, there is less
noise and more green. Our goal should be to make agrarian life, in all its
In my last column, I argued that the next conservatism needs to revive the family farm. Here, I want to make the case that is also needs to revive our cities.
Many conservatives dislike cities, for reasons I understand and sympathize with. Sin and the city is an old, old story; you can find it in the Confessions of Blessed Augustine. But cities are also the birthplace and necessary home for high culture. Without living cities, we will not have symphony orchestras and great music, classic theater, art museums, serious public libraries or any of the other venues high culture requires. Nor will we have the good used bookstores, artistic and literary cafes, salons or other informal but important places where ideas can be exchanged and culture can grow. No, the Internet is not a substitute; there can be no full replacement for people talking face-to-face.
Just as the next conservatism needs to make the culture its centerpiece, it needs to include high culture. Conservatism ought not be indifferent to whether future generations get to see Shakespeare’s plays, hear Mozart’s music or see Dürer’s engravings. And if conservatives want that to happen, we need cities. God knows we dare not entrust culture to the universities.
That brings us to the problem we face: America’s cities are in bad shape, most of them anyway. First the upper class, then the middle class, then anyone who could afford to moved out (busing, which wrecked the public schools, played a central role in the exodus). Cities cannot live if no one but the underclass lives in them. Nor can they survive if we continue to export our industries, to the point where cities offer no manufacturing or business jobs.
Over the past several decades, a movement has arisen to restore our cities and even to build new urban communities, towns, as an alternative to suburbs. It is called “new urbanism.” As a conservative, I think new urbanism needs to be part of the next conservatism. But I also think we need a conservative new urbanism, which differs from much of what now goes under the new urbanist label.
The difference is this. Much of present-day new urbanism is statist. It envisions using the power of government to force people to adopt new urbanist ideas. An example is Portland, Oregon’s “urban growth boundary,” a line drawn on a map by government bureaucrats that tries to stop sprawl by decree. Guest what? It doesn’t work. Not only does it violate property rights, if you actually go to Portland and look what has been built inside the boundary, most of it is still sprawl.
Let me say that I am not necessarily against sprawl. Suburbs are great places for families to raise kids. What we need is suburbs and living, thriving cities, not one or the other.
Here is where conservative new urbanism comes in. Conservative new urbanism should be built on property rights. Its basis would be dual codes. At present, virtually every building code in the country mandates sprawl. One developer told me that in order to build a traditional town (something most conservatives like), he had to get 150 variances at immense expense and delay.
The next conservatism should call for dual codes, nationwide. Under one code, a developer would be perfectly free to build a sprawling suburb. But he could also choose to build under a new urbanist code, which would be consistent with the way towns and cities were traditionally designed and built. Obviously, developers would make their choice based on demand in a free market. They would build suburbs where the market wanted suburbs, and towns or even small cities (or redevelopment in existing cities) where the market wanted that.
Good new urbanism should welcome a dual-code approach. Why? Because good new urbanism sells. Sometime when you are in Washington, go look at the architect Andres Duany’s Kentlands development in Montgomery County, Maryland. It is a beautiful traditional town. And houses there are selling for tens of thousands of dollars more than houses with the same floor space in surrounding suburbs.
Here as so often elsewhere, the problem is government interference in the marketplace. The next conservatism should end the monopoly government building codes give to suburban sprawl and allow the free market to restore our cities. That is conservative new urbanism, and I think it needs to be part of the next conservative agenda.
For many years, one of the left’s slogans has been, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” I think the next conservatism needs to answer this with a new slogan of our own: Think Locally, Act Locally.
Think Globally, Act Locally reflects the left’s centuries-old belief in “one world.” Just as the Jacobins of the French Revolution wanted, everyone in the world should be forced to abandon their old traditions and fit one “globalist” model, based on some ideology. Today, we even see some people who call themselves conservatives (neo or otherwise) promoting globalism. Sorry, but that is not what the word “conservative” has meant.
On the contrary, conservatives have always supported local variation. We value local cultures, traditions and ways of life, based on what has grown up in a specific place over time. We want Maine to be Maine and the Deep South to remain the Deep South, rather than every place becoming California. To conservatives, a homogenized world is a danger, not a promise.
Here again we see the power of culture. Many of the forces promoting globalism are not political but cultural. Television is one of the most powerful. How can old, local ways survive when children grow up in front of the television, which reduces everything to a single, uniform (and low) common denominator?
The “world economy” works to the same end. Local producers reflect local traditions, but when they are driven out of business by cheap imports, everything local is lost.
The next conservatism needs to help Americans see the value of what is local and traditional. Much of that is not political, but real conservatism has never just been about politics. Conservatism is not an ideology, it is a way of life. That way of life needs to be grounded in local traditions and in preserving and, where necessary, restoring those traditions.
At the same time,
politics plays an important role here. The next conservatism needs to revive an
important conservative truth that has to some extent been lost, even among
conservatives: subsidiarity. Subsidiarity says that decisions should be made at
the lowest possible level. As much as possible should be decided at the local
level. Only when the local level clearly cannot cope should state governments
get involved. And federal involvement should be rare, because it is dangerous.
Decisions made in Washington often run roughshod over local needs, traditions
and realities. The public schools offer a sad example. Have America’s schools
gotten better since state governments and the federal government have given them
more and more directives? No, they have gotten worse.
If the next conservatism is to be the guide the conservative movement needs, it ought to talk about some new issues as well as the old standards. Sometimes, some of these new issues may strike people as unimportant. But it is hard to know what will prove important in the future we are trying to address. In this column, I want to talk about an issue that is not yet on many voters' radar screens but I think may come to be: the public space.
What is the public space? It is the space outside our homes, schools or offices where people intermingle. It is streets with sidewalks, where people not only walk but stop, talk and listen. It is malls and town commons. It is restaurants and stores, churches and movie theaters, trains and buses and even airports. Essentially, it is anyplace where we do not control who we might meet.
Why is it important? Because if we are to be citizens of a republic and not mere consumers in an administered state, we need to both have and want contact with our fellow-citizens. When life is privatized, lived largely or almost wholly behind walls, doors and security control points, society withers. We come only to care about ourselves and those who share our private space. What happens to the rest of the society is not our concern, so long as we are OK.
There is no question that American life is being privatized this way. If you go to Europe, you will see that people there spend much more of their time in the public space. The same used to be true in this country. Even the front porches of old houses, where families often spent their evenings before air conditioning and television, were part of the public space.
I do not think that the loss of the public space in America is part of any kind of deliberate effort. There are many reasons for it. I already mentioned air conditioning and television. Other causes include the increasing coarseness of dress, manners and behavior; when the public space is filled with people who look bad and often behave badly, people avoid it. Noise is another factor. Blaring boom-boxes were bad enough, but just as that curse seems to have faded somewhat, cell phones have come along. Too often, if you are in the public space, you find yourself having to listen to one-half of a private phone conversation. Many people now dread the prospect of cell phones on airplanes.
Whatever the reasons for it, the destruction of the public space should be recognized by the next conservatism as not a good thing. It happened in Rome, too, towards the end of the Empire. People stopped going to the forum and other public spaces, while private life became much more opulent. When that happens in any society, it makes it easier for those who want power to grab it, because people only care about their private lives.
I have talked in several previous columns about some things that could help revitalize the public space and draw Americans back into it. The New Urbanism can help, because it makes cities into places where people want to go. High quality public transportation can help (in most cases that means rail transit, not buses), because it both takes people to public spaces and is itself a public space.
Probably nothing would help as much as the return of good manners and decent dress. Should both perhaps be part of the next conservatism's agenda? They have nothing to do with politics. But as I have pointed out over and over, culture is more powerful than politics, and the next conservatism must be at least as much a cultural as a political movement.
Developing the next conservatism is not just a matter of offering new answers to old questions (re reminding people of the old, right answers which have been forgotten). It also requires asking some new questions. One of those questions needs to be, is restoring the public space important to the future of our republic? If we are in fact to be a republic, I think the answer is yes.
Streetcars? What could conservatism have to do with streetcars? Some of you may be wondering if I have slipped my trolley.
Maybe I have, but wanting to bring electric streetcars back to our cities is no sign of it. In an earlier essay on the next conservatism, number ten in this series, I argued that conservatives should want to bring our cities back. Too many of them have become cold, hard, empty places, devoid of life and unable to perform the important functions cities have in any culture. Well, it turns out that if you want to bring cities back, you also want to bring back streetcars.
A great new book, Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the 21st Century, explains why. Streetcars, it seems, are one of the most powerful tools for reviving cities. Several American cities have already brought the streetcars back, with tremendous positive effects on re-development. Kenosha, Wisconsin, brought streetcars back for just $6.2 million, and the new streetcar line has already brought $150 million in development, for a return on investment of 2,319%. Portland, Oregon, put in a downtown streetcar loop 4.8 miles long for $55 million; it generated over three billion dollars in new development. A 1.2 mile extension of the original loop brought in another $1.35 billion in development.
Why do streetcars bring new development? There are several reasons. First, middle-class people with significant disposable income like riding streetcars. That is not true of buses. Second, streetcars are "pedestrian facilitators." People who ride through a city on a streetcar tend to get off and on, walking for a while, then riding some more. While they are walking, they go in stores, stop in restaurants for something to eat, maybe see a movie or get tickets for a show. In other words, they spend money downtown. Middle-class pedestrians are the life blood of a city, and streetcars make it easy for them to get around.
Third, from a developer’s perspective, a streetcar line is a guarantee of high-quality public transportation that will be there for decades. That is not true of buses; a bus line can be here today, gone tomorrow. The investment in track and overhead wire streetcars require means their routes don't get up and move. Not surprisingly, bus service does little or nothing for development.
Beyond their positive effects on re-development, there is another reason the next conservatism should want to bring back streetcars, and passenger trains for that matter. Thanks to trains, streetcars, and interurbans (which were big, fast streetcars that ran from cities far out into the countryside), travel in America used to be a lot more enjoyable than it is now.
Today, we don't really travel. Instead, we are just packaged and shipped. That is true of air travel, which has become an ordeal, and also of much driving. One interstate highway is much like another, and driving in or around cities often means getting caught in traffic congestion, which everybody hates.
The next conservatism's theme of Retroculture wants to bring back good things from the past that we have lost. Pleasure in travel, in the journey itself, should be one of those good things. Life is too short to make travel into misery, when it can be fun.
Yes, riding streetcars is fun. Our grandparents used to enjoy riding the streetcars. They have a feel to them that is completely different from a bus. You can take my word for it. I have ridden streetcars all over the world. Better, the next time you are in a city that has streetcars, or Light Rail, take a ride. You will see the city in a whole different way. And I think you will enjoy the experience.
A few years ago, I was in Denver with a friend, a United States Senator, who was a strong opponent of rail transit. Denver has a Light Rail system. I asked him if he would take a ride on it with me, and he agreed. About half way through our ride, he turned to me and said, "This is nice."
Our cities, if they are to be living cities, need streetcars. The next conservatism should work to bring the streetcars back, as one of many nice presents the past can offer the future. Resurrecting good things from the past is what conservatism should be about.
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