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Alienated America

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06/14/2019David Gordon

Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse
Timothy P. Carney
Harper Collins, 2019
xiv + 348 pages

Timothy Carney, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute and editor at the Washington Examiner, has a message of vital importance for supporters of the free market. This message is not, though, the only theme of his book. He pursues two other projects as well, also of interest, but for readers of The Austrian it is the first theme that demands our attention.

Supporters of the free market rightly stress that it promotes the interests of individuals better than any alternative system, but emphasis on this point risks falling into a fallacy. We tend to think only of individuals, seeing them as battling against the state. This ignores both families and civil society, “the stuff bigger than the individual or the family, but smaller than the central government.”

Carney quotes with evident approval the great sociologist Robert Nisbet, who in The Quest for Community wrote that the conflict “between central political government and the authorities of guild, community, class, and religious body has been, of all the conflicts in history, the most fateful.”

Why should we care about this conflict? People lacking strong bonds of family and association are likely to be alienated. “Alienation” was a term much in favor decades ago among Marxists, but Carney means something different from them in his use of the term. Again quoting Nisbet, he says that the alienated individual “not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it.”

Carney blames a strong state for this trend. “When you strengthen the vertical bonds between the state and the individual, you tend to weaken the bonds between individuals.” The great nineteenth-century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described this process: “as in centuries of equality no one is obliged to lend his force to those like him and no one has the right to expect great support from those like him, each is at once independent and weak. … His independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals, and his debility makes him feel, from time to time, the need of the outside help that he cannot expect from any of them, since they are all impotent and cold. … In this extremity he naturally turns his regard to the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement.” (quoting Tocqueville) “The centralizing state,” says Carney, “is the first step in this. The atomized individual is the end result: There’s a government agency to feed the hungry. Why should I do that?” (emphasis omitted)

In one of the book’s strongest sections, Carney shows that some supporters of a powerful central state favor exactly that process. They want the state to replace private charitable institutions. Readers will not be surprised to find that Theodore Roosevelt led the way to centralization: “Roosevelt seized on the spirit of the age, which professed that science enabled great solutions to society’s problems — if only people of goodwill were given enough power. Armed with this confidence, TR moved to increase government’s role in daily life and in industry, and to consolidate that power in the federal government. … The progressives believed that things previously left to happenstance and the uncoordinated decision making of millions of individuals could now intelligently and rationally be planned, to the betterment of everyone.”

Distrust of private charitable organizations is by no means a thing of the past. Bernie Sanders has been explicit in his desire to end private charity. “In 1981, the Chittenden County [Vermont] chapter of the United Way hosted a star-studded banquet for the organization’s fortieth anniversary. Vermont’s governor, Richard Snelling, was there, as was the local mayor, a self-proclaimed socialist named Bernie Sanders … ‘I don’t believe in charities,’ Mayor Sanders told the assembled fundraisers and philanthropists. Sanders … rejected ‘the fundamental concepts on which charities are based,’ the New York Times reported at the time, ‘and contended that government, rather than charity organizations, should take over responsibility for social programs.’”

Carney merits great praise for his treatment of civil society, but unfortunately he is not altogether convinced of the merits of his own case. Private organizations help overcome alienation and we ought to fear the powerful state, but against this must be set the intrusiveness of private organizations. A balance between government welfare programs and private charity, Carney thinks, is called for: “Centralized safety-net programs need to be reconsidered, too, through the lens of subsidiarity. Which programs can be done better by states than by Washington? Which programs currently administered by state or local governments are more fit-tingly done by non-profits, by voluntary groups and by churches? Can the central government shift to being a safety net for safety nets, letting civil society be the front line in the effort, with government as the auxiliary safety net, or the reinsurance program?”

Carney, it is apparent, lacks a robust concept of property rights. He asks, in effect, ‘what type of institutional arrangements will best promote the sort of community values I [Carney] favor?” rather than ‘what natural rights to property do people have?’ He would dismiss this question as reflecting too much weight on the value of “autonomy,” for him an overly individualistic concept. In line with this, he dismisses Locke: “Thomas Hobbes and John Locke have convinced Europeans and Americans that the point of politics is to preserve the autonomy of the individual from any claims by others.” Here he has wrongly relied on the political theorist Patrick Deneen, who takes the free market to be the embodiment of greed. Contrary to Deneen, Locke valued civil society highly. Precisely his point was that, except for limited purposes, no state was necessary. Owing to his failure to consider the possibility of a society along Lockean lines, Carney finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to say, in effect, “the state is dangerous and bad, so let’s just take a little of this poison.”

Carney not only believes in the importance of social institutions but also has definite ideas on the values they ought to promote; and this brings us to the second of the book’s projects distinguished above. He strongly supports the traditional family: “Marriage is good for the kids. … About 8 percent of children born to married parents end up in poverty as adults, while about 27 percent of children born to unmarried parents do. … There’s tons of hard data showing that kids who grow up in intact families do better as adults.”

Carney is a devout Catholic and favors the promotion of religion. He contends that doing this can be defended on secular grounds; even atheists and agnostics should recognize the benefits of widespread church attendance. What interests Carney is religion as a social institution rather than private belief. It is participating in public worship and in social networks sponsored by churches that carry with them social benefits. “[The sociologist Robert] Putnam, a decade after writing Bowling Alone, published an exhaustively researched follow-up called American Grace, along with Notre Dame government scholar David Campbell. This volume reaffirmed that church was the most important institution of civil society in America, and that it provided great benefit to its members and the broader community. … One-third of all volunteering in America is for religious organizations. … Churchgoers give more, as well.”

Public support for religion, Carney contends, does not violate the Constitution. To the contrary, aggressive proponents of secularization try to drive religion out of the “public square”: “To understand this brand of secularism, you need to combine the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ with Barney Frank’s definition of government. If ‘government’ is the name for everything we do together, as Frank says, then the entire public sphere of daily life must be seen as belonging to the ‘state.’ Thus religious entities must be seen as inherently ‘private,’ and if they try to open their doors — say by opening a hospital that takes all comers — then they have stepped their unworthy religious foot on the sacred grounds of state.”

Carney pursues yet one more project in his book, and here we can be brief. When Donald Trump, to widespread surprise, was elected president in 2016, he campaigned on the slogan ”Make America Great Again.” America was no longer great, he suggested because for many, the American Dream was dead, and it was the despair of these people he proposed to remedy. Trump’s claim appealed to a large number of voters in the Republican primaries, and it is this group that Carney at great length investigates. He finds that many of them are alienated in the sense he has set forward. He defends his analysis at various points in the book, stressing in particular the importance of counties, towns, and rural areas in which patterns of alienation prevail.

Readers of Alienated America will gain much from Carney’s account of civil society. The free market rests on a stable civil society, not on isolated individuals.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.

Cite This Article

Gordon, David, Review of "Alienated America," The Austrian 5, no. 3 (2019): 14–17.

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