The American Conservative has opened up a new front in the decades-old War on Suburbia. This attack, purportedly, comes from the Right.
In the past month, the magazine has launched two broadsides on this topic. Rod Dreher composed an ode to Philip Bess’ “New Urbanism of the Soul” and Charles Marohn published “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” After reading both articles, I found my conservative soul unstirred. Ultimately, it is unclear if either Bess or Marohn are espousing “conservative” principles—at least how that term is usually defined in the American political discourse—for they oppose suburbs on hierarchical and elitist grounds. Theirs is not an American conservative case against the suburbs. If anything, it may be something of a European conservative case against the suburbs. But, ultimately even if some of their these arguments would have resonated with Prince Metternich, their purchase in the American political debate is lacking.
Thomistic New Urbanism
The way Dreher frames Philip Bess’s work begins to highlight this disconnect. Bess is introduced as a Catholic professor of architecture at Notre Dame from where he has focused his urban design efforts on the After Burnham project, which “imagines what Chicago—given its current architectural, social, and environmental order—might look like 100 years hence if the next century is informed by classical humanist urbanism and Catholic social teaching.” Such a grandiose project of central planning sounds exactly like the kind of thing the Habsburgian bureaucracy would undertake.
Dreher also explains that Bess is both a convert to Roman Catholicism and a convert to New Urbanism and that the two conversions are not merely coincidental.
When New Urbanism emerged in the early 1990s, it made perfect sense to a Catholic humanist like Bess, a Thomist who believes that the purpose of the city is to provide an environment in which people can live virtuously—that is, achieve excellence in their vocations—in community. New Urbanism is not expressly theological; indeed, Bess concedes that most New Urbanists are secular progressives. But they are “implicitly Aristotelian,” he contends, because they affirm that there are certain design forms consonant with human nature.
In this telling, the Thomistic belief in a natural order that can be ascertained by right reason justifies the New Urbanists’ desire to conform the built environment to their conception of the good. Dreher procedes to specify Bess’s position in more detail:
The history of human settlement, he argues, shows that an ordered and just urban environment, the kind that resonates the best with human nature, is one in which the needs of daily life—commercial, recreational, religious, and so forth—are within easy walking distance.
Did you get the sweeping implications of that statement? According to Bess, walkability is the sine qua non of well-ordered human development. Suburbs are disordered because moms are able to put their kids in a car, drive to the supermarket and haul back enough food to feed their family for the week. Suburbs are unjust because dads are able to load up their SUV and take the boys to a fishing trip.
Such hyperbole apparently falls on deaf ears even amongst many traditionalist conservatives, as evidenced by the episode relayed by Dreher.
Even some socially conservative thinkers, who know why natural law matters to social constructs like marriage, puzzle over its connection to social constructs like neighborhoods. “I just spent a sabbatical year at Princeton as a Madison Fellow,” says Bess, referring to the program organized by law professor Robert P. George, “hanging out with brilliant and generous people, a lot of them natural-law political theorists. I think even contemporary natural-law folks, when confronted by a natural-law argument for urbanism, are less likely to find it convincing if they live in suburbia.”
Roll back that tape. Did Bess just accuse these fine folks of Rob Portman-ing? It sure sounded like he said that these scholars’ rejection of the self-evident case for New Urbanism is motivated by an attempt to legitimatize the behaviors of their families. That insult aside, does Bess’s analogy actually hold up? Are suburbs as discordant with human nature’s need for walkability as polygamy and incest are transgressive of the form of marriage?
But Dreher desires to do more than underline the connection between Roman Catholic natural law thought and New Urbanist ideas; he wants New Urbanism to fly the “conservative” banner as well. He sets this up by asserting one of the classic dichotomies in analyzing conservative thought:
Traditional conservatives, as distinct from our more libertarian brethren, believe that there is a sacred order to which individuals and communities must conform to flourish, and we have an obligation to protect, nurture, and develop that order as it comes to us through tradition. Many believe this refers only to morality, but others have a more holistic view: for them, the built environment must also in some sense embody that transcendent order and make it accessible.
So, for Dreher, New Urbanism’s “Smart Growth” diktats makes intuitive sense to traditional conservatives while the libertarian conservatives view the movement as “social engineering that stifles individual liberty.” This is a false dichotomy. Dreher has elided one crucial detail. Not all pro-market conservatives deny that there is a sacred order that promotes flourishing. I certainly don’t. Rather, the Hayekian critique of social engineering is most fundamentally an epistemological one, namely, that no human central planner can so completely grasp the structure of that order that they are able to “protect, nurture, and develop” it. As no ruler or planner can have that kind of knowledge, the conservative desires to see decisions be made at the individual or family level. The good of Edmund Burke’s local platoons is found in the way that they serve to defend liberty from totalizing, rationalistic planners.
The “Conservative” Case Against the Suburbs
Charles Marohn’s piece is a more direct attack on conservatives who love their suburbs. He marshals a litany of little barbs all invariably pursuing the end of converting conservatives into urban boosters.
Marohn first contends that suburbs were not organic creations of the free market, but were subsidized by the Federal Housing Administration, Freddy & Fannie, and the dread Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. I hold no brief for the bureaucratic wisdom of FDR’s alphabet soup agencies (though I’m mostly okay with Ike’s highways), but I will grant that, cumulatively, they probably did serve to marginally lower the cost of moving into one of those new-fangled sub-divisions. However, it was not some Cash-for-Cleavers government largess that caused Levittowns to blossom across the fruited-plain. People had long desired to get a nice big house, and, due to their post-war prosperity, they were finally able to move from Pottersville to Bailey Park.
Apparently attempting to tar this suburban expansion by associating it with a conservative bogeyman, Marohn describes it as taking place under a “Keynesian regime that counted growth from government spending as equivalent to that coming from private investment.” If government spending was really just as good as private investment, where are all the government-constructed suburbs? Don’t laugh. Federally-built suburbs were not as far-fetched an idea as it might seem today. During the New Deal, FDR’s central planners built the D.C. suburb of Greenbelt, Maryland as a planned, cooperative community, and at the conclusion of World War II, there were heated debates over how the pent-up demand for housing should be met. In fact, in 1947 and ’48, Senator Joseph McCarthy (yep, that Joseph McCarthy) grandstanded in hearings considering public housing and planned towns. He believed that some of the public housing projects already in operation had proved to be “breeding ground for communists.” McCarthy’s side won the debate and the suburbs were built by private developers. It’s hard to see a victory for Tail-Gunner Joe as some sort of Keynesian triumph.
After attempting to undo the suburban creation myth, Marohn shifts to making a pragmatic case that suburbs have failed to deliver on their promise. Marohn critiques the accuracy of suburban-booster Joel Kotkin’s claim that suburbs ““represent the epitome of the American Dream and the promise of upward mobility.” If the American suburb is actually so great for upward mobility, Marohn contends, then (1) the United States would have higher rates of upward mobility than Norway, (2) the median net worth of a U.S. citizen would be higher than that of a Swede, and (3) U.S. households wouldn’t have a lot of debt. But all of these statistics compare the statistics of the entire American populace–urban, suburban, and rural–to the populations of other wealthy countries. So even if the median net worth in American suburbs is much higher than the median net worth in American cities, Marohn would blame suburbs for the fact that the overall median net worth of Americans is lower. Are America’s suburbs responsible for the country’s high gun violence statistics and high infant mortality rates, too?
He concludes his piece with a bit of grand language about what the future may hold:
I see the unwinding of our great suburban experiment. As government’s ability to subsidize this artificial pattern of development wanes, a return to more traditional living arrangements is inevitable. For thousands of years, cities have been engines of wealth creation. In America, they are becoming that again.
Again, Marohn’s narrative is divorced from fact. The “traditional living arrangement” for all of human history was rural. As late as the American Founding, the planet was still 97% agrarian and just 3% urbanized. If “conservatives” are really against “artificial” human developments, maybe they should be rooting for the demise of cities as well.
All these things leave me wondering if Marohn really understands what makes a conservative a conservative. He pleads that cities need conservatives because city-dwellers long for “a more responsive bureaucracy.” If that’s all conservatives can offer, I suspect the urban set will stick with their hope-and-change progressives who promise exactly the same thing.
American Conservatism and The American Conservative
Which brings me to the main reason my conservative instincts are not moved by Bess’ New Urbanism of the heart or Marohn’s case against the suburbs. Both Bess and Marohn appear to be geeked-up about urbanism because it gives more latitude for the bureaucrat and the meddler to conform the world to their conceptions of the good. We already have an American political tradition that stands for that proposition; do we really need another?
How is Bess’s central planning of Chicago or Marohn’s kinder-gentler commissariat conservative in any way? Traditionalist conservative Russell Kirk condemned “sophisters, calculators, and economists who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.” And while Kirk’s Old World-tinged conservatism had some room for hierarchy and elitism, today’s American right-of-center is largely devoid of that worldview. Instead, American conservatism is now overwhelmingly “Reaganist” in character. In their book The Right Nation, Economist journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge explain the contrast between Edmund Burke and Ronald Reagan.
The heroes of Burke’s conservatism were paternalist squires, who knew their place in society and made sure everybody else did as well. Mr. Reagan’s heroes were rugged individualists, defined by the fact that they do not know their place. He packed his kitchen cabinet with entrepreneurs who built up businesses out of nothing and he worshipped the cowboy. He kept a bronze saddle in the Oval Office…
As for the sixth characteristic, elitism, instead of dreaming about creating an educated “clerisy” (as Coleridge and T.S. Eliot did) Mr. Reagan was a populist who argued that “Bedtime for Bonzo made more sense than what they were doing in Washington.” His was the conservatism not of country clubs and boardrooms, but of talk radio, precinct meetings and tax revolts.
At least since Reagan, American conservatism has been quintessentially middle class and has stubbornly refused to grant authority to Bess and the rest of the “clerisy.” The editors at The American Conservative are not arguing that this extant political philosophy condemns suburbia, they are arguing that this brand of conservatism should be abandoned for a more elitist and pro-planning political platform. What they have written is not so much “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs,” but “The Case for Redefining Conservatism to be Against the Suburbs.” I think it likely that The American Conservative’s effort to fundamentally alter the American Right in this way will fail, not least because American progressivism is already so elitist and technocratic.
I like suburbs and I am a happy supporter of an American conservatism that has long been and will continue to be a largely suburban phenomenon. While it should never be anti-urban, a conservatism that speaks to the mundane normalcy of middle-class suburban life is both politically viable and, to my lights, good.