Friday, May 09, 2008

It's the "Shire" Stupid!

Politics in the U.S. -- and much of western Europe -- has been a riposte between those who emphasize the rights of the individual and those who emphasize the benefits of the state. Two actors -- individual and state. Everyone knows reality is more complex than this, but the rhetoric swings between these two poles.

But what about society? What about those communal realities that shape how people actually live: one's parish, the local school, one's relationship to a grocer, the folkways of my town -- you get the picture. What I mean are the kinds of things captured in J.R.R. Tolkien's image of the shire -- the place inhabited by hobbits -- their hearth, their home, in other words -- their space for human fraternity.

I write all this as a lead up to a recommendation that you read David Brooks' recent opinion piece in the NY Times. Brooks is writing about shifts in the rhetoric and policy of the British Conservative Party that want to place emphasis on the development of "society" rather than the state or the individual.

Brooks writes:

That means, first, moving beyond the Thatcherite tendency to put economics first. As Oliver Letwin, one of the leading Tory strategists put it: “Politics, once econo-centric, must now become socio-centric.” David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, makes it clear that his primary focus is sociological. Last year he declared: “The great challenge of the 1970s and 1980s was economic revival. The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival.” In another speech, he argued: “We used to stand for the individual. We still do. But individual freedoms count for little if society is disintegrating. Now we stand for the family, for the neighborhood — in a word, for society.”

This has led to a lot of talk about community, relationships, civic engagement and social responsibility. Danny Kruger, a special adviser to Cameron, wrote a much-discussed pamphlet, “On Fraternity.” These conservatives are not trying to improve the souls of citizens. They’re trying to use government to foster dense social bonds.

They want voters to think of the Tories as the party of society while Labor is the party of the state. They want the country to see the Tories as the party of decentralized organic networks and the Laborites as the party of top-down mechanistic control.

As such, the Conservative Party has spent a lot of time thinking about how government should connect with citizens. Basically, everything should be smaller, decentralized and interactive. They want a greater variety of schools, with local and parental control. They want to reverse the trend toward big central hospitals. Health care, Cameron says, is as much about regular long-term care as major surgery, and patients should have the power to construct relationships with caretakers, pharmacists and local facilities.

Read the rest here.

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