Small Is Beautiful (Except When God Asks for Big)


Jordan Ballor wrote a marvelous piece for Comment Magazine highlighting some of the key areas of tension between pro-globalization “market conservatism” and the more localism-driven “communitarian conservatism.”

His conclusion:

Conservatism at its best recognizes the fundamental relationship between appreciation for markets and economic freedom on the one side, and morality and social responsibilities on the other. Far from a temporary alliance, this deep and real connection guarantees that the essence of the fusionist program, despite calls to the contrary, will continue to animate the future of conservative social thought.

Yet, as is evident throughout the piece, the connection is not so clear to some, and although divisions exist on both sides, Ballor spends much of his time focusing on the concerns of the communitarian side, pointing to the ways in which markets can and should be oriented toward the common good.

To illuminate some of the core problems of the localist framework, Ballor sets his sights on conservative journalist Rod Dreher, whose radical shift to a small-town lifestyle was recently showcased by David Brooks, and whose popular book, Crunchy Cons, “includes a ten-point ‘Crunchy Con Manifesto,’ with propositions like, ‘Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract,’ and, ‘Beauty is more important than efficiency.’” After focusing on some ironies in Dreher’s situation, most particularly his frustration with his small town’s slow internet speeds (read the full piece for more on this), Ballor observes that “even the most dedicated advocates of communitarian conservative values at some level realize that the flourishing they experience is, to a great extent, made possible by global markets.”

Here, we can see the value that each “pole” provides the other:

Business activity that provides goods and services truly is, in this way, an enterprise that does good and serves others. This is why John Wesley famously said that the “first and great rule of Christian wisdom, with respect to money,” was the dictum, “Gain all you can.” But he immediately noted that this rule was qualified: “Gain all you can by honest industry” (emphasis mine). If market conservatives help us to remember that we are to gain all we can, communitarian conservatives help us remember that we are to do so honestly, and that morality is not reducible to mere legality.

Yet for the Christian—and here is where I’m going to veer off a bit—it seems that both positions (as stated here) still lack an overarching spiritual component—namely, “gains” according to whom, and “honesty” and “morality” for what/who’s purpose? For the Christian, the market conservative’s message that “we are to gain all we can,” need not be limited to mere earthly value, and likewise, the communitarian conservative message that “we are to do so honestly” is not where our moral/theological discussions of “gains” and “values” should end.

We are fundamentally and above all else called to be oriented around obedience to God, whatever he might demand. On both individual and social levels, our actions are to be guided by his direction, whether it means zipping through the McDonald’s drive-through or showing up for a slow cook-out at Neptune Lizzy’s Organic Cafe. Any such decisions will certainly need to (also) be informed a robust worldview and philosophy of life—the type of which Dreher and Ballor are both admirably pursuing through this type of discussion—but my point here is to simply remind us that the answers to our key life decisions need to be first and foremost guided by God’s Word, both already written and alive through his Spirit.

If we are to reach a fusionism that is truly cohesive and productive in all respects, both poles need to take hold of this. Generally and on the whole, communitarians need to realize that God is not as limiting as they might imagine, and pro-market folks need to realize that God is probably more limiting than they might hope.

Some prodding questions, to kick things off:

For the communitarian conservative: Is God so preoccupied with small, localist endeavors that he would not call us to live a quick-and-efficient cosmopolitan lifestyle? (Note: In a response to Ballor, Dreher notes that outside of Amishland, there is “no such thing as purity on the question of localism.” This is fine if you’re comfortable with a shaky standard of smallness, but how then does God view our varying degrees of adherence to his Supreme Localist Will? Purity on this matter is, of course, possible—just um, ask the Amish?)

For the market conservative: Is God so concerned with temporal material gains and profits that he would not call us to quit our cushy $60,000 per year jobs and live instead in a thatched-hut village?

As Ballor somewhat indicates, albeit for slightly different purposes, such an approach will not sit well with the types of libertine libertarians Russell Kirk described, whose version of “individual freedom” pushes against any type of overarching obedience or individual submission that might threaten the exalted All-Rational Ameba of Spontaneous Order. But likewise, such an orientation, at least as I’ve defined it, will not appeal to those communitarian conservatives who seek to limit God’s voice to all things “Small, Local, Old, and Particular.”

The same God who called a guy to build a gigantic temple and rule a kingdom is the same God who called a teenage girl to carry the Son of God. Can this same God call someone to be a global provider of low-priced widgets, or is he confined to asking that we live in a small town and work on a factory line?

The localist shtick quickly falls apart the moment God calls us to something “Big, Global, New, and Abstract,” just as any “pro-market” game can be shown as a game when God calls us to do something “irrational.” On the market side of things, I am actually inclined to believe that God has somewhat more to say about transmaterial profitability than he does about staying tiny and local, but even so, any God-backed profitability will not fit into some convenient Hayekian cookie-cutter mold.

If the market conservatives are to remind the communitarian conservatives of the value in free trade, and if the communitarian conservatives are to remind the market conservatives of the need to stay focused on morality and the preservation of values in their dealings, who is going to remind both of the need to elevate and submit our complicated notions of “value” and “morality” to the King of Kings? Who is going to remind folks to ask, more simply, “What is God’s will for my life?”

Above all, when we consider whether to go either “local” or “global,” we should ask ourselves whether such simplistic, bucketed notions are at all helpful in discerning what the Master would have us do for his kingdom.

Both approaches—that toward all-things-local and that toward all-things-materially productive/valuable—seem to leave little room for a God whose ways are higher than our own. If we just give him the space he asks for, I trust this whole fusionism thing will be a lot less complicated than we’re making it.

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/170260432211283968 Remnant Culture

    I respond to Jordan Ballor's piece at Comment Magazine, noting what I believe to be the clearest path to a… http://t.co/0wDWK6M2

  • http://twitter.com/jordanballor/status/170261816516149248 Jordan Ballor

    I respond to Jordan Ballor's piece at Comment Magazine, noting what I believe to be the clearest path to a… http://t.co/0wDWK6M2

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/170263295171903488 Remnant Culture

    I respond to @JordanBallor (kind of): Small Is Beautiful (Except When God Asks for Big): http://t.co/30X5KGEE @commentmag @roddreher

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/170523291759542275 Remnant Culture

    The localist shtick quickly falls apart the moment God calls us to something big, global, new, and abstract. http://t.co/30X5KGEE

  • http://twitter.com/rjmoeller/status/170531183988449280 RJ Moeller

    The localist shtick quickly falls apart the moment God calls us to something big, global, new, and abstract. http://t.co/30X5KGEE

  • http://twitter.com/valuesandcap/status/170532971118460929 Values & Capitalism

    .@JosephSunde's piece on Christians as communitarian conservatives and market conservatives: http://t.co/m1dTfO9j via @RemnantCulture

  • http://twitter.com/valuesandcap/status/170532971118460929 Values & Capitalism

    .@JosephSunde's piece on Christians as communitarian conservatives and market conservatives: http://t.co/m1dTfO9j via @RemnantCulture

  • http://twitter.com/cfmpl/status/170533912639049728 CFMPL

    .@JosephSunde's piece on Christians as communitarian conservatives and market conservatives: http://t.co/m1dTfO9j via @RemnantCulture

  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/170541966197657601 Joseph Sunde

    RT @ValuesAndCap @JosephSunde's piece on Christians as communitarian conservatives & market conservatives: http://t.co/6dFgpE7f

  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/170542350047780864 Joseph Sunde

    @jacque_otto @JonahNRO fyi–my radical Christian-y take on fusionism. Main point is in the last line: http://t.co/6dFgpE7f

  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/170543123712323584 Joseph Sunde

    @bradleybirzer This seems sort of up your alley–interested in any feedback/criticism: http://t.co/37oaOWch

  • http://twitter.com/hunterbaker/status/170546468472627202 Hunter Baker

    RT @RemnantCulture: Small Is Beautiful (Except When God Asks for Big) http://t.co/8BhrMJi3

  • http://twitter.com/suzania/status/170548274485395456 Susannah Black

    The localist shtick quickly falls apart the moment God calls us to something big, global, new, and abstract. http://t.co/30X5KGEE

  • http://twitter.com/valuesandcap/status/170892872390938624 Values & Capitalism

    ICYMI: Small Is Beautiful (Except When God Asks for Big) http://t.co/fgeKTacM via @RemnantCulture

  • http://twitter.com/rjmoeller/status/170893084769517568 RJ Moeller

    ICYMI: Small Is Beautiful (Except When God Asks for Big) http://t.co/fgeKTacM via @RemnantCulture

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/172002635531030528 Remnant Culture

    Is God so preoccupied with small localist endeavors that he wouldn't call us to a quick-&-efficient big-city lifestyle? http://t.co/30X5KGEE

  • http://twitter.com/cfmpl/status/172003258351628289 CFMPL

    Is God so preoccupied with small localist endeavors that he wouldn't call us to a quick-&-efficient big-city lifestyle? http://t.co/30X5KGEE

  • http://twitter.com/cmarlink/status/179613163833135105 Chris Marlink

    @joshbishop You'll dig this from @josephsunde offering a different way between communitarians & free marketers: http://t.co/qjqFpFic