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Anthony Esolen

“Where,” asks the editor, “will your town get the money to build new school rooms, and pay better salaries to more teachers? Thousands of communities are wrestling with this problem, or will soon be faced with it. We offer a suggestion.” It is really quite simple. Everyone, from the PTA to the local Rotarians, should “work for the adoption of the Federal economies in the Hoover Reports.” Those recommendations will cut federal spending by six billion dollars a year, “just about what the schools cost now.” The savings would go a long way towards building new schools and hiring new teachers, and we are going to need to do both, he says, since in ten years we will have about twice as many pupils of school age as we did ten years ago (136 to 72).

“What we are saying here, of course,” he notes, “is that the heavy taxes levied by the Federal Government deprive local communities of tax resources with which to meet local needs. Far better than to ship money to Washington and then ship it back again as ‘aid’ will be to leave the money at home in the first place. Those shipping costs are mighty high.”

I am quoting from the September 1955 issue of Town Journal, “the family magazine of home-town America,” which boasted a subscription rate of nearly two million families. Immediately we face matters of translation. Since the median annual salary in 1955 was a little over $4000, we can multiply the numbers by ten and come up with a fairly comparable estimate of costs: $60,000,000,000 for the public schools every year, and the same amount to be trimmed from the federal budget by the recommendations of the Hoover Commission. That amounts to about $200 per year per citizen, a little more than one day’s wages, or one week’s wages for a family of five or six.

We’d take that for public school expenses in the United States, in a heartbeat. I pay almost four percent of my salary for our local public schools; that would be two weeks’ wages, and I know well that those property taxes do not cover the entire expenses, as the schools also receive money from the state and from Washington. I do not know what the total is. But there are more items to translate here than the value of the dollar or the size of various budgets. The editor clearly believes that the tax money should stay in the local communities, because it costs money to ship those taxes hither and yon. He’s quite right about that, but note what he does not say. He doesn’t call attention to the control, the manipulation, occasioned by the ‘aid.’ He doesn’t say that when money is siphoned out of the town and is then bundled up and shipped back, it comes with conditions attached, just as the boss of a protection racket will provide ‘help,’ provided his beneficiaries line his pocket and honor his wishes.

I’d wager a day’s pay that the moral entanglements hadn’t occurred to the editor, because Washington had not yet intruded itself so intimately in the administration of public schools. There’s something else that did occur to him, and would hardly occur to us. His editorial presumes that there is such a thing as a town, full of people who know one another and who take pride in where they live. For the same issue presents a forty question test to see whether you live in a healthy town, with thirty ‘yes’ answers being the standard to shoot for. The first criterion? “Most high school graduates stay in town.” Also telling: “More than half the church congregations [sic] are under 40.” Are the streets lined with shade trees? Is there a recreation center where young people dance? The Ike-liking editors aren’t laissez-faire economists. They aren’t the sort of pseudo-conservatives who see devotion to the family as an obstacle to “progress,” whatever that is. They want the money to stay nearby, so that it will be spent nearby – even taxed nearby.

In other words, these are deeply civic-minded conservatives. I doubt one could find more than the thinness of a dime between what they assume about civic duty and Catholic social teaching. For both assume the existence of a society: people who are socii, companions, fellow travelers, neighbors. Behold another telling criterion for the good town: “There’s as much interest in local as national elections.” That can only be so, if local elections matter, and local elections can matter only if local people feel they actually have some influence upon their common life – and if there is a common life to begin with.

And here we arrive at the great fact staring us in the face. Romano Guardini, shortly after the war, had already asserted that the people of western Europe no longer possessed a culture. Such words as culture remain like wraiths, long after the reality they once described has passed away. Alasdair MacIntyre, indeed, says that that fate has befallen our entire language of morality. The word society is, I believe, in that same category. So the riddle we must now solve is how to apply Catholic social teaching to the whatever-it-is we have, the mass of habits inculcated by bad education and worse entertainment–the Unsociety.

It will require a great deal of hard thinking, a deep knowledge of history and of human nature, and patient prayer–just the things that our electoral politics makes nearly impossible. But it must be done, for the sake of humanity itself, threatened by the collusive interests of technocrats, bureaucrats, mediacrats, and all the other crats who burden us with their wisdom and their insufferably benignant lust for power.

I won’t recommend any particular program here. I have an innate loathing of programs, anyway. But any solution must provide people with the wherewithal – economic, political, and moral – to rebuild the social ties we have lost. Consider, for the sake of argument, a young couple moving to Freemanville, with its thousand or so subscriptions to magazines like Town Journal. They are, of course, married; notably absent from Town Journal’s questionnaire is any reference to crime or to out-of-wedlock births. They have, then, already engaged in that most social of all actions, without the corrosive shacking-up beforehand.

The lady down the street, a member of the town’s Welcome Wagon, shows up that week with a couple of apple pies, and asks if they need anything of a practical nature – because when you move into a house there’s always something you forget to bring along, like soap or shaving cream or a broom or a dustpan. Within two weeks you’ve met a good dozen of your neighbors, and you’ve been invited to church, or to the block party, or to the fireworks display on the Glorious Fourth. I am not sentimentalizing here. This is how people lived; or rather, this is how people live, if they but have the opportunity, just as dogs outdoors will run about and sniff things, and cats outdoors will sleep in the shade and hunt mice.

All of these human connections are founded upon, and imply, moral expectations. That is what our pseudo-liberals continually fail to acknowledge. The moral law is liberating. It builds trust. A person entering a community enters, ipso facto, a moral community, whose freedom and breadth of action is predicated upon, at least, the practical virtues of neighborly and family life. In a genuine community, a teacher would no more expect to be able to describe sexual perversions to ten year old children without suffering the opprobrium of their parents – without losing his job and being run out of town or thrown in jail – than you would suppose that your next door neighbor was inviting your son into the parlor to look at smutty magazines. The teacher, the neighbor, the clergyman, and you might disagree on which road to pave, or which senator is the less dishonest, but your wide moral agreement will make you socii even when you do not like one another.

And what about the poor? Those we will always have with us, says Jesus. In the Unsociety, the answer is the heroin of entitlements, detached from responsibility, from gratitude, and from love; an inhumanity for inhumanity. As to what that engenders, places like Detroit can testify. Jesus, I am sure, did not come among us to preach abstractions about federal largesse – the largesse of the heads of a tax-farming protection racket. He preaches love, and that can never be comfortable. Somehow we must once more engage the poor as human beings—with all the sinning and the folly from which our common humanity suffers. But we will never do that so long as we allow most human engagements to be blotted out or attenuated by our own anti-cultural bad habits, and by those in government and its feeders who benefit from the alienation.

Find Anthony Esolen’s books in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in Crisis Magazine and is reprinted here with their gracious permission. 

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