Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Conservative Beauty

Rod Dreher comments at National Review's Corner:

Beauty has been clamorously present in the American Conservative Mind through its almost total absence. The tradition of regard for woodland and wildlife was present from the beginnings of the nation and continued through conservative exemplars such as the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who established the National Parks. Embarrassingly for conservatives (at least one hopes it is embarrassing), stewardship of the environment is now left mostly to liberal Democrats.

Well, almost. Millions of deer and duck hunters, and RV-ers at national parks, attest that the Lee Greenwood Republicans love natural beauty too, even if their Washington counterparts don't vote much for it.

I might also add that conservatives have pretty much abandoned the field when it comes to the beauty of cities, leaving urban planning almost entirely to left-leaning types. The recent conservative response has been Joel Kotkin and Robert Bruegmann saying "Laissez les exurbs rouler!" Really, guys -- do you think that's the best we can do?

I suppose the conservative aversion to urban design arose because the work of urban planning falls in mainly in the public sector, which has been terra non grata* to conservatives at least since Barry Goldwater.

But that's a big mistake for conservatives. It's not as if the public sector is someday going to wither away and Adam Smith's Invisible Hand is going to start building roads and public parks.

Beauty with a capital "B" has strong conservative credentials, going back at least as far as Plato.

*Pardon my marriage of terra incognita and persona non grata, which ought to add up to "disagreeable territory".


Anonymous said...

Very similar to what has happened in education and leaving it to the libs by default.

Anonymous said...

The conservative movement, generally speaking, has no vision for the public realm, because these days, it is obsessed with privatization of well, everything.

The irony is that areas that many hunters and nature lovers would like to see preserved run headlong into the conservative mantra of private property rights uber alles and become exurbs.

Many conservatives who hate to see their low-tax county land annexed might potentially alleviate the pressure for municipalities to annex if they would voice public support for higher-density infill in existing municipalities.

Ultimately, a beautiful and ennobling public realm only arises in places where time-tested conventions are followed, consensus brings about compromise about how building occurs, and buildings attempt to relate to one another.

To me, conservatism's opposition to regulation, elevation of individual needs over community needs, and focus on private rather than public interactions-- fundamentally undercuts the development of beautiful places.

I'm open to the idea that there is a conservative approach to creating beautiful, compelling urban communities. However, I have yet to have anyone explain it to me, nor have I seen an example of it in the real world. If anyone can lay out that vision for me, indeed, I am very interested to hear it.

Anonymous said...

The conservative approach to urban beautification is simply the pursuit of those goals through voluntary associations. The conservative aversion is to federal, state and municipal encroachment on property rights. I do agree that recognizing platonic beauty is a nice disctinction between conservatism, rightly understood, and libertarianism/libertinism.

Anonymous said...

Dave; If opposing the Sierra Club's neo-Marxist agenda, and supporting drilling for energy in remote parts of Alaska constitute despoiling the environment, then count me as a despoiler. Most Conservatives, like me, support reasonable and prudent conservation measures, but believe they must be balanced against other equally important and rather pressing societal concerns, all of which have economic costs and consequences. Read "the Skeptical Environmentalist" by Lomborg, for an excellent discussion of this...you probably have. You're probably right if you think Conservatives have given insufficient thought or interest to city and community planning, leaving it to the default mechanism of the market. But I suspect the reason is that they simply have limited fire-power with which to attack what they feel to be are larger and more pressing issues. Finally, regarding Jeffrey Hart, whose WSJ article is quoted by you, I note he appears to suspect, in the same article, Christians who are not Catholic, and all folks west of the Appalachians and East of the Sierras. Now I'm not totally sure of my ground here, but I'm too lazy to go back and check. But my point is, I'm sure he feels totally uncomfortable with the Bush presidency, and may be looking for some issues with which to establish his bona fides with his more liberal lucheon mates at the Dartmouth faculty club.

You know who!

David Wharton said...

YNW, I did read Lomborg (after you gave it to me!).

"Reasonable and prudent conservation measures" is awefully vague. I'm inclined to think it often means "as few and weak measures as we can get by with." Is there any environmental / conservation initiative that has been propelled (rather than conceded) by conservatives since TR?

But I was actually hoping to avoid the kind of polarizing argument that's ignited by invoking the Sierra Club or ANWR. I was thinking more along the lines of, "what can I do in my town (or yours) to enhance its beauty, livability, etc." without trying to contextualize it in some larger political war.

That seems to me to be a very conservative approach -- using the lowest level of government possible and attending to local conditions and traditions.

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Anonymous said...

I'm going to continue to be picky. None of the conservatives posting here have laid out a vision for a community.

They have only talked about methods, such as forming voluntary associations or letting the market decide, and not results.

What does a beautiful community that springs from conservative principles look like, physically, and how do conservative principles produce that beauty?

David Wharton said...

Well, I'm not an aesthetician, but let me try our a few ideas.

(1) I think conservative public spaces would be ordered and orderly, balanced, and harmonious with their surroundings. Architectural forms would respect local architectural traditions, and would use or refer to them only without irony. Architecture & space would be aimed at pleasure, comfort, and edification of its users, not at glorifying the architect or builder.

(2) Conservative spaces and architecture would not be wasteful or extravagant, but rather useful and needed. The Greensboro Central Library -- a very well-used and attractive building -- would be a good example of (1) and (2).

(3) Conservative public works would reflect community values and needs and conditions. An example of these might be the new city road systems in Tucson, AZ, which are very wide to accomodate lots of car traffic, but also include bicycle lanes and sidewalks for cyclists, pedestrians, and bus riders. Medians are landscaped with gravel and low-maintenance native plants like mesquite, palo verde, and cacti.

(3) "What does a beautiful community that springs from conservative principles look like, physically?" That would vary from place to place and time to time. Southside in Greensboro seems deeply conservative to me, since the new development is designed to harmonize with the already-built environment. Poundbury, promoted by Prince Charles, also seems very conservative to me. And the style of New Urbanism promoted by Philip Bess is understood by him to be conservative in some respects.

Just a few preliminary thoughts . . .