On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in October, Phillip Blond arrived on the Catholic University campus in Washington, D.C. Blond is not well known among America’s political class, but he is among East Coast Catholic intellectuals. In Washington alone, he was invited to speak by Stephen Schneck of CUA’s Catholic Studies Institute, by Patrick Deneen’s Tocqueville Institute at Georgetown, and he debated Tim Carney at the Catholic Information Center.
Blond acquired the title of the “philosopher king” as an adviser to current British Prime Minister David Cameron. He has often cited and praised Pope Benedict XVI during his meteoric rise over the last six years. Formerly a lecturer in theology at provincial British universities, Blond started writing editorials in which he argued that the West should steer clear of fundamentalism in both its secular and religious forms and embrace religious humanism. Blond appealed to the British prime minister because he offered the possibility of reviving the “broken society” that Britain had become.
With his ruddy complexion, short brown hair, Roman nose, garrulous manner, and a booming voice, inflected by a Northern England, upper-class accent, Blond resembles Richard Burton circa 1965. At forty-five, he has the energy of a much younger man. At least as important, Blond is an Anglican who grew up in a broken home, not a Catholic from a family of ten. No one dismisses his Benedict-tinged arguments as those of a biased papist.
At CUA, the audience was composed mostly of earnest undergraduates and a few priests. For a generation or two, these Catholics have learned to brace themselves whenever a non-Catholic public figure refers to Catholicism or the Church. Blond’s opening words, however, were both contrarian and intriguing: “Actually, Catholicism is almost one of the few counter-cultural forces that’s out there. . . .It provides an alternative to the prevailing social order, which is collapsing all around us and has caused so much pain and suffering, so thoughtfully.”
His 2010 book Red Tory argues that Britain should reject the neo-liberal consensus of Thatcher and Blair and replace it with a communitarian social order. His main argument at Catholic University was more ambitious: the ascent of liberalism has bankrupted the West: “I’m not anti-liberal, but liberalism should not be a first ordering principle, because when it’s a first ordering principle it’s hugely dangerous. . . . (I)t makes shared solutions impossible.”
Many Americans wonder why the country has lurched in recent years between Big Government and radical individualism. For Blond, as it was for Tocqueville, the two public ideologies are the fruit of centralization: “I want to say that individualism and collectivism is the same thing.” Blaming Rousseau for liberal ideology, he said, “If you have collectivism, the outcome is extreme individualism. If you have extreme individualism, the outcome is collectivism.” The West’s political order, he added, is “predicated on destroying the structure of mediating institutions and replacing them with centralizing institutions.”
Blond: re-moralize the market, re-localize the economy, and re-capitalize the poor
Blond adds a second main argument. Rebuilding the social order will require devolving power to civil society or mediating institutions such as churches, local communities, and families. “What’s interesting about Catholicism is it believes in absolutes, but unlike fundamentalist Christianity and secularism, it believes that the divine must be mediated,” he said. “The key Catholic social insight is by association you can create a lot from a little.”
His analysis can make both progressives and conservatives squirm. Liberals and libertarians dispute his cultural analysis: “In Britain, the weakest community in the 1970s was stronger than the strongest community today. . . .The illegitimacy ratio in this country is reaching the tipping point of almost half of new births.”
Conservatives and libertarians feel somewhat the same about his economic analysis: “(S)ocial class is becoming a caste in my country as in yours. . . .Despite all of the talk about free markets, the United States and the U. K. are some of the most closed societies in the OECD.” In America, he noted that the top 20 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owns 10 percent.
Blond’s oft-stated political program is to re-moralize the market, re-localize the economy, and re-capitalize the poor. He wants a Civic State or Associative State to replace the neo-liberal state — a political program, he implied, that would bust up the economic trusts.
At CUA, former Clinton administration official William Galston delivered a substantive response. He argued that Blond’s political prescriptions are out of date. Mom-and-pop stores have been losing out to national chain stores since the 1920s. Local communities didn’t protect the environment, ensure civil rights, and provide medical services to the vulnerable, so the federal government assumed those duties in the 1960s and 1970s. Americans are more interested in driving extra miles to save a few bucks than shopping closer to home to form ties with their neighbors.
“A hopeless defense of the status quo,” Blond replied. The jobless rate is more than 9 percent. Fewer than one in five Americans tell Gallup that they trust the federal government most of the time or always. Dissatisfaction with the social compact of the last three decades, he argued, is real.
During his stay in Washington, Blond also met with two Catholic members of the House, Republican Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Democrat Dan Lipinski of Chicago. They discussed legislation that would empower civil society. One participant felt inspired by Blond and thought President Obama or House Speaker Boehner might like the Briton’s ideas. But he also felt stumped. Is there any possible legislation that might help make Blond’s Catholic social vision a reality?
Blond has shown that he can combine the gloomy social analysis of Pat Buchanan or Christopher Lasch with the optimistic spirit of Jack Kemp or Ross Douthat. He has not shown that his policies are as realistic as his critique, let alone at the level of a Monsignor John A. Ryan or Paul Ryan.