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Spring 1997
   
Community, Yes. But Whose?
Roger Scruton, Amitai Etzioni
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Editor's note: In "Communitarian Dreams" (City Journal, Autumn 1996), Roger Scruton found much to criticize in the widely celebrated intellectual movement called communitarianism. Communitarians present themselves as champions of traditional social ties and opponents of the self-absorbed atomism of modern society. But for all their talk about shared values and social sentiment, Scruton charged, communitarians deeply distrust local communities and the institutions of civil society. Instead, they favor an expansive welfare state, which they see as embodying the inclusiveness and mutual respect that are the essence of community—but which, in Scruton's view, has caused much of the decay of community that they bewail. As Scruton summed it up, communitarians are "just so many made-over liberals, dressed up in a rhetoric of fellow feeling." Amitai Etzioni, a well known communitarian thinker whom Scruton singled out for criticism, responds. Scruton's reply follows.

Roger Scruton, in an effort to make a better target for himself, misrepresents the core communitarian position. He maintains that the central tenet of my work is that "the time has come to write 'we' in the place of 'I,' and 'responsibility' in the place of 'right.'" Properly understood, the idea of community avoids the simple dichotomy between "I" and "we." As I have argued, individual rights can exist only in an orderly society, not in a social vacuum or moral anarchy. To quote from "The Responsive Communitarian Platform," a manifesto that I helped to draft, we must recognize "that the preservation of individual liberty depends on the active maintenance of the institutions of civil society where citizens learn respect for others as well as self-respect; where we acquire a lively sense of our personal and civic responsibilities, along with an appreciation of our own rights and the rights of others." Communitarians aim, in short, to strike a balance between individualism and social duty, which means that they offer very different prescriptions for, say, the rights-obsessed United States as opposed to authoritarian Singapore. It is an eminently reasonable position—and hardly one that "tenured radicals" are rushing to endorse, as Scruton asserts.

Communitarianism rose to prominence in the eighties within academia through the work of scholars like Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Michael Walzer. These critics of classical liberalism rejected the idea that we are free-standing individuals whose moral commitments are based on abstract universal principles (as described by Locke, Kant, or John Rawls). Rather, they insisted, we are beings deeply integrated into social groups, groups to which we have special obligations that do not extend to all others. In a more sociological vein, Robert Bellah and his associates showed that a faulty, individualistic public philosophy was partly to blame for the disintegration of community and social order in the United States.

Today's communitarians—including such varied public intellectuals as Jean Bethke Elshtain, Francis Fukuyama, William Galston, John Gardner, Mary Ann Glendon, and myself—subscribe to much of this critique, taking it for granted that our predecessors have established the importance of social attachments and obligations. We are more concerned with specific issues that arise from the need to balance individual rights with personal and social responsibilities. Here conservatives like Scruton run into trouble and need communitarian rescue.

Conservatives increasingly occupy a house divided. On the one side, we find laissez-faire conservatives, whose primary aim is to protect individual liberty from the ever-intrusive state. This camp includes many business-minded Republicans, the Milton Friedmans and David Frums of the world, libertarians of the Cato Institute ilk, and such new-style classical liberals as Robert Nozick and Richard Epstein. On the other side, we find social conservatives, who want the state to uphold the moral order—to outlaw abortion, to put "fault" back into divorce, to mandate prayer in the public schools, and to discriminate against homosexuals. This camp includes the Christian Coalition and other religious activists, figures like Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson, and secular champions of virtue like William Bennett. As the recent presidential election illustrated, conservatives are still struggling to find a public philosophy that effectively combines these anti- and pro-state positions.

Scruton mirrors this division. In keeping with the laissez-faire tradition, he argues that individuals should make their own "free choices," from which their social identity, contacts, and associations will arise. At the same time, he rails against communitarians who, he falsely claims, want to allow individuals as much latitude as possible to fashion "life-styles" of their own choosing. For Scruton, a real community forcefully upholds virtue; it "stands in judgment over the acts and opinions of individuals and seeks to impose a common morality."

The problem is that unencumbered choice acts as a ferocious solvent on orderly societies. One cannot favor "free choices" in some absolute sense and also hope to promote shared virtues. As George Will often stresses, social conservatives must stand against libertarianism and for a strong government, one capable of providing moral instruction. Laissez-faire conservatives respond to these concerns by declaring that they do not actually favor wholesale autonomy but only the right of individuals to act freely as long as their actions do not violate the liberties of others (an all-important qualification that they often omit when proclaiming "the right to be left alone"). But how can a society ensure that individuals will restrain themselves when their actions inevitably impinge on others? To assume that people will choose not to violate the rights of others out of self-interest is exceedingly naive, as daily reports of antisocial behavior, from violence to drunk driving, remind us. And if we rely on government to step in each time self-interest does not suffice to sustain social order, we should not be surprised to find ourselves under the tutelage of an overbearing state.

Communitarians sometimes sound like conservatives of both camps because they want to shore up the social and psychological foundations of virtue but also to keep the state in its place. Solving this dilemma calls for a new approach, and this is where communitarians stand apart: they reconcile the social conservative's quest for shared virtues and the laissez-faire conservative's devotion to limited government by relying on the community—not the state or the individual—as the first and foremost protector of the social order.

What does it mean to rely mainly on the community for social order? Communities have identities, histories, cultures, and traditions. They build on the fact that their members, as social creatures, have a deep-seated need for other members of the community to appreciate them. Thus, if a community honors those parents who are dedicated to their children and censures those who are not, few children will wander the streets at night, drive like maniacs, or abuse liquor.

Compare social conduct in strong communities like Mormon Utah, the Hasidic neighborhoods of New York City, and Israeli kibbutzim to behavior in our prisons, where the state oversees individuals in the most direct way. When communal bonds are tight and belief (religious or secular) is fervent, we find that abortion, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence are rare, and that voluntarism and social responsibility flourish; the state plays a small role in sustaining the social order. By contrast, prison is quite literally a police state: inmates live under lock and key, confined by high walls and watched over by gun-toting guards. Yet we are still helpless to end drug dealing, violence, and rape in prison, and social benevolence there is practically unknown. Clearly, communities create social order far more effectively, displaying a respect for human dignity that heavy-handed government control always lacks.

Communitarians do not wish to dispense altogether with the state. Just as libertarians see some role for the state as a guarantor of public safety, contracts, and a short list of other social goods, so communitarians recognize that there are some sociopaths in the world who are deaf to the moral voice of community. When education, persuasion, and social censure fail, we do need to arrest violent thugs and take drunk drivers off the road. But the law should not be the prime source of social order. It should complement the good work of the community rather than seek to preempt it.

Ignoring these stipulations, Scruton declares that communitarians are statists because they are willing to allow some role for the state. Thus he charges me with calling for the "massive use of the state's coercive power against employers and taxpayers" because I would like to see American society follow the lead of Western Europe in providing public support to the parents of newborn children. In focusing on my support for this one policy (similar in intent and in its reliance on the state to the Republican Party's call for a $500 tax credit for each child), Scruton fails to acknowledge my broader and more essential aim: to spark a far-reaching discussion about the moral worth and social importance of family and child rearing, in the hope that these institutions might again become personal and communal priorities. What would signal the success of this discussion? Ambitious new federal policies or spending? Not at all. What we most need is more voluntary and community action: places of worship and professional counselors should provide better premarital guidance, schools should teach communication and conflict resolution skills, couples should commit themselves to wedding vows that go beyond the mere requirements of the law, and so on. These are the sorts of changes most likely to resuscitate our flagging social institutions; and if I also support certain changes in government policy, like eliminating the marriage penalty in tax law and collecting delinquent payments from deadbeat dads, it is because they bolster the work that communities and individuals must do to restore families.

Scruton portrays communitarians as great defenders of the entitlement-driven national welfare state—and hence foes of authentic local communities. But these are not the communitarians I know. The communitarian platform that I cited earlier endorses the idea of subsidiarity, which calls for the dispersal of authority. Subsidiarity demands, in the first instance, that individuals, including the most disadvantaged, take responsibility for themselves; failing this, it obliges family members and communities to step in. If these fail—and only then—the state should have a role, but mainly to enable and support these primary institutions—a notion that informs GOP Senator Dan Coats's proposal to encourage private charities to take over programs now carried out by the government. As everyone but Scruton seems to know by now, communitarians invariably favor such face-to-face social solutions over statist bureaucracy.

Communities achieve their ends informally rather than through coercion. They depend on the influence of opinion and mores, on their members' readiness to celebrate certain actions and criticize others. Communities' expectations exert a powerful influence, for example, on whether fathers and mothers devote themselves single-mindedly to their careers or make time to be with their children, on whether adult children dump their elderly parents in nursing homes or bring them into their own homes. Communities are not all-powerful, of course. They leave many matters to the discretion of their members, who in turn may work to change community standards or go elsewhere if their efforts fail. Still, it is essential to recognize the engine at work here: not fear of the state but the profound desire to command the respect of friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Every institution of civil society is not equally capable of establishing such a moral order, as Scruton and others sometimes suggest. A town may have chess clubs and bowling teams, Elks and Lions, the best chapter of the Red Cross in the state, and even a hyperactive branch of the League of Women Voters, and still show little virtue. Such groups serve many useful purposes but seldom inculcate positive moral values. This task belongs instead to a fairly narrow range of institutions: intact families, schools that dare to engage in character education, places of worship, neighborhoods that generate strong bonds, and those voluntary associations—like the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, the American Jewish Committee, and the "graduates" of the Peace Corps—that draw their energy from a cultural legacy or profound shared experience.

Communitarians are deeply committed to promoting virtue, but they differ starkly from those who call for more forceful government to deal with violators of community norms. Communitarians want to persuade errant members to change their ways: a community leader will drop in; a neighbor will suggest a walk in the woods; or perhaps conversation at the country store, pub, or water cooler will turn against those who flout community standards. Communities create a working consensus through talk, whether the matter at issue is participation in the local blood drive or the vulgarity of pornography. This kind of suasion is fundamentally different from action by the state, because the ultimate decision is left to the individual. As a result, when people do change their behavior, they often do so from conviction. By contrast, when the state compels people to comply with its laws, it does little to persuade them. It does not proclaim the danger of parking cars in front of fire hydrants; it just tows offending cars away. It does not rely on education to curb the use of marijuana; it jails growers, sellers, and users alike. Such enforcement often produces little more than expedient accommodation, a change unlikely to survive new circumstances or a lapse in the state's vigilance.

By relying so heavily on persuasion, communitarians open themselves to the charge of being closet libertarians. After all, they give great latitude to individual choice in many circumstances and join hands with libertarians in wanting to keep the state at bay. But important differences remain. No communitarian can subscribe to the wrong-headed principle gaining adherents today among fundamentalist libertarians: that any attempt to change a person's preferences, even through persuasion, is coercion. On this view, the right to be left alone protects you not merely from the government but also from the opinion of your fellow human beings. They have concocted yet another right—the right not to be persuaded.

This unthinking conflation of state coercion and community persuasion has a distinguished pedigree. John Stuart Mill, in reflecting on the scope of his libertarian claims in On Liberty, wrote that the "object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force or the moral coercion of public opinion" (emphasis added). More recently, libertarians have taken up this confused philosophical standard in decrying "censorship"—a term that applies to the state—when the William Bennetts of the world, in good communitarian fashion, try to mobilize public opinion to persuade Time Warner and other companies to stop producing music whose lyrics debase minors and undermine public morals.

In his own rhapsodizing about communities—authentic communities, he assures us—Scruton falls into a trap that entangles many less thoughtful communitarians: the notion that communities should be the final arbiters of the values they endorse. Scruton opposes laws that violate local traditions and favors "permitting communities to decide for themselves whether abortion and easy divorce are permissible." One must concede, however, that communities come in all colors and shapes, many of them quite abhorrent. Some communities endorse the Ku Klux Klan; others lend their support to violent militias or criminal gangs; still others welcome Nazis. Only an abject relativist would refuse to submit the values of particular communities to independent moral scrutiny.

For the United States, a good place to start is by asking whether a community shares the basic values enshrined in the Constitution. If it does not—if it deprives people of their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, voting, and so on—we cannot entrust it to uphold moral order. True, what values or rights the Constitution secures is itself subject to debate and reinterpretation, but the Constitution remains a meaningful repository of the principles that we share as a nation. As for other societies, they either have constitutions of their own (many of them based on the American model) or fundamental laws that serve a similar purpose by proclaiming certain fundamental values.

What the Constitution requires in relations between the government and America's multitudinous communities is too complex a subject to pursue here. What's more, for my purposes, it is largely beside the point: for even when the Constitution prevents the state from interfering with certain matters of conduct, it does not impose the same strictures on individuals or communities, so long as they refrain from using force. Thus, to take the example of free speech, while the Constitution enjoins the state from banning most speech, it in no way stops a community from considering certain speech offensive and frowning on members who use it. The right to free speech does not entail a right to communal applause or bouquets.

The basic communitarian principle is clear: when the values that communities nourish are sound, persuading people of their merit is by far the best way to form and sustain the social order that liberty requires. If communities fail to perform this task, government rushes in to fill the void. Sadly, over the past several decades we have seen such a failure of social mores in many of our inner cities and commuter suburbs, where antisocial behavior has only recently ceased its ruinous ascent. Since the early nineties, a modicum of social reconstruction has begun, as declining rates of crime, stabilization of the family, and even a slight drop in teen pregnancy suggest. All these social trends reflect some increase in concern about virtue, personal and social responsibility, and community bonds. Indeed, they reflect the rise of the communitarian movement.

 

In "Communitarian Dreams," I survey the thought and arguments of a variety of thinkers who have been described as communitarians, to see whether they have a common intellectual stance and a common political agenda. I was troubled by a paradox—namely, that the intellectual arguments of the communitarians seem to be borrowed directly from the tradition of social conservatism, while the political agenda remains one that Americans would describe as "liberal," endorsing the use of state power in the interests of social and material equality.

American liberals show an extraordinary propensity to take over conservative concepts and arguments while pretending that they are not conservative at all, and that no one had previously thought of them. A glaring instance is Michael Sandel, who in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982) reworks in response to John Rawls the devastating critique of social contract theories once made by Hegel, but without once mentioning Hegel or any of the other conservative thinkers who had anticipated Sandel's argument. Similarly, Charles Taylor, in Sources of the Self (1989) and elsewhere, first puts forth a picture of the relation between individual and society that is close to that proposed by Burke and de Maistre (neither of whom he acknowledges) and then tries—none too successfully—to wriggle out of the conservative implications. The same wriggling can be witnessed in Amitai Etzioni's writings, and although he refers principally to contemporary authorities, this does nothing to conceal the fact that his arguments derive from the conservative riposte to the Enlightenment and can be found in far clearer and more trenchant form in Burke, Hegel, de Maistre, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, and F. H. Bradley.

The liberal position, for modern American thinkers, is roughly this: society is an association of free and equal individuals, bound by a social contract. Each is sovereign within his sphere, and the purpose of the contract is to safeguard his sovereignty by guaranteeing his natural rights. No individual has real authority over any other, and none has a right to more than his "fair share" of the social product. The state exists in order to defend individual rights against external and internal predators. But it is also there to ensure that those who have less than their fair share are restored to the condition of primal equality upon which the validity of the contract depends. Hence the state may legitimately engage in extensive welfare programs, while remaining aloof from all those aspects of human life that fall within the sphere of individual autonomy. The state cannot dictate, for example, in matters of sexual mores, religion, private morality, or aesthetic taste. Modern liberals often go further and suggest that the state, and especially the courts, should be actively involved in helping the individual to escape from the social pressures to conform to any other person's "conception of the good," to use Rawls's slippery phrase.

This position should be distinguished from classical liberalism, which sees the state merely as a guardian of our liberties and not as a machine that takes charge of civil society and forces it into some egalitarian mold. Classical liberals like Locke saw the social contract as a device for protecting liberty and property. For modern liberals—and they are indistinguishable from socialists in this regard—wealth is a "social product," to be distributed by the state in accordance with principles of justice. The classical liberal is acutely aware that wealth does not come into the world unowned. To suppose that it is the business of government to "distribute" the "social product" is to license the oppression of the individuals who created it.

Conservatives have more in common with classical than with modern liberals. They share the classical liberal's respect for private property, and acknowledge that wealth is created only under conditions that establish it as privately owned. They wish to limit the power of the state to those areas in which the state alone is competent—defense, law enforcement, and so on. And they are hostile to elaborate systems of welfare provision—not because they violate individual rights but because they extinguish individual duties and generate a dependency culture from which nothing noble or useful can emerge.

Nevertheless, conservatives are not classical liberals. Here, very briefly, is what serious intellectual conservatives believe: society is an association of individuals who are not free by nature but who may become free through their social relations. It is not a contract, because the majority of its members, being either dead or unborn, are not in a position to signify their assent to the arrangement, and because even the living members acquire the ability to contract only as a result of their social membership and not prior to it. Individuals have rights, but only because they also have duties and responsibilities, and none of these things are "natural"—on the contrary, rights and duties form a reciprocal web of obligation that is formed by and in response to history. Society is not composed of the abstract rational choosers of liberal theory but of concrete human beings, who come into a world already charged with demands and obligations, who are shaped by circumstance and tradition, and who have no conception of what they want or how they should live prior to the process of maturation that shapes them to live in a particular way. Individuals become responsible members of society through accepting the authority of other people, of offices, laws, and gods.

The social condition that results from this process is one of rooted inequality—there is no way that people who are unequal in their natural endowments can become equal in their material or social advantages, not even if a terroristic machine is constructed to compel them. Through civil society—which is the network of "small platoons," of family ties, local institutions, and economic activity—people may come to recognize that they are not diminished by their inequality, since human life can flourish in many ways and achieve the love and recognition that are its due. But if they are fully to accept their fate, people require something else—a common culture, usually with a religious basis, that will instill the habit of obedience to things outside the self. It is not for the state to take charge of this culture, since it is incompetent to do so. But it must allow the law to express and endorse the common culture. Although the law may grant freedoms—like the freedom of speech—that are essential for rational government, it must always be prepared to qualify those freedoms when social order is jeopardized by their exercise.

Traces of this conservative view appear in Etzioni's writings and in his reply. And that is why I am anxious to know whether he is prepared to accept the consequences—in particular, those consequences that are shunned by liberals. Is he prepared to accept that the state should refrain from actively remaking civil society in the image of the liberal contract, that the law should not be used to impose on people rights that are subversive of the social order, that families, religious institutions, and schools should be places in which obedience is taught, as well as freedom? Is he prepared to recognize the place of authority, tradition, and piety in forming a coherent common culture? And does he recognize that the attempt to bring about the kind of equality esteemed by liberals not only will never succeed, but invariably involves the massive transfer of power to the state and the subversion of the distinction between state and civil society?

His reply shows the same determination to avoid these consequences that you find in the writings of Sandel, Taylor, and Michael Walzer. For all Etzioni's protests to the contrary, therefore, it seems to me quite right to say that communitarianism accepts the uncomfortable truths that conservatives have put before us but pretends that they are neither uncomfortable nor conservative. Etzioni agrees that rights and freedoms must be paid for with responsibilities and duties, and agrees that the state cannot take charge of maintaining the web of reciprocal obligation on which society depends. But he so radically under-describes the "community"—the entity that he invokes in place of the state—that it is not surprising to find that, whenever it comes down to practicalities, it is the state that he summons to pick up the pieces. That was the point of my reference to his solution to the "deficit of parenting." He protests that I have misrepresented his argument, but in truth he does not merely suggest that "American society" provide "public support" for parents of infants. In The Spirit of Community (1991), he proposes government-mandated leave for new parents, much of it paid, with companies and taxpayers picking up the bill. This involves radical state interference in the contract of employment, in the relation between employer and employee, and in the productive process, while requiring a substantial redistributive tax. At the same time, his proposals leave the root of the problem untouched and seem designed precisely to leave it untouched. The real "deficit of parenting" stems from the assumption—which state support of the kind proposed by Etzioni can only encourage—that women ought to have the same employment prospects as men, that the cost of raising a family is the state's concern, and that childbirth ought to involve no sacrifice of freedom and opportunity on the mother's part.

Now I do not doubt that there are great problems facing modern societies and that Etzioni has done a service in identifying them in terms that enable liberals to acknowledge their existence, as they could never acknowledge the existence of problems pointed out by conservatives. But we will not begin to deal with these problems if, having recognized that the attempt by the state to solve them leads only to their exacerbation, we invoke something else, vaguely described as "community," to do exactly what the welfare state was supposed to do.

Besides, only if we are prepared to say what communities are or should be—how they are formed, how they endure, and how they secure the loyalty of their members—will we have produced a viable alternative. This is where, I believe, the charge of sentimentality sticks. Communities, as Etzioni sees them, are formed by gentle persuasion among well-meaning people like himself. The worst that happens to the nonconformist is that the "conversation at the country store, pub, or water cooler" turns against him. Nothing like The Scarlet Letter—even though, if America has come up with any viable description of community, that may be as good a candidate as any.

Etzioni's "communities" come in all colors and shapes. Some of them he rightly finds distasteful; all, he believes, must be submitted to "independent moral scrutiny." But how and by whom? He tells us that communities might be "entrusted" with sustaining moral order only so long as they do not deprive people of their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, voting, and so on. Entrusted by whom? The very list of qualifications indicates the answer: entrusted by the state, since freedoms of this kind are what the state is charged with defending.

Moreover, Etzioni believes that there is, after all, a guarantee of the moral order in the state. This guarantee is the Constitution—not, it would seem, the Constitution as originally envisaged by the Founding Fathers, for whom (being members of genuine communities) it would have been unimaginable that the right to free speech could extend to pornography, or that American citizens should have a right to "privacy" that is violated by any attempt to prevent them from killing their unborn children. Etzioni appears to take for granted that the Constitution is that dynamic thing that the Supreme Court, under successive liberal majorities, has imagined it to be: the constantly evolving instrument for preventing one citizen from imposing his values on another—in other words, the organized enemy of community in its traditional forms. Etzioni's invocation of "community" as the source of moral order is therefore entirely spurious. Communities must conform to the Constitution, and the Constitution is a liberal fiefdom, with absolute authority to destroy whatever stands in its way.

Of course, the Constitution doesn't have to be a liberal fiefdom. But it becomes so just as soon as its interpretation is detached from the tacit endorsement of the community that first invented it. Judges like Robert Bork, who interpret the Constitution in terms of the civic aspirations of the Founding Fathers, restore it to its true place, as the foundation of American society. Such judges give to communities their true and deserved place in our scheme of things. And that is why every effort is made to keep them out of the Supreme Court by those for whom the purpose of the Constitution is not to safeguard the inherited community but to protect the modern urban solipsist.

This is not to say that we should look elsewhere than the Constitution when it comes to determining the rights and duties of the citizen. But in doing so, we skirt the real question: who is charged with interpreting the Constitution, and how? If we really believe in the community as the source of our values, we should allow the communities of the United States to determine what the Constitution means by free speech, for example, and whether pornography is an instance of it. We should not interpret the Constitution through the liberal agenda, or use it to permit and protect activities that are not merely abhorrent to existing communities but that, through their very propagation, dissolve the trust and goodwill on which communities depend. When homosexual "marriages" find the endorsement and protection of the Supreme Court, the status, dignity, and commitment of traditional marriage will be seriously altered. No solemn vow can coexist with a living caricature of itself, nor can the idea of marriage as a commitment to family, to the future, and to a life beyond one's own, survive the blatant public display of "marriages" that can be no such thing.

Of course, this retreat to the Constitution as the final arbiter when the going gets tough is parochial, to say the very least. I don't know whether we, in the United Kingdom, really have a constitution. Nevertheless, we must address and resolve the very same problems that Etzioni considers. Besides, even if it is true that a constitution (where it exists) determines the rights and duties of the citizen, we must recognize that the rights and duties of the citizen are not all the rights and duties that there are. And if the rights and duties of the citizen clash with those of the father, mother, or child—as in Antigone—or with those of the good member of society, a constitution ceases to be the friend of society and becomes its enemy. And the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by liberals, is, in my view, the enemy of society. It has taken upon itself to permit activities that destroy the web of social obligation, from pornography and easy divorce to abortion and sexual deviance, while forbidding other activities, such as school prayer, sexual segregation, differential pay, or compulsory retirement of the old and the infirm, that tend to renew the allegiance and obedience on which moral order depends.

The question that I raised in "Communitarian Dreams" is precisely the one that Etzioni has not answered: namely, to borrow his own terms, how do we fashion a viable "we" in modern conditions, while retaining the sovereignty to which the "I" has become accustomed? I have no easy answer to the question, partly because the rot engendered by liberal attitudes has gone so far. But let me make a suggestion. The effect of the liberal agenda has been to corrode the social order that makes it possible to be a liberal. At a certain point an equilibrium was reached—the equilibrium that you can perceive in the early novels of Henry James, say. Then, the cement of community held firm, while the liberal freedoms, grafted upon society by urban life and held in place by the Constitution, created a unique and widespread habit of toleration. The dialectical relation between traditional community and bourgeois liberty persisted into more recent times. But it depended upon the constant, self-sacrificing, and thankless labor of conservatives, who tried to shore up the old decencies, the old authorities, the old forms of education that had obedience and duty as their goal, in the face of vociferating liberals for whom individual freedom was the be-all and end-all of our existence.

We have now passed the point of equilibrium and live among the ruins that liberal attitudes have caused. Etzioni is aware that a society cannot survive without families, without enduring commitments, without an endless web of obligation that ties us to the unborn and the dead (though he avoids being too explicit on the point)—in short, without a "we" that is something more than the contract between "I"s. But the forces that undermine this "we" are precisely those that animate his prose: on the one hand, the suspicion of ordinary prejudice, of authority, punishment, and discipline; on the other hand, the desire for a society conducted entirely as a dialogue between people with open minds. Communities need minds that in key respects are closed; and the universal attempt to open the minds of the American people has in the end merely emptied them of the small store of social knowledge that they once contained.

 

 

 
Communitarians present themselves as champions of traditional social ties and opponents of the self-absorbed individual. But are they just apologists for the welfare state?
City Journal Spring 1997.
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