The terms of political discourse, like so much else in politics, are contested ground. For the observer of North American culture, the term “liberal” describes a particular faction of the educated middle class whose principal concern is not to produce wealth but to disparage those who possess it. For the liberals themselves, the term is a rallying cry in the never-ending “struggle” for social justice. To the observer, liberalism is the voice of a leisured class, clinging to its guilty privilege; to the liberal, it is the cry of the oppressed in a society brutalized by profit. What liberalism is to someone standing outside it, therefore, bears little relation to what it is to itself.

There is a similar disparity between external and internal meaning in the term “communitarianism”—a now fashionable “ism” that has made its way from the Ivy League seminar room into the public pronouncements of the Clintons. From the inside, communitarians view themselves as critics of liberalism, defenders of social sentiment against the dispiriting individualism of modern life. They decry the ethos of rights and entitlements and celebrate the power of genuine communities to instill order, discipline, and mutual affection—while insisting, however, that they are not conservatives. From the outside, it is this last point that most forcefully strikes the observer. For all their claims to the contrary, prominent communitarians like Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and Michael Sandel are just so many made-over liberals, dressed up in a rhetoric of fellow feeling. When it comes to the issues that matter, they are virtually indistinguishable from their colleagues in the faculty lounge. Far from providing an alternative to the destructive trends unleashed by liberalism, they are the latest incarnation of the old liberal grievance against bourgeois civilization and its homely virtues.

No wonder, then, that people have had trouble figuring out what communitarians actually believe and why it is important. Are they for traditional values or against them? Are they for a free economy or against it? Are they in favor of welfare, as an expression of the “community’s” concern for the underdog, or against it, as eroding responsibility and self-reliance?

Taylor, in Sources of the Self (1989), eloquently attacks the cult of the self that arose during the sixties, and he explodes the illusion that human beings can “choose” their values, or find their fulfillment simply by enhancing the means of self-expression. Yet the community that he wishes to recommend in place of the old liberal fantasies has a decidedly liberal aspect. He defends “multiculturalism” against the tyranny of majority values, the welfare state against the “selfishness” of unbridled capitalism, and “participatory democracy” against the shadowy machinations of institutional power. Similarly, Walzer and Sandel are fully prepared to make the modern welfare state the very symbol of “community.” A self-proclaimed social democrat, Walzer equates “community” with the political sphere and with the citizen’s readiness to cooperate in the pursuit of a “social justice” that the state alone can guarantee. In Spheres of Justice (1983), he describes his own political ideal, a redistributive regime that goes far beyond the most statist dreams of liberals today. Though Sandel’s endorsement of the welfare state is more equivocal, the end result is never in doubt. In Democracy’s Discontent (1996), he rejects the view that public support is an individual right, an abstract claim on the resources of society as a whole. Nevertheless, the welfare state can still meet the test that Sandel imposes. So long as it explains itself in terms of civic membership and identity, rather than in the community-destroying language of entitlement, it can go on taking charge of our lives, redistributing our incomes, and rescuing us from our own mistakes.

What is missing from this easy equation of community and state is any appreciation of the real communities that give meaning to our lives, the associations and attachments that go today by the name of “civil society.” The contrast between civil society and state derives from Hegel—a conservative thinker who decisively refuted the individualistic philosophy of the French revolutionaries. Civil society, for Hegel, lies in the space between the unchosen bond of family and the unchosen duty to the state. It is the “sphere of contract,” in which associations arise from the free choice of their members so as to express and form their social identity. Civil society provides a humane and open middle ground between the private and the public, which is why its distinctive institutions—churches, clubs, teams, and societies—are called “mediating structures” by those whose ear for the English language has been dulled by careers in political science.

And if we examine the leading conservative thinkers in our tradition—Burke, Hegel, and Tocqueville—we find that their message for our times is the same: we must maintain the sphere of free association, in which institutions grow into something greater than the sum of their members. And we must refrain from conferring the business of community upon the state, which intrudes into the sphere of civil society only to destroy it. It was the new form of state, which the French revolutionaries construed as a complete monopoly over all associations, that led to Burke’s defense of the “little platoons” that make up civil society and to his warning that no coherent society will emerge from the attempt to impose a social unity from above, but only the “dust and powder of individuality.”

And everywhere in the modern world, the most striking result of the “caring” state has been the atomization of civil society. If academics like Taylor, Walzer, and Sandel refrain from pointing this out, it is because their “little platoon”—the platoon formed by academic privilege—requires liberal credentials as its entrance ticket. The label “communitarian” is a convenient way of retaining the privilege of membership while distancing oneself from the more obvious absurdities that go with it. Nevertheless, were such thinkers to descend from intellectual abstraction into the world of real people, they would quickly discover how insubstantial is the compromise that they propose.

Amitai Etzioni, a more polemical thinker, whose remoteness from philosophical argument partly explains his success, is a case in point. He has been praised by the Clintons and by the New Labor think tanks that claim to speak for Tony Blair (who has yet to pronounce clearly on this or, for that matter, on any other topic). In The Spirit of Community (1991), Etzioni is less concerned with the abstract issue of individualism versus holism than with the real difficulties facing modern societies. The liberal emphasis on rights, he tells us, encourages people to ask but not to give. It endorses an ever growing list of claims against the community and seldom stops to inquire who is to provide for them or how. The time has come for America to wake up to the duties of citizenship, if it is not to degenerate into an anarchic crowd of welfare dependents, tax dodgers, and disloyal egoists. The time has come to write “we” in the place of “I,” and “responsibility” in the place of “right.” And it seems that, one by one, the tenured radicals are endorsing Etzioni’s message. Many who made their careers by sneering at the first-person plural of America are now campaigning for a “we” that will be strong enough to stave off the anarchy their sneering helped to cause.

Conservatives would agree with the burden of Etzioni’s message. But they would point out that much of the damage to the sense of community in America has issued from liberal reforms that Etzioni and his followers seem to endorse. Communitarians regard sexual conduct as a private matter and liberal legislation on such matters as essential. They are “caring” people who do not wish to disturb or interfere with anybody’s chosen life-style or to take an “authoritarian” attitude toward the problems that freedom creates. Although they are wary of the attitude that places me and my wants at the center of the universe and regards others in terms of their potential contribution to my own fulfillment, they are equally wary of the spirit of community as it tends to show itself in ordinary people. For the spirit of community is vigilant. It stands in judgment over the acts and omissions of individuals and seeks to impose a common morality, a common culture, and a common respect for basic social norms. Human beings may need to live in communities, but there is a cost attached to doing so—a cost that the modern liberal is not always prepared to pay.

The history of Western society since the Enlightenment has been a history of emancipation, as individuals have freed themselves from the constraints imposed by social conventions and traditional roles. We cannot regret this, since the result has been freedom, prosperity, and the bourgeois way of life. Nevertheless, we all know that there is a danger attached, long ago foretold by Emile Durkheim: the danger of a society whose outward legality masks an inner lawlessness or anomie. Although disputes in such a society are settled by law, there is no real sense of the law’s legitimacy or of its descent from some higher commandment. In such a society, nothing forbidden by law is really and truly forbidden to the one who can get away with it—witness the verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial. At the same time, the burden of moral thinking is gradually handed over to the law, and where the law is silent, morality falls silent too. If the law does not forbid pornography, adultery, or divorce, then these are morally permissible: indeed, the only moral crime is that of the person who tries to forbid them. The culprit in a society driven by anomie is the person who obstinately believes in a real distinction between right and wrong.

In many ways this danger is now upon us. In the private sphere, almost everything is permitted, and the public sphere has become an instrument for safeguarding what is private. The purpose of law is no longer to constrain private life but to prevent others from constraining it—to open the maximum moral space for the individual and his “experiments in living.” The law has become an agent for breaking down the customs and traditions that impede the search for individual fulfillment, and traditional morality receives little or no endorsement from the agents of the state. At the same time, liberal factions mount vociferous campaigns against any aspect of the traditional order in which some residue of moral authority lingers. It is not enough to allow homosexual relations between consenting adults: a campaign of “education” must be introduced into schools and colleges to inculcate the idea that homosexuality is a normal “option,” to which no moral stigma attaches. It is not enough to permit the worship of strange gods: schools must be prevented from imposing any form of traditional religion or from perpetuating the Judeo-Christian beliefs and values that have hitherto shaped the spiritual life of Western communities. It is not enough to extend toleration to the customs and cultures of immigrant communities: we must embark on an active policy of “multiculturalism,” designed to demote our own culture to the status of an option.

All that is familiar. Equally familiar is the state of mind that so often results from a life dedicated to its own emancipation. There arises a longing for a value higher than the free pursuit of options and for a meaning greater than the protected privacy of the suburban living room or bedroom. Repelled by their own self-obsession, people begin to notice the self-obsession of others. All of a sudden they wake up to the fact that the world has lost its sense, that they live in a society so atomized that there is no real reason—no reason that carries the endorsement of other people—for pursuing any of the infinite available options. And from this realization springs the longing for a community that will once again surround and embrace the individual and provide him with a goal that is greater than his own self-interest.

The new social philosophy of the communitarians is the direct expression of this longing. But it is a philosophy flawed by sentimentality and wishful thinking. As the writings of the communitarians abundantly illustrate, none of them wishes to forgo the liberal luxuries: the luxury of sexual adventure without the price of social ostracism, of divorce or separation just as soon as the cost of a relationship seems to outweigh the benefit, of a life in which women pursue careers and men stay at home, in which roles are adopted and abandoned at will, and in which conventions are violated without penalty. No communitarian has yet come to terms with the fact that the strongest communities in the modern world, and those that give the most reliable moral and material support to their members, are also closed communities—communities that maintain a vigilant hostility toward outsiders and unbelievers. Human beings are not so irrational as to offer their support to those whom they cannot trust to return it; they therefore need signs that will distinguish friend from foe, “us” from “them,” those who belong from those who intrude. Conventions, customs, religions, languages—all play a part in drawing this distinction. And it is a distinction on which ordinary people rely, and must rely, in order to risk their finite capital of charitable feeling.

Reflect on this and you will begin to see how strong and effective was the old first-person plural of America. Tribal loyalties, mystic communions, and “ethnic” identities are unsustainable in modern urban conditions. The attempt to impose them leads to the kind of politics that we have witnessed in Iran: a politics that takes the opposition between bourgeois freedoms and community norms very seriously and that has drawn the impeccable conclusion that the only real enemy in the modern world is the modern world itself.

Americans should be grateful that they have a publicly defined alternative to the “we” of tribe, race, or religion. “We, the people” exalted the bourgeois virtues of honesty, industry, and accountability; “we, the people” lived in tolerant association with our neighbors, accepting the law as the final arbiter in every dispute; “we, the people” respected property, family, and individual success, to build a community remarkably free of envy, into which the rot of welfare dependency was introduced only recently. This traditional American “we,” in which Christian humility vied cheerfully with worldly pride, is the sole and sufficient explanation for the fact that everybody whose life is in ruins still hopes to emigrate to America. But communitarians of the stamp of Taylor or Walzer show little desire to protect or endorse this old idea. Instead, they offer a vague and distant glimpse of tribal feelings, a perfume of togetherness, sufficiently faint to offer no real threat to the “multicultural” society and the liberal agenda.

Experiments in social togetherness have been a recurring expression of the American dream. Nevertheless, the traditional social experiment in America, from the transcendentalists to the Amish, has been an experiment in self-sufficiency, involving a rejection of the centralized state. By contrast, the communitarians lend credence to the state as the creator and guardian of the modern community. For if there is to be a multicultural and emancipated society, in which roles, conventions, and beliefs can be adopted and discarded at will, then we need something other than a common culture, a common religion, or a common way of life by which to stay united. We need a supreme source of social order, which will prevent the emergence of a dominant culture and at the same time secure the right of everyone to enjoy the fruits of society. Only the state seems to be suited to this task, since only the state, and the law through which it acts, can stand above the many social options, securing space for every one of them.

There is another reason why communitarian solutions tend to augment the role of the state: the state is the only agency that can be relied upon to follow the liberal agenda. Consider what Etzioni calls “the deficit in parenting,” which threatens to produce a new generation of solipsistic young people, unable to form lasting attachments or to make any long-term decisions or to sacrifice their interests for some larger cause. Conservatives would see this as an inevitable consequence of a society that grants equal opportunities to men and women, that removes all pressures on the woman to stay at home or on the man to provide for her, that allows easy divorce and sexual license, that treats unborn children as a threat to the freedom and fulfillment of their parents, and that rewards single parents with benefits that married couples can obtain only by self-sacrificing labor. A conservative solution to the problem would involve permitting the old habits of local self-sufficiency and social cohesion to re-emerge. It would involve permitting communities to decide for themselves whether abortion and easy divorce are permissible, rather than granting such things as “constitutional rights.” It would involve discouraging alternatives to marriage and the family and withdrawing public funds from feminist programs in the universities. It would be concerned, in other words, with restoring the conditions in which parenting spontaneously emerges, in full recognition that these conditions, while natural to human beings, are not natural to liberals.

Etzioni’s solution is quite different: to ensure that children receive proper attention from their parents, firms should be compelled to grant six months of paid leave and another 18 months of unpaid leave to parents of a newborn child—with the government using taxpayers’ money to provide support during the first six months of unpaid leave. Such a solution carefully leaves the liberal agenda intact. Women remain on equal terms with men, with an equal expectation of employment. There is no supposition that marriages are stable or traditional family values restored. It is a solution that involves massive use of the state’s coercive power against employers and taxpayers. It increases the burden of taxation and forges a central role for the state in the business of social reproduction. The result would be a transfer of resources from private ownership to the state, a reluctance among employers to hire younger people, and an increased incentive for unmarried women to become pregnant. The proposal would also loosen the bond between employer and employee by giving the latter a “right” against the former for which he need not pay.

The typical communitarian response to the “individualism” and “selfishness” of the Reagan and Thatcher years exemplifies the same helpless invocation of the state as the one thing that can supply the deficit in social feeling without upsetting the liberal agenda. In response to the “callousness” of a society organized on capitalist principles, communitarians propose to increase spending on welfare, health, and support for the unemployed. The victims of society are hunted down and rewarded with taxpayers’ money. In this way, the state becomes the enemy of society by removing the incentive to live in socially responsible ways. The old bourgeois values held society together by an inner cohesion. By demanding self-sacrifice and accountability, they made people into subjects of respect and esteem. The welfare machine may seem to offer an alternative source of stability, but it does so only in the short term. People whose one social response is to take, who have no conception of their duties but live entirely for their “rights,” who have lost the habit of taking risks—such people will earn neither respect nor love from their fellows, not even from those who live like themselves. Writers like Theodore Dalrymple in Britain and Charles Murray in the United States have drawn our attention to the new social pathology that has issued from the welfare system. Whatever we think of the phenomena that such writers document, we surely do not find there any cheering image of the new “community” or any sense that the needs of others count for very much in the hearts of those who live off the state.

We should see the expanding welfare state not as the cure to our social disease but as a symptom of it. It is not an exercise of compassion to spend taxpayers’ money on bureaucrats in the vague hope that the poor will benefit. It is no proof of moral virtue, nor does it indicate a “caring” attitude to society or a serious ability to restore the deficit in social feeling. People look to the state to perform their social duties only when they have lost the desire or the ability to perform these duties themselves, when the communities defined by these duties are defunct. And in doing so, people invariably sentimentalize both society and state. They imagine that the state, managed by nice people like themselves, will in turn make other people nice. Without too much effort, and by paying just a little extra in taxes, we will find ourselves in the midst of a new and revived community, in which everyone will enjoy a freely chosen life-style while at the same time experiencing the warmth of fellow-feeling that unbridled capitalism (in their view) destroyed.

Communitarians may tell us, in response, that they are promoting civil society, not the state. True, civil society depends upon the state, since it requires the protection of law, diplomacy, and military force. But it flourishes in its own way, through free association, institution building, and the evolution of loyalties, affections, and corporate purposes in which the state has no part. Civil society is constructed at the local rather than the national level. In this way, communitarians have stumbled on a truth long cherished by conservatives: that loyalties grow from below and cannot be imposed from above.

If that is so, however, we must accept the process whereby “we, the people” define ourselves—and accept in particular the American social and cultural inheritance. Of course, that inheritance has suffered grave damage, inflicted by crusading liberals in the academies and the courts. Left to themselves, the American people would have retained the old rule of law, in which shared moral values were endorsed by legal judgments. They would have resisted the attempt to impose the standards of liberal elites on the states of the Union, and they would have wanted schools and universities to adhere to Judeo-Christian values and the Western canon. They would have retained their faith in the Constitution, which has been brought into disrepute largely because liberals have used it to impose minority values on the majority and to amplify the power of the state.

The real source of social decline in our day lies in the tendency to mortgage our future for the gratification of those who are living now. The free market, private enterprise, and the profit motive are not corrupting in themselves; they become so, however, just as soon as people lose all consciousness of the generations stretching before and after them and treat society as a means of present plunder. The most damaging manifestation of this attitude has been not capitalism but the welfare state, with its massive accumulation of power devoted to distributing resources among the living and contemptuous of all limitations contained in custom, tradition, inheritance, and private property. The means of social reproduction do not lie with the state. They lie with those local endeavors through which people take responsibility for themselves, their parents, and their offspring, and through which they husband their moral inheritance for the sake of those to come.

It was Burke who formulated the alternative vision most clearly. Society, he pointed out, is a partnership between the dead, the living, and the unborn. We are not here to plunder our inheritance, as though it were our exclusive property. We have no right to divide and distribute the goods of society as we please, without regard for those who follow us or who went before. Still less have we the right to distribute all goods equally among the living, without regard for who deserves them, who owns them, or who will use them wisely and well. We, the living members of society, are its trustees, bound by the duties of our tenancy. The real duties of social membership are owed not only to other living members. They are owed “transcendentally,” to people whom we can never know and whose numbers are uncountable.

I have charged communitarians with sentimentality, and I must acknowledge that the same accusation has been made against Burke and his followers. The emphasis on tradition is apt to seem, to the impatient modern mind, like so much empty nostalgia. And there are many overripe passages in the literature of conservatism to confirm this impression—passages that summon in valedictory terms a way of life that has gone forever and is beautiful, in any case, only in retrospect and only when selectively described. The emphasis on the dead and their bequest to us seems like so much pious cant to those for whom the living emergency is all. Unless properly expressed, therefore, the Burkean vision may be dismissed out of hand by modern intellectuals as nothing more than wishful thinking in the pattern of Masterpiece Theatre.

In reply, it is necessary to make two distinctions: between natural and invented traditions and between true and false respect for our inheritance. A natural tradition is an enduring and evolving form of social knowledge in which the experiences of countless people over an extended period are summarized. The English legal system is like this. The common law of England is an evolving system of answers to social problems, not laid down from above but built up from below through a constant process of adjustment in the face of the ever changing forms of human conflict. Parliament imposes legislation upon us, but the common law prevails as the true source of the social knowledge assumed by Parliament whenever it makes law.

Of more relevance to current debates in America are the country’s democratic traditions and the university curriculum, with its slowly accumulating store of “touchstones.” Under the limited regime described by the Constitution, American democracy has always been a hybrid creature, combining a strong sense of national identity with genuine variety—and liberty—at the local level. This arrangement has had its ugly moments, to be sure. But it remains a potent alternative to the centralized power so dear to both liberals and communitarians, neither of whom can accept the fact that states and localities might stand beyond the reach of their superintendence. The New Deal and Great Society eclipsed this idea of democracy, but it has new champions in Washington, even if their “revolution” has been, to date, a rather timid affair.

As for education, the advocate of the traditional curriculum in the humanities is not proposing to study a random selection of authors judged to be “relevant” to our modern concerns. He knows that his chosen authors have had something to give to all who have studied them, that their words, thoughts, and images have a proven capacity to illuminate the problems and experiences of every age and to present the human world in all its real and enduring complexity. Their very lack of relevance proves their relevance. By serving all people at every time, they show their capacity to serve us, too, in situations that we cannot now foresee. A tradition is not a random product of human choice; it consists of examples and precepts that are of enduring value precisely because they endure.

Such traditions must be distinguished from those so often mocked by left-wing intellectuals—the Highland costumes of the Scots, the medieval trappings of the monarchy, Morris dancing, Christmas carols, Yule logs, and a thousand other quaint particulars that often began life as Victorian parlor games. I do not say that left-wing intellectuals are right to mock these things, for they have their own poetry and are of lasting popular appeal. However, they are products of the market and are all too easily degraded by the consumer culture. Real traditions are not created by the market but exist as permanent and evolving constraints upon it. They are expressions of humility and of the need of human beings to consult the experience of their ancestors before making their most serious decisions. That is why traditions dominate human behavior at times of birth, marriage, and death; that is why they cluster around the process of lawmaking and law enforcement; that is why they surround and qualify the practice of religion; and that is why they endure even in an age when solemn and ceremonial gestures are rare and their charisma only faintly perceivable.

Respect for our inheritance is a complex thing and liable, like every feeling, to corruption. Again, however, the market in kitsch should not blind us to the fact that gratitude is a normal and natural reaction toward those to whom we owe our peace, our freedom, and our prosperity. Although modern people lack effective words to express this feeling, it plays an important part in their lives and is the real but neglected residue of conservative emotion and the source of all truly conservative politics in a democratic age. Enlightened intellectuals may scoff at Burke’s idea that the dead and the unborn are as much members of society as the living. But it captures a deep truth about the human condition, and one with which ordinary people are in touch, however hard they may find it to express the point.

Absent generations must find a voice not through the state but through the institutions of society. But this voice is heard in its proper and reasonable form only when those institutions are autonomous, sustained by the spontaneous cooperation of their members and evolving in accordance with their own traditions and in response to their own store of social knowledge. This is where the liberal and the conservative part company and where the communitarians try vainly to sit on the fence. If you are an egalitarian, who instinctively sides with the loser, then you will be suspicious of bourgeois success. Moreover, you will be disappointed by the institutions that people spontaneously produce in order to celebrate their moment of prosperity. Like families, sports clubs, and orchestras, they will offer a privilege of membership that cannot be extended to everyone, that will be based on radical distinctions of merit, talent, competence, and commitment. Loyalty means losers.

There is no clearer example of this than the private school, an institution expressly dedicated to the nurture of future generations. A successful private school will foster excellence, discipline, and moral standards. It will emphasize its own traditions and the bequest of customs that have shaped its social life. Past generations parade through its corridors unseen, and the style and content of its teaching would make no sense if they did not bear the authority of those who have disappeared from the scene. Such institutions breed an intense loyalty not only to themselves but to the surrounding social order and to the traditional decencies that sustain it.

Yet they foster inequality. By aiming for success, they create the possibility of failure. They also offer an advantage to their members not available to others. A society of private schools is a society of differences, and if things are allowed to take their natural course, such a society will contain real distinctions between the powerful and the powerless, the privileged and the disadvantaged, the rich and the poor. In America, as in Britain, liberals therefore tend to disparage private schools. All education, they argue, should be managed and controlled by the state, to ensure “equal opportunities.”

If communitarians are to take their philosophy seriously, however, they should side with the conservatives in this dispute. And this means discarding the egalitarian agenda, supporting traditions and authorities, and allowing majority values to marginalize the “alternatives” that undermine them. In short, it means coming clean about the real issue and recognizing that a serious communitarian can no longer be a liberal.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next