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Community, Yes. But Whose?


A communitarian's rebuttal to Roger Scruton's Communitarian Dreams, offered here on conservativeforum.org as context for Mr. Scruton's essay. This essay first appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal along with Roger Scruton's reply and is republished with permission.


Amitai Etzioni

 Author Notes

Professor at George Washington University, former Professor of Sociology at Columbia University (1958-1978), Editor of The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities, a communitarian quarterly, and author of 19 books including The Limits of Privacy (1999) and The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (1996)

 Essay -

Introduction by the Editor of City Journal

In "Communitarian Dreams" (first published in 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 below.

Amitai Etzioni's essay

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.

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