Featured Essay
Featured Link

Full Collections
Essays (425)
Quotations (6095)
Links (715)
Books (232)

Other Pages
About Us
Bookseller Affiliations
Contact Us
Editorial Board
Excellent Essays
Excellent Sites
Liberal Magic
Mush Quotations
Our New Look
Privacy Policy
Sign Up!
Amazon.com online bookstore


Community, Yes, But Whose? A Reply


After Roger Scruton's Communitarian Dreams appeared in the Autumn 1996 City Journal Amitai Etzioni, a well-known communitarian, wrote a rebuttal piece and Roger Scruton replied to it with the essay below. This essay first appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and is republished with permission.


Roger Scruton

 Author Notes

Professor of philosophy, University of London, repeated presenter of Herbert Spencer Lectures at Oxford University, advisor to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, author of The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), A Dictionary of Political Thought (1982), and other works

Books by Roger Scruton
Click on the bookseller link(s) to learn more about these books

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy (1999)
View details at Amazon.com

Modern Philosophy : An Introduction and Survey (1996)
View details at Amazon.com
 Essay - 3/4/1997

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.

This article is the property of its author and/or copyright holder. Any use other than personal reading of the article may infringe legal rights.
Opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily shared by conservativeforum.org or the members of its Editorial Board.