The Newest Communitarians
For the Course:
Contemporary Issues in Western Social Thought
Master of Liberal Arts Colloquium
Doctor Pedro Cavalcanti
Who are the New Communitarians,
What do They Want, and
Why Study Them?
A new political-social movement is trying to alter the balance of rights and responsibilities in American life. They've taken the name "Communitarians," although their goals are not those of earlier groups so called.(1) This paper examines various proposals of the contemporary Communitarians. It compares many of the themes found to the ideas discussed in the 1993 Washington University Master of Liberal Arts seminar, Contemporary Issues in Western Social Thought. A survey of communitarian themes is followed by a deeper look at the notion of national service, a favorite theme of the Communitarians.
The group's founder is Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist who has been publishing since the early 1960's, now a professor at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. His 1993 book, The Spirit of Community, can fairly be called the group's most comprehensive manifesto; The Responsive Community, the movement's principal organ, is a quarterly now in its fourth year of publication(2). They also direct The Communitarian Network, and encourage the formation of local groups thereof. The Network offers internships in communitarian political action in Washington, DC.
This writer undertakes this study for some of the same reasons he enrolled in the course which requires it: the search for ways to be an effective and responsible citizen. Responsibility is not hard for him to define. But effectiveness is what separates the citizen who does his or her society little harm and little good from the citizen who does some, perhaps great, good. So this paper asks if the contemporary Communitarians are hard-nosed and savvy enough to make their good ideas bear real fruit.
A Very Telling Anecdote
In an interview on National Public Radio's All Things Considered in 1992, Etzioni revealed the movement's fundamental principle in the form of a sociological finding: In a certain survey of young Americans, almost all respondents said they would insist on exercising their constitutional right to a jury trial if they were accused of a crime. But many, if not a majority, of the same citizens confessed to being most reluctant to serve on juries if called(3). With apologies to Etzioni, who speaks elegantly, I would paraphrase Ross Perot, "If that is democracy, that dog won't hunt." Alarm at this and similar anomalies in the practice of American democracy led to the formation of the Communitarian movement. The subtitle of their periodical is "Rights and Responsibilities," and its logo is a pair of stylized lower-case r's. This is at the heart of the new Communitarianism: the conviction that if society is to work, citizens must assume responsibilities, not just exercise rights.
For an insight into how the movement conceives the political process, consider this paragraph, wherein a communitarian author takes the via negativa to get at what politics ought to be:
This view of public opinion [as allegedly revealed in polls] is part and parcel of the standard social science definition of politics as the play of private interests in a public arena. Politics is said to emerge from a so-called pluralist pressure system in which the individuals and groups develop sectarian interests that compete with similar sectarian interests advanced by other individuals and groups and are arbitrated by the state acting as a "neutral umpire." The premise here is that a democratic political system depends on inputs that are entirely private: sectarian, subjective, narrow, and self-interested. The "public interest" is then the outcome of the competition among these private inputs. There is nothing civic or common or truly "public" about it. [Emphasis added.](4)
A Survey of The Spirit of Community
And the Beginnings of an Appraisal
Throughout the book I have called the manifesto of the Communitarians, Etzioni tries to strike a balance. And it strikes me that this balance is not just literary or scholarly, but shrewdly political. Etzioni is anticipating his critics and responding to their fears, thus making his new ideas more acceptable. For example, while calling for a new moral, social, and public order, he is vigilant against Puritanism and oppression. In a section tellingly titled "We Hold These Truths," he says, "We hold that law and order can be restored without turning this country of the free into a police state, as long as we grant public authorities some carefully crafted and circumscribed new powers." Where he proposes changes which he knows will appear to some to lead "down the slippery slope" toward authoritarianism, he willingly speaks, literally, of creating notches in the slippery slope.
Any intrusion on our rights, for example the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, must meet four criteria: the danger is clear and present; there is no alternative way to proceed; the adjustment (to the right as traditionally enjoyed) must be as limited as possible; and the side effects should be minimized. These days we are quite used to passing through airport security checks before boarding commercial planes. But the institution of those checkpoints was not without its Libertarian critics. Their principal complaint was that the searches were "suspicionless," that is, there was no reason to suspect, a priori, any individual passenger. Etzioni points out the clear and present danger: between 1969 and 1972, 115 highjackings, 24 bomb explosions aboard aircraft causing 256 deaths. In the first year of searches, authorities found 2,000 guns and 3,500 pounds of explosives among would-be passengers. Skyjackings dropped to two in 1973. The public preferred this method to accosting suspicious-looking individuals who fit a "profile," a most discriminatory practice. The metal-detector and X-ray searches are minimally intrusive (people are not frisked or strip-searched), and the side effects are a modest expense added to the cost of flying, and a brief delay. Etzioni argues similarly for sobriety checks of drivers on our roads (a check of one driver takes ninety seconds; police would have to announce where and when they'll be setting up a checkpoint), and for drug and alcohol checks of pilots, bus drivers and train engineers, since they hold others' lives in their hands.
Etzioni marshals a lot of evidence critical of the ways we raise children lately. "Parents have a moral responsibility to the community to invest themselves in the proper upbringing of their children, and communities--to enable parents so to dedicate themselves." His response is to insist that parents simply must spend more time with their children, especially when the children are under two years of age. To this end, he would mandate longer and more generous maternity leave, and that businesses give employees half-days off every week so they can take a turn volunteering in their children's day-care centers. He avers that he doesn't want to impose Ozzie and Harriet values on women again, and he wants it to become respectable for men to do more child care.
The problem of free speech is worse than thorny. Etzioni describes the elaborate restrictions imposed on "hate speech" by, of all institutions, universities. The title of his chapter on the subject is "Hate Speech: Nonlegal Remedies." The social, not legal remedies proposed are typical of one strain of Communitarian thought. Let responsible members of society, in this case a university's student body, confront and verbally chastise and, if necessary, ostracize, those who practice legal but uncivil speech. This is a wise course, it seems to me, for it avoids the insoluble legal problems of tampering with the First Amendment.
In another chapter, Etzioni describes and decries the highjacking of our legislatures by special-interest groups and their political action committees. With a great command of facts and figures, He indicts the system from the federal through the state and city levels. He reveals the astonishing fact that in many state legislatures, most voting is done by voice and the rest is not recorded. So, for example, legislators can vote against a bill, and blame others when it fails! U.S. Senator David Boren, when first elected to Oklahoma's state legislature, proposed legislation that would have let the public learn what was up. This temerity cost Boren a committee chairmanship and membership on the important rules committee, and got him relocated to an attic office. Etzioni's steps for remedy include public financing of Congressional and Senate campaigns, and elimination of PACs.
A Variety of Communitarian Themes
This, of course, won't do for the communitarians, who, to put it simply, want people to participate in politics with a view toward the common good. The article in question, interestingly, is not a survey of communitarian thought. It is rather a critique of a kind of polling, a critique that would please Myrdal because it recognizes how bias can enter a social science research endeavor, and considers the differences between citizens' lower and higher valuations. For example, "Yet pollsters assume that people can only answer questions of private preference, so they get the responses they expect." The author asks us to contrast two hypothetical polling questions: "Do you want a drug rehabilitation center in your neighborhood?" and, "Do you think that the community needs drug rehabilitation centers, and if so, would you accept one in your neighborhood if you were persuaded that the policy process by which the locations were chosen was participatory and fair?" Phrased in the latter way, Barber says, "the question probes the citizen's conscience, instead of plumbing his selfish motivations."
Another communitarian author strikes a similar note: Polls represent only tossed-off answers to previously unthought-about questions, not real preferences that acknowledge any sort of public good."(5)
Communitarian founder Amitai Etzioni issues a call for equality in access to health-care.(6) He decries rationing of health services on any basis other than likelihood of success of the treatment. Where Oregon's plan, which rations Medicaid services, discriminates against the poor, other proposals in the air now target the elderly, who, some say, should get only ameliorative care. While Etzioni's sentiments are noble, his means for financing his liberal plan strike me as wishful thinking. He envisions huge savings from the reduction of administrative costs, litigation, defensive medicine, useless medical procedures and excessive drug-company profits. I agree there is waste to be cut in all those areas, but Etzioni, in this essay, doesn't try to show that such savings even come close to financing universal health care.
Two communitarian authors invoke the separation of powers in defense of a practice of Congress frequently criticized these days. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein(7) consider the irony that Congress exempts itself from labor laws and other regulations it legislates for the country, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act (OSHA). But the authors propose that Congress regulate itself strictly, as it already does in some areas, rather than submit to the Executive, a course which would sacrifice the independence guaranteed Congress in Article 1, Section 6, of the Constitution.
Senator Bill Bradley(8) considers, among other things, ways our government encourages the accumulation of wealth by members of the middle class. He points out the tax deduction on home-mortgage interest, and the tax deferment of pension and IRA contributions. The differences between these policies and welfare, Bradley asserts, help perpetuate the great gulf between the net worths (not just the incomes) of rich and poor. Economic independence requires some assets: a home, some savings, even an education. Welfare as such doesn't give these to the poor. The discrepancy is apparent in this astonishing statistic: "For example, African-American families with monthly income below $900 have an average net worth of about $88. That includes everything--furniture, a car, savings, the value of a pension. The average net worth for white families earning only two to three times as much is more than $50,000."
In an article entitled "The Dangers of Soft Despotism," Charles Taylor(9) invokes Tocqueville by name, but also echoes a pair of Marx's themes, "the familiar sense of citizen alienation in large, centralized bureaucratic societies." Taylor distinguishes between the political system and the public sphere. From his usage more than from an explicit definition, I gather that by "public sphere" Taylor means all those non-governmental arenas where people debate their common concerns: the media, lobbies, unions, advocacy groups, business groups, universities. Like government, these, too, can be, or seem to the alienated individual citizen, hypercentralized and insensitive. The author's remedy calls for invigorated smaller public spheres nested within larger ones. He praises the openness to public scrutiny of the debates within some feminist and ecological groups, contrasting this with the secrecy of many more traditional lobbies. Taylor writes like a Marxist again in describing divisions among the public:
"One [way divisions arise] is a modality of 'class war,' in which the least favored citizens sense that their interests are systematically neglected or denied. In this regard, it is clear that the kind of solidarity expressed in most Western democracies in the various measures of the 'welfare state,' apart from their intrinsic justification, may also be crucial to the maintenance of a functioning democratic society."
He has all but called the welfare state the opiate of the people, in that it keeps the least favored from dropping out altogether, or, presumably, from rebelling.
The right to own property and the rights derived from such ownership were dear to Locke, and found an expression in the Constitution of the United States that owes much to Locke: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." (Amendment 5) Contemporary claims of this right and invocations of the Amendment provide much grist for the communitarians' mill. One such expression is found in Ronald E. Voogt's article "'Taking': Real Estate Owners, Rights and Responsibilities".(10) Owners of an art-deco theater in Philadelphia were prohibited from demolishing it by the city's Historical Commission. In a lawsuit, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition was an illegal "taking" according to an article of the state's constitution similar to the previously cited amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Lamenting this decision, Voogt professes more interest in the moral implications of the right asserted here than in the legal issues. So his argument, which I find agreeable, I also find somewhat soft: "In a community that is grounded in a moral view of human life, human beings have rights to food, shelter, and medical care. But should these rights be extended to imply that some individuals may make large sums of money at the expense of others' rights to understand and appreciate the urban context in which they live?" Slightly more persuasive is this: "Surely, we would all admit of enjoying the standard of living that a free economic system brings us; but that does not mean that our sole or even primary means of determining value in our society can be tied to monetary reward. Such an argument may sound attractive, but alone, without proper consideration of other human values, it is destructive of too much that is important to human nature." Voogt would similarly interpret the "highest and best use" doctrine of real estate law.
While all of what Voogt says seems right and just to me, it is so value-laden that it can't be adjudicated in a country that is so wary of established religion that it is afraid to establish values of any kind. A more hard-nosed argument for the public's interest in regulating real estate development comes in a later communitarian article, "Property Rights/Property Values: The Economic Misunderstandings of the 'Property Rights' Movement," by Donovan D. Rypkema(11) Land [whether considered with its improvements or not] is unlike every other asset, Rypkema says, because every parcel thereof is unique; it is fixed in place and finite in quantity; it will last longer than any of its owners and it is necessary for virtually every human activity. While it makes no difference to my neighbor what I do with the corporate stocks in my portfolio, it makes great difference what I do with my land. Thus land has always been treated differently in law, lending and philosophy. But I think this author's best arguments are his economic ones. Land derives its value, he says, from the character of and improvements on the land nearby; from what now call infrastructure: roads, utilities, levees, sewers; and from services provided at common public expense, like police and fire protection. So, since so much of any real estate's value is contributed by these extraneous factors, the contributors, as a society, have more than a right to claim a return by regulating use of the property, which guards the values of everyone's properties. Unlike Voogt, Rypkema, who is a real estate consultant, very specifically defines "highest and best use." It is a term from real estate appraisal meaning the most profitable likely use to which the property may be placed. And the first constraint on what is likely is what is legally permitted. So a property owner cannot argue, "If you change the regulations, then I can develop this property in such and such a profitable way; if you don't, you're denying me the highest and best use of it." Furthermore, according to Rypkema, the real estate industry is recognizing that environmental acceptability is becoming part of the concept of highest and best use.
The Issue of National Service
In the communitarian literature I have gathered, the single theme mentioned most often, though not always as the principal topic of a given article, is national service. What follow are summaries of several such articles.
Rogers M. Smith starts his article, "American Conceptions of Citizenship and National Service"(12) with a critique of past programs. The principal historical program, the military draft, long discriminated against racial minorities, segregating them in homogeneous troops. Until very recently, the military rejected homosexuals, and would still like to. Before the 1960's, Smith says, it was common to keep women and racial minorities off juries. And public education, which Smith considers a kind of universal national service (from the point of view of the students, not the staff) had distinct and discriminatory curricula for women and blacks. Smith argues that all these conditions betray what he calls "ascriptive Americanism," the notion that race and gender, and other ascriptive characteristics, are really determinative of one's fitness for citizenship. Persons who don't embody or approach the WASP male American ideal have been "assigned special limited (though often arduous) forms a national service appropriate to their natural capacities." In an argument really too lengthy to summarize here, Smith says in the end that any national service program ought to expose its participants to the vast, and much underestimated, heterogeneity of the American populace. One desirable result will be a partial replacement of ascriptive Americanism with something more egalitarian.
Etzioni says the same thing more simply: a year of national service "would act as a grand sociological mixer. At present, America provides few opportunities for shared experience and for developing shared values and bonds among people from different racial, class, and regional backgrounds."(13) He is also impressed with the possibilities the program has for inculcating a sense of civic responsibility in the young. It would give some an alternative to life in the streets and the steady temptation of crime. He indicates that he expects the program to voluntary (although one imagines, in the best of possible Communitarian worlds, that a great moral suasion would soon attach to participation). And it would be expensive, but it "could become competitive with other national priorities if the social and economic dividends proved substantial."
The mixing power of community service is important to some Harvard students of whom Robert Coles reports.(14) The students serve as tutors for inner-city children. Coles relays the tutors' poignant stories of their own enlightenments in the company of people they had only read about.
In the same issue, Nicola Clark takes up the theme of the expense of national service programs.(15) Other industrialized countries use low-paid, conscript youth for socially important services. But here minimum wage laws and unions unwilling to be outbid by volunteers won't let that happen, Clark says. Hers is an unusually caustic article for the journal. She impales President Clinton for his naiveté about the costs. She describes how it's done in Germany, whose program Clinton is known to admire, even if he doesn't know it as well as Clark does: the national-service youth are conscripts, pure and simple. Germany has a universal military draft, but asks practically no questions of conscientious objectors. They become the national-service corps. They serve twenty-five percent longer than military draftees, and are paid the same: $8.50 a day to start. Clark wonders if such a draft here (she's the only Communitarian author I've found advocating mandatory national service) would enable us to save on some of our bloated entitlement programs.
Suzanne Goldsmith(16) cautions against hoping for too great a transformation in the characters of some who might enroll in national service programs. Then candidate Bill Clinton evoked this hope in describing one delinquent's turn-around in Boston's City Year program. Goldsmith conducted a nine-month study of City Year, working closely with one of its teams. She counters Clinton's optimism with descriptions of two youths whose behavior in the program was only occasionally responsible, and who left the program after stealing from fellow corps members. She is also realistic about the costs of the program, funded by corporate grants and foundations. The tally: $20,000 per participant per year. Well, if it costs so much and doesn't save kids, what good is it? For Goldsmith the answer is the bonding and mutual understanding achieved by corps members, who, as in all Communitarian proposals for national service, come from all races and classes.
A Final Appraisal
Throughout the course for which this paper is written, I've been asking how any reformers can mobilize public opinion and action for change. I believe my ancestors were politically active because they wanted to improve their own living conditions and the prospects of their children and grandchildren. But in material terms, for so many Americans, what is left to improve? Galbraith is persuasive when he says the culture of contentment has become the voting majority, and change is locked out. The disadvantaged have disenfranchised themselves in relative hopelessness; and even if they would vote, they can't outvote the content. Herbert Gans' proposals of coalition-building seem like wishful thinking to me. The prediction ascribed by novelist James Carroll to Boston's James Michael Curley has come true: Curley's Irish immigrant constituents (or their sons and daughters, now) do indeed have two last names, wear striped pants and vote Republican. So the question becomes, do the contemporary Communitarians have a way? I've seen little in the journal articles that would arouse anyone not already a Communitarian. In his book The Spirit of Community, in the ninth chapter, entitled "What is to be Done?" Etzioni starts off very realistically. The success of the special-interest groups who have bought the legislatures is "based on the fact that most people, most of the time, are politically inactive."(17) "The public is preoccupied with many other issues."(18) But he goes on to suggest that social movements can have the needed public energy, and he cites the civil rights, women's, environmental and neoconservative movements in our own time, and the Progressive Era of a century ago. He proceeds to give details, some of which I related above, about proposed electoral and legislative reform. And as reforms they are most attractive and comprehensive. But Etzioni admits the reforms "will not be advanced until there is a significant new political force, and one that has staying power. Public opinion, temporarily mobilized by the media, will not do."(19) There follows praise of Common Cause for its agenda and attention to detail, but bleak assessment of its effectiveness and lack of drama. Demonstrations, after all, have vivified the civil rights, environmental, women's and neoconservative movements. And Common Cause is more narrowly focused than the Communitarian movement. The latter, Etzioni says, is at the early stage where its adherents must study the issues in detail, and form networks of local groups. This they seem to have done on paper, but they haven't returned the call I left on their Washington answering machine offering to join, or, if necessary, start a Saint Louis chapter. So my assessment is that the contemporary Communitarians are asking the right questions, proposing sound fundamental answers, and only beginning to flesh out practical courses of action.
1. The word "communitarian" seems to have arisen in the late 1830's, when it designated the members who joined geographical communities established "to put into practice communistic or socialistic theories." Thus The Oxford English Dictionary. In popular parlance, the title has been applied to the hippies resident in communes of the 1960's and '70's. The O.E.D. cites a usage in The Nation, about "communitarian libertarian ideas;" the subjects of this paper, it will be seen, would be very wary of ever being lumped together with libertarians. Communitarians capitalize the title they've appropriated, as well as the titles they give their ideological adversaries, Libertarians, Radical Individualists, and Authoritarians. This paper follows their usage.
2. The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993). The quarterly is published by The Center for Policy Research, Inc. Editorial offices are in the Gelman Library of The George Washington University, Washington, DC, 20052. Etzioni edits the
journal; one co-editor is Mary Ann Glendon, law professor at Harvard and author of Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan, Inc., 1991). Perhaps the best know other member of the editorial board is Robert Bellah, whose Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985) undertook to update Alexis de Tocqueville from an unabashedly communitarian perspective.
3. Indeed, the first endnote in The Spirit of Community attributes this finding to Morris Janowitz, The Reconstruction of Patriotism: Education for Civic Consciousness (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 8.
4. Barber, Benjamin R., "Opinion Polls: Public Judgment or Private Prejudice," The Responsive Community, volume 2, issue 2 (Spring, 1992), p. 4. Hereafter, the journal The Responsive Community will be referred to as RC.
5. David L. Kirp, "Two Cheers for the Electronic Town Hall: Or Ross Perot Meet Alexis de Tocqueville," RC 2/4, pp 48ff.
6. RC 3,4, pp 4ff.
7. RC 3,4 pp 6ff.
8. RC 3,4 pp 12f.
9. RC 3,4, pp 22ff.
10. RC 2,2, pp 7ff.
11. RC 3,3, pp 28ff.
12. RC 3,3, pp. 14ff.
13. O. cit., p. 114.
14. RC 3,4, pp. 49ff.
15. RC 3,4, pp. 38ff.
16. RC 2,4 pp. 53ff.
17. O. cit., p. 227.
19. O. cit., pp 243f.