220. "Communitarian Solutions/What Communitarians Think," The Journal of State Government, Vol 65, No. 1, January-March, 1992, pp. 9-11.


The essence of the communitarian position is that strong rights entail strong responsibilities. We have a sound base of rights (although they need to be constantly and vigilantly guarded). However, we have not matched our concern with the preservation of rights with a commitment to live up to our personal and social responsibilities. Americans demand the right to be tried before a jury of their peers, but are very reluctant to serve on one. They favor more government services of many kinds but tend to oppose the measures required to pay for them. They seek greater public safety and public health but are leery about any attempts, however carefully crafted, to enhance the ability of authorities to deal with crime or AIDS. Above all, they cease to respond to the directive: Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.

Communitarians seek to shore up social responsibilities by shoring up value education in the family and schools and by strengthening community bonds, which are the best carrier of moral commitments.

In its first year, the new communitarian movement has focused largely on developing its basic philosophy. The following policy implications have not been endorsed by any communitarian body and are listed here to illustrate the policy implications of the basic approach.

I. THE FAMILY

Communitarian Position. The communitarian movement favors the new familism: recognizing the importance of the family without favoring a return to the traditional one. Both women and men have freedom to work outside the household. Both parents must live up to their responsibilities to their children, including increased involvement with them. On average, two-parent families are held to be more effective educators than single-parent ones; parents are considered more effective educators than child-care institutions, especially for the very young; and marriage is viewed as preferable to divorce because the family is the basic building block of all viable societies.

Specific Implications. If more funds are made available for domestic programs as a result of the peace dividend or higher taxes, first priority in allocating this money should be given to children. Children, the future generation, have long been neglected; it is time to reemphasize their importance.

In revising the tax code, we should realize that a child allowance is much better than increasing the tax-dependent exemption for children. This is because the allowance would be equal for all families while the tax exemption works best for households in which income is high, usually those in which both parents work outside the home. The child allowance, unlike the child exemption, does not discriminate against fathers or mothers who dedicate part or all of their work time to bringing up their children.

Laws that govern marriage and divorce should be changed to make either decision more consequential. Educating the young on ways to resolve conflicts and providing counseling sessions before marriage are steps in the right direction. Awaiting period may be appropriate for those planning to marry or filing for divorce. These measures are not meant to be punitive, but they would signal society's concern for the preservation of the family.

II. WELFARE

Communitarian Position. The new paternalism asks welfare recipients to accept some responsibility for themselves and contribute to the community even if they cannot find jobs. Staying in school, participating in training and avoiding pregnancies are ways they can contribute, although full-time employment remains the best solution.

Specific Implications. New initiatives should rely less on punishment and more on inducement (providing rewards, along with penalties). For instance, rather than fining a welfare mother if one of her children is truant, she should be rewarded by an additional sum if she succeeds in keeping her children in school.

Communities should take care of their own members, the way immigrant communities long did and often still do. Help from other communities, mediated through the government, is appropriate when local communities are overwhelmed by problems beyond their control (such as natural catastrophes, waves of immigration, or other special factors) or are disadvantaged because of historical circumstances.

III. HATE SPEECH

Communitarian Position. The best way to deal with students on campus who are verbally abusive to minorities, women, or any other group is to draw on non-legal remedies (for example, courses on tolerance or one-on-one interracial lunches and dinners). All regulations and codes that limit so-called hate speech should be voided because they impinge on free speech.

IV. MULTICULTURAL EDUCATION

Communitarian Position. Subcultural pluralism is welcome However, it must work within the framework of a core of basic shared values.

Specific Implications. Universities should welcome courses that add to the European tradition as well as information about other cultures. However, neither the federal government nor local ones should provide public support to colleges that eliminate European elements from their core curricula or required courses, to the extent that they exist. Our values--the constitution, our democratic tradition and our values of mutual tolerance--come to us from our European heritage, not from other cultures; eliminating them from the university undermines our national strength and unity.

V. PUBLIC HEALTH

Communitarian Position. In this area, we desire an enhancement of social responsibility. This should be achieved by drawing on the moral voice of the community and enhancing it when it is too weak to work. The government should be drawn upon only as a last resort.

Specific Implications. Other measures that would enhance public health include: requiring that hospitals strongly encourage patients who are having their blood tested for any reason to also have it checked for HIV and provide counseling if the virus is found. (Research by the Centers for Disease Control found this to be cost-effective). The community should strongly urge people who are likely HIV carriers to come forward and be tested, and, if found to be carriers, to disclose it to all their sexual contacts either by themselves or through public health authorities. Concomitantly, we should increase penalties for violating the privacy of HIV carriers and discriminating against them.

We should consider it a crime to engage in a contact that is likely to transmit the AIDS virus, without warning the person who might become infected.

We should require all who enter a hospital to sign a form indicating their disposition toward donating their organs. We should consider all people who die without signing a form to have agreed to have their organs donated, unless the person prior to death, or the family, registers an objection. This measure would greatly improve the quality of life for thousands each year who now cannot get organs suitable for transplanting.

VI. PUBLIC SAFETY

Communitarian Position. The greatest danger to freedoms at this stage does not lie in excessive police powers, although there are serious abuses that must be curbed, especially concerning police relations with minorities.

The main problem, however, is that if the state does not provide effective measures to restore public safety, the public may turn to extremists to restore order. Already half the public is willing to suspend the constitution in order to help fight the war against drugs. Limited, carefully crafted measures to make public protection more effective must be considered.

Also, we should expect, as part of our social responsibility, that everyone attending occasions at which alcohol is consumed will choose one or more persons who will not consume alcohol, as designated drivers. Sobriety checkpoints should be introduced in the 12 states that do not yet have them.

Specific Implications. We should restore the good-faith, exclusionary rule, which allows the use of evidence even if it was collected in a technically flawed manner, as long as there is no deliberate police bias. Under this policy, criminals will not walk simply because someone used the wrong form or some technical error occurred.

We should allow 'suspicionless' searches for those suspected of no crimes (for example, airport screening gates, drug checkpoints, and sobriety checkpoints) when the intrusion is minimal, the danger to the public is substantial, and there are no effective alternatives.

We should support drug and alcohol testing of all groups in positions of potential high risk to the public (such as school bus drivers, air traffic controllers, pilots, and train engineers), but not testing of the population at large.

We should allow carefully crafted new antiloitering laws that enable a community to drive out drug dealers without allowing discrimination against minorities or others.

We should use summary administrative proceedings, such as those used to remove spoiled food from the market, to revoke the licenses of drunk drivers.

VII. PUBLIC EDUCATION

Communitarian Position. Character formation is a prerequisite for all learning. Moral education is necessary and can be achieved without opening the door to indoctrination.

Specific Implications. Schools should systematically review their structure from the viewpoint of experiences they generate between teacher and student, in public spaces (for example, the cafeteria, corridors, and parking lots), ensuring that they are supportive, rather than corrosive, of character formation.

Schools should provide courses on human relations that teach people how to resolve conflicts and relate better to one another as spouses, coworkers and fellow citizens. They also should provide courses that focus on transmission of the numerous values we share. (Georgia passed a law to this effect in 1991).

Schools should work with corporations to enhance the educational process through work experience.

VIII. POLITICAL REFORMS

Communitarian Position. Campaign contributions by special interests to candidates for public office tend to generate obligations that are inimical to democratic representation. We should curb this flow of private money into public life as much as possible.

Specific Implications. Political action committees (PACs) should be abolished. If they are continued, donors should be required to designate the recipient of the funds to prevent oligarchic pooling by PAC managers.

We should prohibit corporations, trade associations and labor unions from covering the costs of setting up and administering PACs.

We should provide public financing of congressional campaigns. To the same end, we should provide free air time on television and radio to all candidates.

These are but a few public policy measures that illustrate, rather than exhaust, the new communitarian approach. Above all, much more needs to be done to restore social responsibility and community life. This will not be achieved by any one policy analyst or writer or group, it is a task in which we all urgently need to partake.

Amitai Etzioni is the editor of the journal The Responsive Community; author of The Moral Dimension and a professor at George Washington University.

 

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