235. "Too Many Rights, Too Few Responsibilities," Michael Walzer (Ed.) Toward A Global Civil Society, Berghahn Books, Providence, RI, (1995), pp. 99-105.



A sociological prize of sorts ought to be given to the member of the TV audience who, during a show about the S&L mess exclaimed, "The tax payers shouldn't pay for this, the government should!" He reflected well a major theme in American civic culture: a strong sense of entitlement, demanding the community to give more services, strongly upholding rights -- coupled with a relatively weak sense of obligation, of serving the commons, and the lack of a sense of responsibility for the country. Thus, Americans recently called for more government services but showed great opposition to new taxes; they express their willingness to show the flag from Central America to the Gulf, but a great reluctance to serve in the armed forces; and they have a firm sense that one ought to have the right to be tried before the jury of one's peers, combined with frequent maneuvers to evade serving on such juries.

The imbalance of rights and responsibilities may well have existed for a long time; some may argue it is a basic trait of the American character. In recent years, though, leadership has followed in exacerbating this tendency. Thus, while John F. Kennedy was still able to generate a tremendous response, including a stream of thousands of volunteers to serve in the Peace Corps when he stated, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country," in recent years, presidents preferred the less challenging course of suggesting to the citizenship that they could have their cake and eat it, gaining ever more economic growth to pay for the government services, while paying ever less for them via tax cuts. In many other areas, from public education to the war on drugs, facile non-taxing "solutions" have been offered. For example, it has been suggested that we may improve our system of education without additional expenditures by simply increasing parental choice among schools and thus, it is said, "drive the bad schools out of business." And to deal with the illicit demands for drugs we are told to "just say No." Radical individualists, from the ACLU to libertarians, have effectively blocked most steps to increase public responsibilities, from drug testing even of people that are directly involved in public safety (such as the engineers who drive trains) to those that enhance public health (e.g. disclosure of sexual contacts by those who are inflicted by the AIDS virus). Last but not least, in both state legislatures and in Congress the role of special interests has grown so much, especially through campaign contributions, that the public interest is very often woefully neglected, and suggestions for reform have so far found only a rather weak constituency.

A new communitarian movement is now taking on this set of issues, making restoration of civility, and commitment to the commons its core theme. The young movement is in part social philosophy, in part a moral call, and in part a matter of taking a different slant on public policies. Communitarians point out the ill logic of demanding the right to be tried before a jury of one's peers without agreeing to serve on it. Aside from being a selfish, indecent position (asking to be given but not willing to give) it is absurd to expect that most of us can be tried before our peers if most of us are not willing to be one of the peers. Communitarians show that in the longer run it is not possible to have ever more governmental services and at the same time pay less for them. (And the longer run comes nearer every day.) They point out that a government that is trying to make-do by serving numerous special interests neglects the other important matters for which there are no powerful pressure groups, from public education to public safety and health. And communitarians are showing that the Constitution, being a living thing rather than a dead letter the Founding Fathers left behind, can be adapted to the changing challenges of the time.

A discussion of specific measures communitarians are considering follows. Before those are outlined, it is necessary to stress two points to avoid common misunderstandings. While several of these measures involve legal matters and governmental actions, that is, matters of the state, the core of the communitarian position is moral and community based rather than stateist. What is needed most is a change in the moral climate of the country, a greater willingness to shoulder communitarian responsibilities, and a greater readiness to curb one's demands. Such a change is essential because without it, the required changes in public service and the definition of rights will not be considered acceptable and, most important, the more the called for changes are made morally acceptable and socially enforced, the less need there will be for governmental actions -- from policing to courts and jails. One example will have to stand for numerous others that could be given. To enhance public safety we need less drunken drivers. To combat drunken driving we need, among other things, a willingness of individuals, as a moral commitment, to embrace the notion of a designated driver (the way Scandinavians do), that is, one person per car who will not consume alcohol during an outing, party, etc. This is best done out of a moral, social commitment. For example, couples who come to parties and both drink would be subject to social criticism (unless, of course, they car pool); the person who proudly states (as if saying, `look how responsible I am!') that they're not drinking tonight because they are the designated driver, would gain social approval, and so on. Similarly, we need to support sobriety check points (rather than fight them as the ACLU does) to help enforce the new social, moral dictum. The changed moral orientation endures that drunken driving will be significantly reduced without any state action and that whatever limited state action will be needed, it will merely be to round off new social pressures (e.g., in the form of designated drivers rather than supporting drinking to excess) and will be supported by the electorate.

There is no simple recipe for building a new social, moral climate for a more communitarian orientation. Societies change their moral orientation in complex, far from fully predictable or controllable manners. Among the steps that are being taken are those that historically did result in the desired change. First, just as Betty Friedan's writings helped launch the women's movement, and Rachel Carlson's Silent Spring helped the environmental movement take off, so various communitarian writings call attention to the need for greater responsibility to the commons. These include Robert Bellah, R. Madsen, W. Sullivan, A. Swidler, and S. Tipton's Habits of the Heart, books by Michael Waltzer, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Alistair MacIntyre, and dearest to the author's heart, a new quarterly, The Responsive Community, whose editors are James Fishkin, William Galston, Mary Ann Glendon and yours truly with an editorial board that includes both conservatives and liberals, ranging from Nathan Glazer and Ilene Nagel to Benjamin Barber. The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda (Crown, '93) is the most recent statement. Second, a variety of public interest groups have made communitarianism their theme, whether or not they use the term as well as numerous grass roots organizations; recently the communitarians came together to form a network. (To join, call 202/994-7997). Less advanced but definitely moving in the right direction are various attempts to strengthen the teaching of civics in schools by groups such as Character Counts and the Character Education Partnership. What is yet to come is a major social movement, a kind of neo-progressive movement that would shore up the commons, making its main agenda curbing special interests and serving the public interests. Unfortunately, the recent public frustration with politicians has focused on attempts to "throw out the rascals," and impose term limitations, which will only lead to a new set of politicians committed to special interests replacing the old ones. Finally, creating opportunities for a year of national service is meant to further enhance the education for and the practice of service for and to the public.

The second misunderstanding that must be avoided is that the call for enhanced civic responsibilities and a greater measure of community service entails majoritarianism or even a measure of authoritarianism. To suggest that young Americans (or everyone) ought to volunteer more and more often to serve the commons, is not to suggest that those who refuse for reason of conscience, are to be disciplined. It is not to say that the civic "religion" or set of values will replace the religious or secular values people uphold. Nor does the call for more sobriety check points, drug tests, and disclosure of sexual contacts by those inflicted with the AIDS virus, legitimate the beginning of a police state. Communitarians are careful to craft suggested changes in public mores and regulation to allow for greater public safety, health and education, without falling into the opposite trap of radical communitarianism, that of authoritarianism.

The thrust of responsive communitarianism is illustrated by the following examples: to curb drug abuse it has been suggested that the USA should conduct massive drug tests on all school kids, government employees, and in corporations. This would entail massive violations of privacy, both because a function (urination) historically surrounded with much privacy would have to be performed under controlled conditions, and because the tests would often reveal private, off the job behavior. More persuasion not to use drugs seems more appropriate and keeps the door to a police state shut. On the other hand, drug testing of select groups of people whose drug violation directly endangers the public, e.g., pilots, seems justified on communitarian grounds. This is especially the case if they are informed prior that their jobs will entail such tests so that those who are hired are, in effect, consigned to these tests as part of their job requirements. (In contracts, if this is done for all jobs, workers no longer have an opportunity to chose whether they are willing to consent or not.)

Concerning matters of the rights of criminals versus those of their victims and public order, a wholesale removal of Miranda rights, as has been suggested by some of the right wing, may well return us to more authoritarian days. At the same time, it seems reasonable and prudent not to throw out evidence when the Miranda rules were violated on technical grounds and clearly in good faith. Thus, for instance, one can fully support the courts decision that when a person confessed to a crime before his rights were read to him, then they were read, and then he confessed again, that the second confession be allowed to stand.

In the same vein, sobriety check points, especially when they are announced so those who enter public highways in effect consent to be subject to them, should be viewed more as a way to secure the right to drive freely than a curb on that right. Nor are airport screening gates, used to deter terrorist bombs, to be viewed as an unreasonable search and seizure, as the ACLU does. The intrusion is minimal and the contribution to public safety, including the freedom to travel, is considerable.

The debate over the rights of students provides still another example of a reasonable communitarian position between according students full-fledged Fourth Amendment rights, in effect deterring teachers and principals from suspending them, and -- declaring students fair game to any capricious or even racial biased school authority. It seems reasonable that students who are subject to expulsion and suspension should be granted due process to the extent that they are notified of the nature of their misconduct and given an opportunity to respond; both actions must occur before the expulsion takes place. Still, expulsion need not guarantee students the right of council or call for cross examination and calling of witnesses, because this would unduly encumber the ability of schools to maintain an educational environment and because schools are allowed to maintain for internal purposes additional restrictions and simplified procedures because they are meant to be small communities, rather than adversative environments. Far from a novel approach, several state courts have already been modifying school policies in the directions we suggest.

Regarding the rights of people with AIDS, if to protect the public's health we chose to trace contacts, then we should also take pains to reduce deleterious offshoots of that policy. For example, AIDS testing and contact-tracing can lead to a person losing his or her job and health insurance if confidentiality is not maintained. Hence, any introduction of such a program should be accompanied by a thorough review of control of access to lists of names of those tested, procedures used in contacting sexual partners, professional education programs on the need for confidentiality, and penalties for unauthorized disclosure and especially for those who discriminate against AIDS patients or HIV carriers. All this may seem quite cumbersome, but in view of the great dangers AIDS poses for individuals and the high costs to society, these measures are clearly appropriate.

One may and ought to argue about the details involved in such policies. Indeed, the changes should be carefully crafted. We need to reset a legal thermostat to afford a climate more supportive of public concerns, without melting away any of the basic safeguards of individual liberties. Those who argue that the various present interpretations of the Bill of Rights are untouchable, that any modification will push us down the slippery slope toward authoritarianism, must come to realize that the greater danger to the Constitution arises out of a refusal to recognize that the Constitution is a living thing that can and does adapt to the changing social situation. Without such adaptation, without some measure of increased communitarianism, the mounting frustrations of the American people over politics being governed by special interests, over unsafe cities and spreading epidemics, will lead to much more extreme adjustments. Legitimate public needs are not attended to, in part because quite reasonable adaptations, such as selective drug testing, sobriety check points and other such measures, are disallowed. Basically the issue is not one of legal measures but a change of orientation to a stronger voice for the commons and less room for me-ism and special interests. At this stage of American history, the danger of excessive communitarianism, theoretically always present, seems quite remote.

 

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
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202.994.6118
comnet@gwu.edu