237. "Libertarian Follies," The World & I, (May 1995),
If one looks behind the mud Tibor Machan casts about, one can discern the basic outlines
of a libertarian position that has some currency in our society and needs addressing. Such issues
are being seriously explored by the social sciences and in the public arena. One product of the
debate is a type of communitarian thinking that is neither laissez-faire conservative nor liberal in
the contemporary, American sense of the term.
In The Moral Dimension I argued that there are now two main languages in which the
social sciences are developed: the neoclassical and the name-less "other." The first, best know
through neoclassical economics, is one that assumes that the center of the social universe is the
individual; that individuals pursue only one super-goal to which all other values can be
"reduced," namely pleasure; and that individuals pursue this goal rationally, by applying
empirical-logical evidence and reasoning. In short, that people are akin to two-legged computers.
These assumptions now guide about a third of the work done by legal scholars (Law in
Economics), sociologists (exchange theory), political science (public choice) and many others.
Adam Smith, widely considered the grandfather of neoclassical economics, was also the first to
show that it does not apply to many other areas of human endeavors, such as family, kinship,
interpersonal relations, and moral values.
But, as even Machan acknowledges in his own peculiar way, neoclassicists have not been
content to limit their modeling to the marketplace and have tried to depict all human relations in
their terms. People give to charity? They must enjoy it. People vote? A puzzle since individually
they do not get anything in return. People fall in love? It must be to enhance their prestige
standing by dating attractive mates. People pray? They must have put a high value on a product
called the afterlife.
The Merit of Socio-economics
There is evidence enough to convince anybody open to evidence that people are
compelled by numerous goals of which pleasure is but one, above all affirming moral values to
which they are committed. For instance, the more people see voting as their civic duty (a social
value) the more likely they are to vote even on, say, a stormy day, when the lines are long, and
when it is no fun at all. Spouses stay with their mates with Alzheimer's, not because there is any
hope for pay back or even appreciation, but because of a keen sense of duty, and so on.
Socio-economists study the patterns and dynamics of these relations using the "other"
paradigm, one that sees individuals not as free standing but as members of various social
groupings which influence them and are influenced by them. A paradigm that sees the
importance of values in human life and shows that the decisions individuals, groups, and
governments make are often faulty because their ability to collect, digest, and interpret
information is much more limited than the neoclassicists assume.
I founded this discipline while teaching ethics at the Harvard School of Business in 1989.
I discovered many sterling social scientists who were compelled by the same convictions
including Kenneth Boulding, Mary Douglas, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Gardner, Denis
Goulet, Albert Hirschman, Harvey Leibenstein, Jane Mansbridge, Amartya Sen, Neil Smelser,
and Aaron Wildavsky to mention but a few. By now there is an active international association of
several thousand scholars who work in these vineyards. (For more information write to The
Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, University of New Mexico, Onate Hall,
Albuquerque, NM 87131.) Note, and it is a point that escapes Machan, that the foci of socio-economics are moral and social values, interpersonal and group relations, and the role of affect in
our decision making. It is not a state-based theory at all, although we shall see that it does see
some role for government, as all realistic theories do.
Machan is correct (after all, when you fire that much, you are bound to hit the target
inadvertently) that this form of neoclassical imperialism (the invasion of areas other than market
economics) is a side-show; the main show is the effort to explain economic behavior.
Does neoclassical economics explain markets? Not on your life. Its models basically
assume a free market (perfect competition). But all markets are to varying degrees not free. There
are government regulations, taxes, inspections, etc., all the things the libertarians oppose. Fair
enough, you say, let's assume that the market in the contemporary United States is only 80%
free, then the laws of economics will account for 80% of what is happening; that is not bad for
most sciences. But economists have established that free markets -- like pregnancies -- do not
come in pieces or degrees; when a market is not fully free -- fundamentally different scientific
laws come into play, they have established.
The trouble is that the neoclassicists have been unable to come up with what these laws
are for an imperfect world. Socio-economics is trying to find them. Meanwhile, economic
predictions are very often exceedingly off the mark. Economics is a dismal science, if it is one at
all. It hides behind mathematical notations which most people are impressed by. If you crack the
nut, you find empty shells. My main rejection of neoclassical economics and other neoclassical
social sciences is that after 200 years of hefty investment they have very little to show for it.
Machan complains that I wrote that neoclassical economists badly advised the former
communist republic when they told them to jump to capitalism (within two years!), that a more
gradual transition is required, and that a jump will cause political, social, and economic havoc.
These lines were written in 1991. I am rather proud of this prediction. I wish, socio-economics
does not always do as well. But it does predict better than neoclassical economics because socio-economics takes into account social and cultural variables and is not narrowly focused on
In any event, because competition is what neoclassical economists (and Machan) so
strongly favor, why do they emotionally object to a bunch of socio-economists trying to see if
they can do better? Let the market decide between the two approaches.
Machan says that "Because of these flaws, Etzioni argues, such mainstream economics
miseducates people to embrace free markets and supply-side macroeconomic policies." This is
simply not the case. Here is what I did write about the matter:
Neoclassical economic textbooks are replete with statements such as ". . . the rational
thing to do is to try to gain as much value as I can while giving up as little value as I can."
(C. Dyke, Philosophy of Economics, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981, p.29.)
And, referring to worker-employer relations: "however, as in any transaction, each side
will try to get the most while giving as little as it must." (Ronald G. Ehrenberg and Robert
S. Smith, Modern Labor Economics: Theory and Public Policy, Glenview, IL: Scott,
Foresman, 1982, p.32.) An effort to protect the mono-utility assumption leads to a
discussion that equates the Bible and dope as two consumer goods (David R. Kamerschen
and Lloyd M. Valentine, Intermediate Microeconomic Theory, 2nd. Ed. Cincinnati:
Southwestern, 1981, p.82), while Walsh (Vivian Charles Walsh, Introduction to
Contemporary Microeconomics, New York: McGraw Hill, 1970, p.24) treats as
interchangeable relations to a bottle of booze (Jack Daniels) and to a person (Marina).
(The Moral Dimension, p. 249).
Also to the point, Neoclassical economic theory predicts that people will "free ride"
whenever they can get away with it, a tendency which increases as the size of the group increases
and one that can be counteracted only with coercion. Yet experiments (Gerald Marwell and Ruth
E. Ames, "Economists Free Ride, Does Anyone Else?" Journal of Public Economists, Vol.15,
1981, pp.295-310.) have proven the opposite. Subjects were allowed to invest resources
individually or in a group pot, whereby only if all participants invested in the group would each
individual gain. Furthermore, an individual gained the most by investing in the individual pot
while everyone else contributed to the group pot. Contrary to economists' expectations, almost
half of the resources were invested in the group pot! Such studies suggest that people do not act
purely out of self-interest, rather they consider what is on the common good. (The Moral
Dimension, p. 59-60.)
I summarized all of this as follows:
In short, because the neoclassical model is part of the modern mentality, and not merely
an academic field, it affects the way people see their world and themselves, and the way
they behave. . . . I do not suggest that neoclassicists (or anyone) should hide well-established truths from the public in order to keep them in ignorant innocence, mindlessly
favorable to caring and sharing, to mutuality and civility. It does follow, however, that if
it is true that people do seek to balance their pleasures with moral considerations, and if
they are taught, to the contrary, that they are "really" only out to maximize their pleasure
(and all that follows, that people behave morally only as long as it pays, and so on), there
is likely to be a negative, anti-moral effect, one which a deontological paradigm and a
socio-economic theory avoid. (The Moral Dimension, p. 251.)
Big Government? Strong Community!
Machan belongs to those who make a reputation of sorts by being fiercely anti-communist and against big government. He again and again tries to stick me and other
communitarians with being on the side of big government: "Etzioni, . . . favor[s] social
democratic public policies, whereby we'--those in power in Washington and other headquarters
of the government--dictate to everyone what is important for the community.'" "The
communitarian approach, which reduce ultimately to warmed over statism . . . ." "Instead we
need to adopt the approach championed by socioeconomists and communitarians, to whit, a
sizable dose of government intervention . . . ." Unlike Machan's heroes, the neoconservatives,
who were communists in the thirties, liberals in the sixties, and neoconservatives in the eighties, I
held to my views since they were formed during my student days. I yield to none in my
opposition to communism and to big government. (Note that on this issue Machan does not even
misquote me; he simply declares that communitarians favor "widespread involuntary servitude."
Well I am not sure what voluntary servitude is but I am sure I am adamantly opposed to both
Aside from abusive name calling, libertarians like Machan just cannot grasp that there is
more to the world than markets and government. They are blind to the importance of community
and its particular moral dynamics and effects. Communitarians call to restore civic virtues, to
people to live up to their social responsibilities and not merely focus on what they are entitled to,
to shore up the moral and social foundations of society, is said to endanger individual liberties.
This criticism deserves a careful answer, especially needed as political leaders from a
broad spectrum are expressing communitarian ideas with increasing frequency although they
rarely use the six syllable word. In the U.K., Tony Blair of Labor and also David Willetts of the
Tories often use communitarian language. In Germany, such ideas are found in the statements of
Christian Democratic Union; Kurt Biedenkopf, Minister President of Saxony; Social Democrat
of Cologne, Lord Mayor Norbert Burger; Social Democrat party intellectual Thomas Meyer; and
a leading Green, Joschka Fischer. In France, Jacques Delors, former President of the European
Commission. In the U.S., President Clinton and Vice President Gore but also Lamar Alexander
and Jack Kemp (two G.O.P. leaders) have expressed strong communitarian sentiments.
The main criticism leveled against communitarians is that community is a vague, fuzzy
term and that rebuilding communities we strongly favor will curb individual freedoms. As I see
it, communities are social webs of people who know one another as persons and -- have a moral
voice. Communities draw on interpersonal bonds to encourage members to abide by values the
community shares, such as "Do not throw out trash from your window" and "Mind the children
when you drive by in a hurry." Communities gently chastise those who violate shared moral
norms and express approbations for those who abide by them. They turn to the state (courts,
police) only when all else fails. Hence, the more viable communities are, the less need for
Libertarian critics correctly point out that during some earlier periods, in some
communities, such moral voices turned out to be much too demanding and harsh. They led some
British dissenters to establish the American colonies, where in turn they themselves engaged in
rather relentless and forceful promotion of virtue, including witch hunts. Granted, communities
can go overboard. The same holds for most medications: They must be ingested in fair measure;
one can overdose. But no one in his right mind would seek to ban them all as a way to curb
The answer lies in viewing the course of communities as those of bicycles, that for every
teeter in one direction or another, either to the anarchy of extreme individualism and denial of
the common good or to the collectivism of community taking a superior moral standing over
individuals, the bicycle must be steadied. Communities hence need forever to be pulled into the
opposite direction from which they are leaning -- toward the center, in which individual rights
and social responsibilities are properly balanced. Thus in Albania, China, and even Japan,
communitarians fight for more "space" for individual rights and expression and fewer
community imposed obligations. In the contemporary West, there is an urgent need to rebuild a
sense of personal and social responsibility, a sense that we are not only entitled but also must
serve, that the individual good is deeply intertwined with the needs of commons. To argue that
today in the West, especially the U.S., one needs to be concerned about the development of
excessive powerful communities, say guided by right wing religious groups, that will for one and
all toe a line -- is like arguing that we should give up heating in the winter because summer may
follow. In the West, this is the season of excessive individualism and it is what now needs
The rise in violent crime, illegitimacy, high levels of drug abuse, children who kill and
show no remorse, and yes, political corruption, are all indications. It matters little if these ill
signs are new or old, that other societies are more decayed; only that by any measure the readings
of social ill health are too high for a civic society. The best time to shore up the moral and social
institutions is not after they have collapsed but when they are cracking. Does anyone believe that
they are not cracked in the U.K. these days?
Communitarians, Machan says, seek to impose values by force of law, via the state.
Actually, our main argument is that to change a society's course we must focus on changing the
habits of the heart, on a grand dialogue in which most people come together to agree that a new
direction is the right one to follow. Compare the way we tried to curb consumption of alcohol
without prior dialogue, leading to the socially devastating failure of Prohibition. We are now
much more successful in curtailing smoking because legislation came only after a quarter of
century of public debate about the ill effects of smoking on not only the self but on others and the
community. Similarly, to ban divorce now, or even make it significantly more difficult, would
backfire. We need first to allow the debate about the importance of the family to mature before
we can ensconce the conclusions in legal terms.
True, ultimately a community can and may draw on the state. But, in what Daniel Bell
called, in his review of The Spirit of Community in the Times Literary Supplement, our most
original contribution, we advanced four criteria whose explicit purpose is to limit the state -- by
restricting interference only to when all four are met. There must be clear and present danger (say
the AIDS epidemic) rather than some drummed up fear; no alternatives available to state
involvement; the involvement must be the least intrusive possible; and we must mop up
deleterious side effects.
The argument that communitarians are majoritarians and hence will vote out minority
considerations, is a position that we systematically rejected from day one. The reason we called
our platform a bill of rights and responsibilities, and named our quarterly The Responsive
Community: Rights and Responsibilities, is precisely because we firmly hold that communities
should be governed by constitutional democracies and not simply majority rules. The
Constitution sets clear limits as to what each community's majority may rule (say the level of
local levees) and those that it may not touch (say the right to free speech). This is the reason we
oppose hate codes that allow the majority to define certain forms of speech as insulting and hence
outlawed. We favor public education campaigns, one on one meetings across racial and ethnic
lines, and intensified community dialogue to deal with intolerance. I grant that the term
communitarian is not registered, and there is always someone who mis-speaks. However, the
trick of blaming all communitarians for what some outlier says is a worn out one; social
democrats were forever blamed for the evils of communism. It is an irresponsible way to have a
reasoned dialogue about the compelling issues of the day, one which we should neither defer nor
"Reinforcing one sort of community means weakening another," pronounce some of
Machan's allies, in this case the libertarians of the London Economist. They mock: "But what
does [communities] really mean? Families? Neighborhoods? Towns? Regions? Nations?" True
there is a danger of tribalism, of communities turning on one another. However, our history
shows that despite some stresses among various levels of communities, local communities can
thrive within regional ones, and despite all the rhetoric the South (and other regions, e.g., the
West) combines regional identities within society-wide loyalties. Communities nestled within
more encompassing communities, layered loyalties, are the wave of the future and at the heart of
the communitarian agenda.
Communitarian thinking is not an American invention. It has its roots in the ancient
Greeks, the Old and New Testament. (I was trained by Martin Buber in Jerusalem.) Each society
must evolve its own communitarian answers, but the challenges are similar. Man and woman do
not live by bread alone; it is stupid to believe that all we need is economic rehabilitation. We
require our daily acts to be placed into a context of transcending meanings and their moral
significance to be explicated. One should not allow Machan et al who see in all attempts at
community dialogue the shadow of an overpowering state, to stop the development of a
communitarian agenda for social and moral reconstruction. Or as Machan argued, "the
communitarian thesis thus comes to nothing other than outright socialism . . . ." Here too, unless
civil and moral order are restored, more and more people will call for strong armed leadership.
Moral anarchy is the danger we currently face, not the excesses of moralism.
The Main Difference: Communitarians vs. Libertarians
For decades now communitarians have been pointing out to libertarians that individuals
are not free standing agents but members of communities. While people survive without
communities, the thinner their community bonds, the more alienated and unreasoning they tend
to be. Moreover, because for communities to flourish they require that their members not be
completely self-oriented, the common good has a normative standing in the same sense that life
and health do: they all are essential for our physical and spiritual well-being.
Libertarians in turn have either simply ignored these arguments, spinning ever more tales
about the choices individual consumers, voters, or others make on their own, or come to depict
communities as social contracts, something free standing individuals construct because it suits
their individual purposes. Libertarians seem to fear that the recognition of the common good as a
value that is co-equal with personal freedom will endanger the standing of that liberty.
Last, But Not Least
Value systems can maximize one dimension or theme, societies -- which must attend to a
variety of conflicting requirements -- are inevitably organized by several principles. They must
concern themselves both with order and with the freedom needed to search for new adaptive
patterns of social order; concern themselves with the justice of allocations and with productivity,
and so on. In short, ideologies and ideologues can afford to be, in fact even benefit from being,
one dimensional; students of society should know better.
We work from a composite concept that has built into it the assumption of the irreducible,
partially productive, tensed relation between the centripetal forces of community and the
centrifugal forces of autonomy. To remind that reference is a composite concept, the sociological
equivalent of ordered liberties (rather than a free for all), I use the term responsive
communitarians. First, the term refers to the position that takes it for granted that individuals are
members of one another, that people are ontologically embedded in a social existence. Second,
that because all that members of a society value, liberty included, is dependent on sustaining the
social realm, a measure of commitment to the commons has a moral standing. Third, that it is not
possible, desirable, nor morally justifiable to absorb fully members' identities, energies, and
commitments into the social realm. Providing for individual liberties limits the costs of
maintaining social order, allows members of society to express the idiosyncratic aspects of their
selves, and enables the development of new social patterns that are more adaptive to the ever
changing environment and internal balances than the traditional patterns.
The term responsive communitarians serves not only to distinguish this position from the
libertarian one (that builds on free individuals as its conceptual and normative cornerstone), but
also to distinguish it from those communitarians who build on the empirical and ethical
significance of the community without attention (or with insufficient attention) to individual
rights. One example of the latter is Alister MacIntyre, who dismisses rights as "fictions"(After
Virtue, p.70). The term responsive denotes that the society is not merely setting and fostering
norms for its members but also is responding to the expressions of their values, viewpoints and
communications in refashioning its culture and structure.
Taken together these three assumptions suggest that the starting point -- the primary
concept of responsive communitarian thinking and one that should be able to advance the
communitarian-libertarian debate beyond its current groove -- is the concept of a permanently
tensed relation between individuals and the society of which they are members. Centrifugal
forces will tend to lead individuals to break out, dangerously reducing the social realm, in their
quest for ever more attention to their particular individual or bond-breaking sub-group agendas;
centripetal forces will tend to collectivize members' energies ever more in the service of shared
goals, and curb their degrees of freedom. A society functions best when both forces are well
balanced. However, as both forces continually tug, the society and its members are constantly
pulled in one direction or another. It is the role of social observers and commentators, of
intellectuals, to establish in which direction society is leaning and throw their weight on the other
side of history.
Thus, although responsive communitarians within any one given societal context or
historical period may argue for more community (in the present day United States) or more
individual rights (in present day China), they actually seek to maintain the elementary balance
that is at the foundation of all good societies.
Never Existed, Incompatible with Modernity?
Other critics of communitarians have argued that one can't lose nor reform what we never
had, and anyhow community is not sustainable under conditions of modern life.
"Communitarians have been mistaken in their claims about the prominence of community in
times gone by,"(p.175) says Derek Phillips in Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of
Communitarian Thought. He adds, lest he be misunderstood, "If the sort of community depicted
by communitarian thinkers did not exist in the past, then it obviously cannot be said to have
given way to the forces of modernization"(p.149). And in what is known in legal circles as the
kitchen sink defense ("If the first line does not work, I will try this one.") Phillips adds to his
attack: "Even if community was once widespread, that does not mean that it is a viable option
The high rate of geographic mobility of modern society is the obstacle most often cited by
those who question the current feasibility of community. Ken Anderson maintains, ("Roundtable
on Communitarianism" in the Summer, 1988 issue of Telos, p.22) "[W]hen push comes to shove,
most people are not so enamored of community as they are of mobility." David Seeley believes
that the communitarian vision "smacks of a Norman Rockwell America that no longer exists and,
perhaps, never did. More Americans live in faceless apartment buildings, condos and housing
tracts than in towns where rustic but decent folk gather regularly to speak their minds"(Seeley, a
Prof. of Religion, letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 1, 1991).
The fact is that communities are not relics of a pre-modern era. While it is true that
modern economies entail a highly mobile society, people have learned to develop community
bonds relatively quickly. Moreover, many communities are not residential and hence provide a
measure of adaption to mobility. A member of the gay community who moves to a different city
is likely to know personally some individuals in the new city or at least to meet some who know
people he knows personally. He will be able to find the core institutions in which his community
aggregates, and know the basic elements of its culture, norms, and meanings. He will be
relatively quickly integrated into the local embodiment of his community. The same holds for a
Jew (who is likely to be a member of a sub-community of orthodox, conservative, or secular
Jews), for Korean-Americans, for Cuban-Americans and for many others.
Communitarian thought and socio-economics serve as an important balancing force in a
society in which excessive individualism, self-centered, and confusion between taking liberties
and ordered liberties endangers both individual rights and the civic order.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University,
the author of The Spirit of Community (Simon and Schuster,
1994) and the founder of The Communitarian Network.