237. "Libertarian Follies," The World & I, (May 1995), pp. 365-377.


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 economic ones.

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 kinds.)

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 policing.

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 excesses.

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 mending.

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 derail.

"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 today"(p.8).

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.

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