212. "A New Community of Thinkers, Both Liberal and Conservative" The Wall Street Journal, (October 8, 1991).


A sociological prize ought to be awarded to the member of a TV audience who, during a show about the S&L mess, exclaimed: “The taxpayers shouldn’t pay for this; the government should!” He expressed well a major theme of contemporary American civic culture: a strong sense of entitlement and a weak sense of obligation to the community. Americans hold dear the right to be tried by a jury of their peers; but when asked to serve on such juries, most do their damnedest to evade the call. Most Americans cheered our show of force in the Gulf, but very few wish to serve in the armed forces or have their children sign up.

We also have an American “rights industry” that manufactures an endless array of rights not explicitly included in the Constitution - such as the “right” of children to sue their parents, animal rights, the “right” to shelter for all those homeless, and that of the handicapped to seats on any flight.

I am a “communitarian,” member of a new group of social thinkers that points to the twin need to curb the minting of rights and to balance existing ones with greater willingness to shoulder responsibilities and commitments to the common good. We emphasize the importance of community, the moral claims staked by shared needs and futures, as distinct from the claims of various subgroups and individuals.

The communitarian ranks include both liberal and conservative thinkers. Liberal communitarians recognize that the creation of new “rights” has undermined the value of family, a vital foundation of all communities. Thus, William Galston, who was Walter Mondale’s issues director, calls for acknowledging the moral superiority of the two-parent family, which many liberals long considered just one out of many possible options. And Harvard-based Michael Sandel, another liberal communitarian, would allow communities to curb pornography. In a just released book, “The Good Society,” by liberal communitarian Robert Bellah and his associates, religious discussed with a piety more commonly found in some Catholic publications.

Conservative communitarians realize that while individuals maximizing their own self-interest may make for the best economy, it ain’t necessarily so when it comes to social/moral matters. Thus, William Buckley Jr. Recently advocated semi-mandatory national service for young Americans. Mary Ann Glendon is a critic of the extreme individualism of both economic conservatives and social liberals. In her new book, “Rights Talk,” she takes the former to task for opposing a broad range of family aid programs, and the latter for treating devotion to child-raising as just another “life-style” choice.

Most communitarians would oppose the limits of free speech that have been introduced recently in more than 110 universities to curb racial and ethnic slurs. However, we would strongly favor non-legal remedies - say, arranging a teach-in on tolerance. And we have been trying to find a middle ground between the Pro Choice and Pro Life purists precisely because we feared the kind of polarization and violent confrontations we saw in Wichita, Kan., over the summer. For example, it has been suggested that the fetus may be seen as gradually acquiring human features and a moral standing.

A communitarian action group, the American Association for Rights and Responsibilities (AARR), regularly takes on the American Civil Liberties Union, asserting that individual rights have been construed too widely, to the point that they hobble the legitimate work of the police and public health authorities.

Take the issues of sobriety checkpoints and drug testing. The ACLU claims that Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure indicate that sobriety checkpoints are unconstitutional, and that even train engineers and airline pilots may not be subject to testing for drug abuse. In contrast, the AARR argues that such measures are in the public interest and putting up with the minor intrusions involved makes a contribution to the common good. The average delay caused by a properly set up checkpoint is only 90 seconds. That is, sobriety checkpoints constitute a reasonable search.

Communitarians stress that when a community is intact, there is rather little need for government of any kind, from policing to welfare. If neighbors know and care for one another, they are more likely to be each other’s keepers (e.g. to watch out for intruders, to participate in community patrols, and to contribute to voluntary associations that take care of those truly in need). The more intact families are, the better they are able to discharge their duty of instilling basic moral values in their offspring. Neighborhoods, churches and schools are the best places to develop and reaffirm moral education that was introduced at home. It is only as these basic community institutions wane that by default, these matters are left at the door steps of public authorities that are much less well-equipped to deal with them.

Furthermore, the power of the community differs radically from that of the state. While the state coerces, preventing people from following preferences they hold dear, the community persuades people to change the preferences to those that are socially responsible. Communities draw on the special bonding between children and parents, among friends and neighbors, in peer groups, and between community members and their leaders. These powers rely on subtle mechanisms, such as words of praise, looking askance, thankful glances, a congratulatory slap on the back, recognition in a town meeting, a story in the local paper.

These make most people want to “behave” rather than force them to do so, and they make people fell good about being socially responsible, rather than antagonistic to state-imposed order. After all, people for centuries took care of their children, elderly infirm and those down on their luck, not because they feared the law but because they felt this was their duty - and when they neglected it, their community reminded them.

True, there is a danger that the moral voice of the community itself will become oppressive. In Calvinist Geneva and in the days of the Salem witch hunts, dissenters may well have been ostracized, isolated or even jailed. However, given our highly mobile, media-penetrated and pluralistic society, the danger of oppressive communities is remote. The moral voices of contemporary American communities are continuously checked by other voices that reach their members from outside sources, via the press, radio and television.

Moreover, most communities speak in a variety of voices, so that no person is directed by a united community to march in one narrow direction. Thus, many communities prefer religious people over atheists, but are quite supportive of a wide range of religious beliefs. Lastly, if someone feels truly cornered, relocating to a community that upholds a different set of social / moral values is relatively easy in America as compared with most countries. To put it differently, moral variety and pluralism - not to be confused with a moral vacuum - is an effective protection against excessive communitarianism, so far largely a theoretical danger in our often weak communities.

The Communitarian Network
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