333. "You Have Fixed the Economy, Mr. Blair -- Now You Must Mend Society," The London Times (July 5, 2000), page 18.


The Blair Government got the economy on the right course, no mean feat. It is now time to do the same for society, an even greater challenge. First, Americanisation, in which more and more family and social life is sacrificed for the sake of a vibrant economy, must be curbed - without losing high economic growth and competitiveness.

Secondly, societal rehabilitation must proceed not by attacking one social problem at a time - separate policies for crime, welfare, health, education - but the basic foundations of the social order must be treated. This holistic approach is especially taxing because a simplistic, Conservative-like, return to old virtues is neither practical nor justifiable.

To start with families, if a parent is home when children come home from school, we gain on all fronts. Juvenile delinquency is rampant between the hours of 3 and 6pm. A good place for the Blair Government to start is to provide tax incentives for parents who work at home and for corporations that restructure their work accordingly. Increasing the availability of part-time jobs, by ensuring that people who take such jobs do not lose benefits or chances for advancement, also helps. So does discouraging overtime, as the French do.

Schools must emphasise character education, especially in the first years, rather than academics. Character education does not entail some religious indoctrination, but learning to control one's impulses and to be empathic (to learn to walk in the other person's shoes). Without such foundations, all crime prevention programmes are bound to fail. And schools achieve more if they are open longer hours and more days a year, if they provide more extracurricular activities and encourage community service.

Communities provide the best way to reduce crime and cut healthcare costs by fostering preventive care, reaching out to those who are in grief and much else. The Government does best when it allows communities that are intact much more decision-making freedom. (In Denmark communities are now given more freedom in determining how their school budget is to be used.) This in turn entails a much deeper devolution than delegating power to Scotland, Wales and London.

Where communities have frayed, the Government can help to reactivate them by training local leaders and ensuring that public spaces, such as parks and plazas, will be safe; that local public institutions, from libraries to swimming pools, will be in good condition and open late; that shopping areas will not be allowed to be driven out by shopping malls. Communities do not happen in private homes and cars but in spaces people share.

The core principle which needs to be followed is mutuality rather than volunteerism. Mutuality is based on the notion that we help one another; when you are sick I take your children to my home, expecting that you will do the same for me if I were sick, and so on. Such behaviour is much more sustainable than doing good and can carry much more of the social load than volunteerism, as commendable as the latter is.

But communities are not necessarily benign. They can discriminate against minorities, bash gays, or force young girls into arranged marriages with old men. Hence any drive to foster communities must be accompanied by an educational drive that emphasises that basic laws cannot be violated by anyone.

Last but not least, the Blair Government would do well to shore up the community of communities that the national society is. Rising wealth is fine and dandy, but when a growing part of society lives behind locked and guarded gates, is chauffeured around in limos, and feasts in fancy restaurants, there is a growing elite that views society through radically different lenses from the rest. Such an elite has growing interests that are incompatible with those who must take the Tube, live on a tight budget and so on. And to the extent that the new elite influences the mind-set of those who govern, public policies will deviate from most people's needs. (Let them eat cake...)

To limit rising inequality, the Government could treat income from capital in the same way as income from labour is treated (by withholding at the source), and treating income anywhere in the world as if it were earned at home.

The Third Way entails more than a new amalgam of government and the market, of treating neither as the problem, and both as part of the solution. The Third Way must lead to paying more attention to the third sector -society and the institutions that make people better members of society than they would otherwise be - which the market is not meant to do and the Government cannot on its own provide.

Amitai Etzioni is the author of The Third Way to a Good Society, published tomorrow by Demos.

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052
202.994.6118
comnet@gwu.edu