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The Communitarians

Mises Daily: Thursday, October 14, 1999 by

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Are supposed "communitarians" merely liberal collectivists in disguise? That’s the argument of essayist Roger Scruton, and he makes a forceful case. Communitarians Amitai Etzione, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walter, for example, enshrine big government and statist social agendas while nonetheless claiming to be returning to traditional communal life.

The only identity that these publicists wish to preserve are those of designated minorities; and their prescribed means for fostering communal spirit is to have the state set family policy and socialize the young. These unmistakable leftists, says Scruton, "offer a vague and distant glimpse of tribal feelings, a perfume of togetherness, sufficiently faint to offer no real threat to the 'multicultural' society and the liberal agenda."

Communitarians wail against "bourgeois civilization and its homely virtues" and about the "dispiriting individualism of modern life." Their pseudo-right-wing protest strikes chords of response for those not quite reconciled to the modern world. Nonetheless Scruton insists the latest communitarian dream is not about an organic past but about a rigorously statist engineered future.

Scruton's observations are not entirely novel. In 1953, Robert Nisbet explored the link between radical politics and the frenzied quest for a fictitious and totally controlled past. The proper human ties once restored would supposedly allow people to live together without a cash nexus or legal formalities.

And 1922, Mises’s dealt with the pre-communitarian claims of Solidarists and Distributivists under the category he called "pseudo-socialism." These thinkers sought to preserve private ownership and avoid socialism, even while preventing accumulation, competition, and other individualist activities said to be contrary to social duty.

There are some communitarians who have opposed statist collectivism. Among them are Eugene Genovese, Christopher Lasch (despite his affection for guild socialism), Alasdair MacIntyre (despite his stated contempt for commercial cultures), and the editor of Telos, Paul Piccone (who moved from Marxism to libertarian decentralism, without ceasing to regard himself as a communitarian). These non-statist communitarians have yet to come around to full classical liberalism because they have not asked the hard questions about the nature of bureaucracy and therapuetic politics.

But the same judgment must also apply to many anti-communitarians, who have entered the political conversation supposedly from the other side. They too are characterized by a trusting acceptance of managerial government which engages in behavior modification. The alleged reason that neoliberals accept this exercise of power is to strengthen individuals who would otherwise be victimized, or so we are told, by insensitive people.

Thus neoliberal Oxford professor of law Ronald Dworkin writes at length about how courts must define and uphold "rights" that should take precedence over the decisions of elected legislatures. Unlike "procedural matters," decided on by elected representatives, wise judges should determine "prepolitical rights," which protect individuals against the majority. Dworkin dishonestly defends racial and gender quotas as classical liberal rights.

Another self-identified neoliberal, John Rawls, who has nothing good to say about communitarians, supports quotas and a socialist economy. In his version of a contractarian theory, Rawls assumes that the "greatest equal liberty for all" is something that all individuals should want. Rawls identifies justice as "fairness" and designates the state as the custodian of justice, that is, as an agency that undertakes and oversees material redistribution.

Rawls's insistence that no inequality be allowed unless it benefits the worst off can be used to defend capitalism as well as to devalue it. But it also allows Rawls to advocate what he wants all along, a welfarist policy that can be superimposed on individualist premises. This forced theorizing contributes to the mainstream communitarian aim, which Scruton says is "the transfer of resources from private ownership to the state."

Another neo-Lockean who finds no incompatibility between bashing communitarians and pushing welfarist policies is Stephen Holmes of the University of Chicago. A garden-variety left-of-center Democrat, Holmes, in his widely acclaimed polemic, Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1993), targets those who set "communitarian traps." But this exercise in labeling is all that divides Holmes from left-communitarians. Holmes tries link egalitarian redistribution to the classical liberal tradition, even while belittling the classical tradition of property rights.

The pretense that all liberalisms flow together serves the same need as the "conservative-sounding rhetoric" that Scruton detects among some communitarians. It is a justification for a socially interventionists government, one depicted as the defender of steadily updated "rights," all of them fathered on long-dead liberal theorists.

Even more significantly, it may be hard to distinguish these left-communitarians from conventional conservatives in the U.S., who talk vaguely about "family values." They claim to be for the family and for public policies that advance this cause. But they do not want to take seriously such institutional bulwarks of family life such as private property and the market economy. Moreover, their rhetoric is easily expropriated by gay and feminist lobbies eager to enhance state power.

At an American Political Science Association meeting, a conservative roundtable, including Michael Barone and Harvey Mansfield, rejoiced at America's "turning to the Right." The proofs furnished for this imagined development are that Americans are taking seriously the 1964 Civil Rights Act and that our government is promoting family values.

It is significant that both of these things were linked. Each was or is an excuse to expand federal administrative power, at the expense of lower levels of government or the private sector. And both "conservative" achievements ignore the truth that community and modern administration represent antithetical interests. Such an action would result in having government administrators treat the family as the object of their own experiment. It would also confirm the already self-proclaimed role of the administrative state as a creator of "family policy."

Even if the state were to carry out policies that seemed pro-community, such as changing the income tax so as to favor large working families, this would not serve the long-term interest of communities. It merely provides another cover for political management, albeit one marketable to the middle class. But for those serious about communities, the goal of protecting their institutional integrity is inseparable from guarding their independence and their property from political invasion.

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Paul Gottfried teaches political philosophy at Elizabethtown College. FURTHER READING: "Communitarian Dreams," Roger Scruton, City Journal (Fall 1996); Robert Nisbet, Quest for Community (Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1953); Ludwig von Mises, Socialism (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981 [1921].