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Wednesday, August 1, 1990

A Reviewers Notebook: The Quest for Community

The Quest for Community, subtitled “A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom,” was written in the 1950s by Robert Nisbet, a professor of sociology at Columbia University. Originally published by the Oxford University Press, it has now become part of the “ICS series in self-governance” published by the Institute for Contemporary Studies (243 Kearny Street, San Francisco, CA 94108, 272 pages, $10.95 paper).

The book is confusing because pluralism, which Nisbet welcomes, is in itself confusing. As George Roche of Hillsdale College has said, we live in a “bewildered society.” We come out of a 19th century in which men believed in individualism. They were satisfied to take status from membership in the “intermediate” organizations of the family, the church, the private school, the labor union, the sports club, the dramatic society, and so on. For the rest, they were happy in a world that believed in something called “progress.” Community took care of itself.

But Tocqueville, that prophetic French visitor of the early 19th century, sensed troubles to come. Democracy was fine, but there could be tyrannies of the majority. The Founding Fathers, in dividing the powers of government, had done their best. But community was not a matter of elections and parliaments. It was a matter of man% relation to the cosmos in which we all must live.

Tocqueville worried about the strong drives of individualism and Statism which seemed to put inexorable pressure from two ends of the scale on the “intermediate” organizations. He saw the State stepping in to assume powers that should belong to groups of citizens. Unfortunately, citizens can be passive. The State didn’t have to be the wicked enemy of mankind that figures in the writings of Mencken and Albert Jay Nock. It didn’t have to be vicious, as in Hitler’s Reich or Stalin’s gulags. It could aspire to be total in a nice way, with negligence taking over. But what of freedom? Tocqueville thought we could be conned out of it.

“Because of our single-minded concentration upon the individual as the sole unit of society,” Nisbet writes, “and upon the State as the sole source of legitimate power, we have tended to overlook the fact that freedom thrives in cultural diversity, in local and regional differentiation, in associative pluralism, and above all, in the diversification of power.

“Basically,” Nisbet continues, “all of these are reducible . . . to the single massive problem of political government to the plurality of cultural associations which form the intermediate authorities of society . . . .” Nisbet reworks this theme of diversification by quoting from a score of people to make the same point. Bertrand Russell, Montesquieu, Lord Acton, Proudhon, Frank Tannen-baum, David Lilienthal, Karl Mannheim, Lewis Mumford—all of them are lined up as proponents of setting unit against unit, power against power. The grand enemy is Rousseau’s General Will. Decentralization is the word that can link anarchists (Proudhon), engineers (Lilienthal), and old-fashioned liberals together.

William A. Schambra, in his introduction to the new edition of The Quest for Community, says that Nisbet’s work “stands among the most important social critiques ever written.” There is no denying that every page of the book has provocative sentences. But the proliferation of quotations from so many other primary social critics gives Nisbet’s work the flavor of an anthology. Nisbet doesn’t grant his readers the right to say, “Hey, you’ve made the point sufficiently strong in your own words. Why drag in all the corroborative voices?”

The justification for Nisbet’s method is that it teaches. And Nisbet is first of all a teacher. Since he obviously hasn’t found his “community” (he is still “questing”), he would be the last to claim the originality that Kant made the mark of the true creator. Nisbet would probably be satisfied to be known as a good teacher of the values underlying the free society. He can leave the hyperbole to others.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.