Libertarianism as Communitarianism

Dr. Klein is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of California, Irvine.

The Age of Irreverence

In former decades there was a certain decorum about fundamental values. Even if you did not share the other fellow’s sentiments about religion, politics, or family living, you knew to let your differences lie: “Never talk sex, religion, or politics in mixed company.”

But in recent years manners have been changing rapidly. Not only are the old values losing their hold, but values of any kind are deemed fair game for the knife and the mallet. Intellectuals apply their classroom dissection to hallowed notions from theology to constitutional law. P. J. O’Rourke argues the whoredom of Congress, radio-man and sometime gubernatorial candidate Howard Stern lampoons politics, television fathers Homer Simpson and Al Bundy make a farce of the loving family, rap singer Ice T smashes conventional thinking about law enforcement, and Hollywood ridicules organized religion. Sensuality and violence, those great solvents of sentimentality, permeate popular culture. Ours is the Age of Irreverence.

It is therefore no surprise that so many alarmed voices now fret about the breakdown of cultural value. One sure marker of this trend is the rise of an intellectual movement known as communitarianism. Led by George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, the communitarians have gained prominence by means of projects like the quarterly journal The Responsive Community and the immensely popular Society for the Advancement of Socio- Economics.

The Communitarians

Although the rapid rise of communitarianism is apparent, the same cannot be said of its fundamental message. Its major, if somewhat insipid, chord is that cultural values are crucial to the proper functioning of society, and that these values are born and bred in healthy community living. A favorite method among communitarians for adumbrating this message is to chide “mainstream” economics for viewing individuals as atomistic agents with preferences that are mysteriously “given.”

As for politics, the communitarians are rather squishy. Given their intellectual base in sociology and their emphasis on community norms, it isn’t surprising that few communitarians regard capitalism as the unknown ideal. Laissez-faire capitalism is sometimes fingered as a source of our problems. Indeed, government is often held. up as the agent of social betterment. Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda (1993) is replete with specific suggestions for government action and regulation.

But don’t write off the communitarians as a bunch of closet statists. On the question of the state, Etzioni, like communitarians in general, runs hot and cold. In a recent issue of The Public Interest, he writes:

[A] strong case can be made that it is precisely the bonding together of community members that enables us to remain independent of the state. The anchoring of individuals in viable families, webs of friendships, communities of faith, and neighborhoods—in short, in communities—best sustains their ability to resist the pressures of the state. The absence of these social foundations opens isolated individuals to totalitarian pressures.

Indeed, Etzioni recognizes the potential compatibility of libertarianism and communitarianism: “One can be as opposed to state intervention and regulation as a diehard libertarian and still see a great deal of merit in people encouraging one another to do what is right.”

Another communitarian, Thomas Spragens, wrote a two-part article, “The Limits of Libertarianism,” in The Responsive Community. He says that libertarians dogmatically invoke “inalienable rights,” often lose sight of how liberty interacts with other human values, evade tough cases like security and national defense, and “fail to conceive the crucial social purpose to be creating and protecting personal autonomy, rather than . . . treating market outcomes as morally sacrosanct.” In all this I applaud Spragens.

But Spragens sees libertarianism in false caricature. He sees libertarian policies as indifferent or even inimical to his cherished goals of personal autonomy and the sense of community. Libertarianism grants “its greatest privilege . . . to mere appetite,” “the bonfire of the vanities,” and the “loosening of social constraints on sexual conduct.” It reduces social relations to “the cash nexus,” “using each other as steppingstones,” and fosters the ethic of “those with the most toys wins.” It promotes “robber barons, company towns, [and] corporate domination”—Lions and tigers and bears, oh my !

Whereas Etzioni sees a potential compatibility between libertarianism and communitarianism, Spragens seems to find a necessary incompatibility. I am much more inclined to agree with Etzioni. Nay, I go further: The policy agenda of the libertarians is necessary for achieving the social goals of the communitarians.

Understanding the Communitarian Cycle

The communitarians long for members of society to be raised in stable, functioning communities with Constructive goals and civil ways. Individuals raised in such communities would then internalize the values, habits of mind, and ways of interacting. This process gives the individual a moral foundation from which to find his own path in the world. It gives him an enduring sense of purpose, and, in consequence, self-worth. From there he can go on to meet the world in his own way and, like a salmon returning to its spawning waters, contribute to society his own developments and refinements in community ways. The ideal coremunitarian cycle is for the individual to be reared in healthy communities, to internalize coherent and constructive values, to achieve a responsible personal autonomy, to meet the outer world, and to contribute to the development of current communities that influence others anew.

The process is sensible, but the central question is: How is it achieved? Here the communitarians would do well to learn more free-market economics. I don’t mean the arid exercises of graduate-school economics. Rather, I mean Adam Smith and his true intellectual progeny. The communitarians should give more consideration to the Invisible Hand, that is, to the beneficial decentralized processes whereby individuals and families choose voluntarily for themselves.

Liberty and Community

In making a success of the communitarian cycle, it is crucial that our community values and practices be meaningful. The community activities must reach inside our soul and move us in some manner. We must want to be part of the community, and learn gratitude for what it gives to us. To achieve this our communities must exercise our powers and speak to our soul.

But each of us—even as a youngster—has a different set of powers and a different soul. Lumping people together arbitrarily is not going to make for a meaningful community. The meaning must come from the proper mixing of aspirations, attitudes, and talents. The surest way to make this happen is to let people sort themselves into community activities.

Suppose that in a neighborhood there are 16 youngsters who love to make music. But their interests differ. Four are hot on jazz, four love rock and roll, four love Bach, and four love marching music. If we leave them free to follow their bliss they will sort themselves into four separate quartets in which each individual finds community experience highly meaningful and rewarding.

If instead we somehow corralled all 16 into one ensemble, none would find the same spiritual and social edification. Suppose it were decided that the program of the large ensemble would be just jazz. Then twelve of the members would be stuck playing a style that didn’t suit their souls, and even the four who love jazz would suffer because their community would be spiritually diluted by the lackluster participation of the others.

Besides the happy coincidence of interest that is achieved when communities are formed by voluntary participation, the voluntary process itself also has a definite value. Besides neatly collating individuals into groups, the voluntary process imbues the groups with a sense of ours- ness. This is our project. We decided to come together to form this group. The bottom-up sense of enterprise gives a personal meaning and dignity to the participants, a meaning that top-down approaches to group formation invariably fail to give.

Although libertarians are not known for their “touchy-feeliness,” we can find communitarian themes in both the classical liberals and modern-day intellectuals who favor voluntarism.

The State Against Community

Alexis de Tocqueville made a searching study of how early Americans vigorously participated in all sorts of voluntary associations. Voluntary initiative saw to nearly every form of “public” service—schools, libraries, highways, bridges, fire fighting, crime prevention, hospitals, and so on. “Local freedom,” Tocqueville says, “leads a great number of citizens to value the affection of their neighbors and of their kindred, [and] perpetually brings men together and forces them to help one another.” As for the state, “the more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance.”

Community depends on involvement in institutions that bring lives together. What better device to promote that goal than school choice? Parents would choose the school that fits their interests and values, and schools would attend to those needs; they would evolve from the community for the community, rather than be imposed from without. In Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities (1987), sociologists James Coleman and Thomas Hoffer credit the role of community and “social capital” for the exceptional performance of the private Catholic schools. Political scientists John Chubb and Terry Moe, in Politics, Markets and America’s Schools (1990), give a hard-hitting account of the failure of government schools to create an esprit des corps and a personally edifying community experience. Inner-city neighborhoods are most eager for—and most in need of school choice, to enhance learning as well as a sense of community.

Another area where the mighty state might usefully withdraw is poor relief and social insurance. Historian David Beito has written about America’s fraternal societies. During the 1920s their members reportedly amounted to 30 percent of the adult male population, and they were strong among blacks and immigrants. Mutual aid was based on voluntary participation, reciprocity, deservingness, and gratitude. What better way, in Spragens’ words “to express compassion for fellow citizens?” The rise of the welfare state was one of the reasons for the system’s decline. Charles Murray has discussed how many welfare-state programs undermine meaningful community values and practices.

One potentially rich setting for the development of community activities is the workplace, which enjoys logistic advantages and a hardy stock of social capital. It would make a lot of sense to have schools, social clubs, recreation, charity, and prayer sprout up around the workplace. But such spontaneous associations are blocked by numerous regulations of the firm and its employ ees. Laws that block the fluid adaptation of voluntary activity from commercial to non commercial action include anti-discrimination laws, workers’ compensation laws, zoning laws, safety regulations, licensing restrictions, union restrictions, Social Security taxes, child labor laws, minimum wage laws, and the corporate tax code. The libertarian favors repeal of all of these obstacles to voluntary association.

Personal Autonomy as a Reason for Liberty

The value of personal autonomy, which Spragens accuses the libertarians of neglecting, was the centerpiece of the libertarian manifesto written by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1791, The Limits of State Action. “Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice . . . does not enter into his being, but still remains alien to his true nature.” In On Liberty—a rather libertarian document—John Stuart Mill emphasizes personal autonomy and pays high tribute to Humboldt. Thomas Szasz, a passionate and penetrating student of personal autonomy, is a thoroughgoing libertarian.

Community in Modern Society

In today’s society it must be recognized that, while the family remains the cradle of identity, community is no longer only about neighborhoods. It is no longer strictly a matter of propinquity, as faraway places become less far with each passing year. Also, community is no longer unified. As Rick Henderson recently wrote in Reason magazine, “A person can simultaneously be a Presbyterian, a softball player, a parent, a weekend auto mechanic, and a mystery reader.” It may be that with each role comes a distinct circle of companions.

Rather than seeing this as a tragic collapse, we should celebrate it as a great liberation. In her recent book, In Defense of Modernity: Role Complexity and Individual Autonomy, Rose Coser tells of the greedy and stultifying side of community, and how modernity frees us from it. Thanks to modern communications and transportation, adults can choose the community that suits them best. We can better find a circle of friends who share our aspirations and appreciate our contributions. Communitarians must keep in mind that airplanes, telephone signals, and computer screens are sometimes the conduits of close community ties. To some extent commerce disposes of community—thank heavens—but to some extent it only recasts it in ways that make it hard to spot.

The expanding wealth of the free economy affords everyone the means of pursuing personal interest amongst a circle of friends and associates. A community that gives one both social bonds and gratification of his individuated aspirations is a luxury that most people of the world simply cannot afford. The laissez-faire economy offers the richest menu of personal growth.

Towards a Libertarian Communitarianism

Is there any fundamental conflict between communitarian goals and libertarian policies? There may be a conflict in one respect: Sometimes it seems that communitarians crave a common social experience, an experience that bonds the individual not just to some community but to the community. It is here, perhaps, that we understand why communitarians have balked at the idea of school choice. To libertarians, a plan for a universal experience sounds like a recipe for statist oppression. The only universal social values that ought to be upheld by the state are respect for just laws. That, I would argue, is the best way, the only way, of serving communitarian goals and maintaining common decency in this Age of Irreverence.