Cashing in on Bonds


The Spirit of Community, by Amitai Etzioni, New York: Crown, 323 pages, $22.00

An early theorist of the market system observed of the man who trades in his plow for the higher income that goes with a factory workbench: "While he remains in a country village his conduct may be attended to, and he may be obliged to attend to it himself. In this situation, and in this situation only, he may have what is called a character to lose. But as soon as he comes into a great city, he is sunk in obscurity and darkness. His conduct is observed and attended to by nobody, and he is therefore very likely to neglect it himself, and to abandon himself to every sort of low profligacy and vice."

Karl Marx on alienation? No, Adam Smith on the human costs of urbanization. The great evangelist of proto-capitalism was, of course, a passionate and persuasive advocate of free markets, but he did not believe that market arrangements by themselves were sufficient for a society's health. Indeed, Smith was willing to bend the principles of laissez-faire in the cause of promoting a virtuous citizenry. So were the American Founders, especially Jefferson, who considered a disciplined, self-reliant yeomanry a prerequisite to the new republic's flourishing.

In our own time, Charles Murray has eloquently diagnosed the "obscurity and darkness" of America's great cities. Somewhat more ambiguously, the Republican right's call for a return to "family values" bespeaks devotion to old-fashioned virtue. (It also trades, as anyone who watched the 1992 convention knows, on more than a little old-fashioned bigotry.) But willingness to proclaim and defend moral values, argues Amitai Etzioni, should not be ceded to conservatives as their exclusive territory, and in The Spirit of Community he unabashedly offers from the (moderate) left a prescription for the moral renewal of America. Or rather a multitude of prescriptions, for the pages of this book overflow with specific policy proposals, some clever and promising, others a rehash of old nostrums that age has not improved. The social vision they are meant to express and enhance is dubbed Communitarianism.

Particular caring communities, maintains Etzioni, are the fount of values from which the greater society receives sustenance, but in recent decades these communities have become badly eroded. The rot starts with the primal community, the family. Divorce, illegitimacy, and two-income households in which parents value money over time deprive children of adequate supervision and example. No easy talk about "quality time" erases the fact that too many children aren't getting the hours they need with a committed mother and father. Nor are shortfalls in the family made good elsewhere. Schools don't function adequately as parent substitutes; they don't even function adequately as schools. The predictable consequence is that kids get into trouble and fail to learn what they need to become productive workers and citizens.

Other communities, too, are at risk. Neighborhoods, even when not posing imminent danger to life and health as so many in the inner city do, are enclaves of anonymity and generalized lack of concern. Universities that ought to function as bastions of free speech instead give themselves over to the manufacture of codes of repression. The political processes of municipalities, states, and the federal government no longer work for the common good but spin to the tune of special interests. On all levels, claims Etzioni, social gears are badly in need of lubrication.

This is discomfortingly accurate, if not in every detail then in the overall picture. And it bears saying that in the liberal circles in which Etzioni most often travels it takes some courage to plainly state these facts without hiding behind a barrage of politically correct euphemism. Still, one might ask, "So what else is new?" There is nothing in this catalog of laments that we haven't heard before—and heard, and heard. A further recitation is worthwhile only to the extent that it is packaged in a way that enables us better to diagnose the source of the pathology and then treat it.

Etzioni sees attention to community as providing that understanding. Each of these problems, he contends, is symptomatic of the decaying moral infrastructure of our society. Too many of our efforts as individuals and as a polity are aimed at securing purely private goods, and not enough goes toward cooperative activity for the sake of a common good. We're all the time minting and claiming for ourselves heretofore unknown rights to whatever may happen to be an object of desire while simultaneously disclaiming responsibilities to others. While there is blame enough to go around, the worst offenders, Etzioni maintains, are "Radical Individualists, such as libertarians and the American Civil Liberties Union." They need to be resisted so as to restore a balance now badly out of whack between public and private.

Part of this analysis rings true. Etzioni correctly notes that the state increasingly takes over functions once primarily carried out within families (such as care of the elderly) and by ethnic fellowships (settlement of new immigrants), preempting and thereby sapping the vitality of these voluntary associations. And one can enthusiastically concur in his excoriation of an overinflated rights talk that, by turning expressions of preference into non-negotiable demands, elevates the decibel level of controversy between groups and renders compromise unattainable. Unfortunately, though, too much of The Spirit of Community is pitched at a level of superficial campaign-type rhetoric and too much is simply confused.

Etzioni supports mandatory seat-belt and motorcycle-helmet laws, and libertarians who oppose such legislation as paternalistically intrusive are faulted for failing to take account of the fact that those injured in crashes "draw on our community resources, from ambulance services to hospitals, when they are involved in accidents, for which they pay at best a fraction of the cost." Assuming that's so—no evidence concerning costs is presented—why are these people able to tap community resources? Because the state effects transfers to the unlucky or improvident. And how does it justify such redistribution? On the grounds that individuals have a right to be taken care of, regardless of whether it was their own ill-considered choices that laid them low.

Why, we might well ask, doesn't Etzioni roll out his condemnation of proliferating rights claims here? It would seem exquisitely appropriate. Instead he unquestioningly underwrites a blank check on the public treasury, the obverse of which is an open-ended justification for abridging people's liberty to engage in risky behavior.

And more generally with regard to liberty, The Spirit of Community's signals are mixed. To his credit, Etzioni staunchly defends freedom of speech against the new campus Jacobins. However, he opposes the legalization of drug use on the grounds that laws "communicate and symbolize those values that the community holds dear" and repeal would imply "the community approves of people being in a drug-induced stupor." But proponents of restrictive speech codes can make exactly the same claim about the importance of symbolizing the academic community's values. So in opposing those codes doesn't Etzioni, by his own logic, exhibit approval of racist and sexist hate talk? Apparently that's not something he has thought through. Nor does this defender of communities take due account of the devastation unleashed on so many of them by crossfire from the war on drugs. And even if we set these points aside, it's grotesque to suppose one enjoys carte blanche to communicate and symbolize values by tossing tens of thousands of people into jails.

Etzioni assigns Congress and state legislatures failing grades concerning their service to the citizenry. There are few this side of Dan Rostenkowski who will demur. The more fruitful question is why they perform so wretchedly. Etzioni labels PACs the chief villains; legislate them out of existence, and our political units will no longer pander to special interests but will instead refocus on the public interest. That's naive.

First, it trades on an ill-defined dichotomy between interests that are deemed to be "public" and those that are merely private. But no such dichotomy can be sustained in practice. To which variety of interest does the government respond when it appropriates disaster relief to washed-out Iowans, makes the most-favored-nation status of a country dependent on its human-rights record, builds a multi-billion-dollar atom smasher in Texas and a Holocaust memorial museum in Washington, permits homosexuals to serve in the military, won't allow 18-year-olds to buy beer, awards grants to performance artists, grades meat?

Etzioni doesn't begin to provide a basis for making such discriminations. He cites one example of an organization that he believes serves a genuinely public interest, the Sierra Club, but that's just trendy hand waving. When the political dice are tossed they fall to the advantage of some persons and the disadvantage of others, whether those people happen to be corporate investors or folks who can't bear the thought of spotted-owl habitat being disturbed. Winners and losers are of the nature of the game; what is variable are the identities of the players and the value of the stakes.

That indicates a second respect in which it's naive to suppose that elimination of PACs would effect some fundamental change in legislative directions. Each year Congress, through action or inaction, brings about the redistribution of hundreds of billions of dollars from some citizens to others. State legislatures also create and destroy vast fortunes. For entirely understandable reasons, then, substantially affected parties will invest heavily in the purchase of political influence.

PACs are currently a favored means for making such investments, but if they were outlawed others would take their place. In Italy and Japan, for example, simple bribery is still very much the order of the day. No matter how many moral crusades are launched, no matter how insistently the regulatory environment is tweaked, we can be sure that there will be no lasting diminution in the intensity of the competition to secure from the state special favors unless and until its capacity to bestow such largesse is curtailed. A conspicuous weakness of the Communitarian program as presented here is that it turns a blind eye to systemic political sources of social pathology.

Elsewhere Etzioni has shown himself to be a social scientist of unusual intelligence and originality, so one comes to The Spirit of Community anticipating a provocative and thoughtful analysis. Instead one is sideswiped by a book that is theoretically jejune, disfigured by clichés, carelessly composed, and demonstrably mistaken on numerous matters of fact. Three examples:

  • On page 235 Etzioni endorses a limit of $250 on individual contributions to politicians, but eight pages later the limit has mysteriously shrunk to $100. So much for attending to the innards of one's own proposals.
  • Airlines, Etzioni complains, have become less safe and turned monopolistic since deregulation. That's exactly backwards. Deaths per passenger mile on scheduled air services have decreased since deregulation, and this "monopoly" has competed its way to losses approaching $10 billion over the last four years.
  • The overworked characterization of the 1980s as a "decade of greed" is trotted out over and over again but never supported by evidence; presumably no one of good character will suppose that the years of Reagan and Bush could be anything else.

And so on. Why these lapses by an author who has shown himself to conspicuously better advantage elsewhere? As clear as the photo on the dust jacket of Etzioni huddled cheek-by-jowl with Al Gore, this is a man who has been bitten, deeply, by the political bug. He dreams of being the guru of a vast Communitarian movement (revealingly, the term is always capitalized). "Do not just read this book," Etzioni urges, but respond, get involved, form a local Communitarian chapter. To inspire reader activism he solemnly recounts how under unfavorable conditions he convened the initial meeting of the founding 15 Communitarians; their wonder and exhilaration as favorable reviews in The Washington Post, Time, and other popular media streamed in and foundations inquired as to whether it would be all right for them to send money (Etzioni said yes); and then the epochal November 1991 teach-in attended by four U.S. senators, two of them actually card-carrying Republicans!

The times, Etzioni thinks, are auspicious for a grand Communitarian revival, but how to take advantage? He realizes that one isn't likely to catalyze a social movement by writing a soberly academic book, so here he deliberately dumbs it down. The theory, if one may call it that, is Communitarianism Lite, pleasantly vague and just one calorie per helping. Its central concept, community, is never defined, and everything from a married couple to a geographically dispersed profession to the United States as a whole—"the community of communities"—is indiscriminately tossed into the pot.

Gimmicks for social melioration abound, but they are neither defended against obvious criticism nor evaluated against feasible alternative policies. Every good thing is endorsed even though the mix be inconsistent. That is to say, the literary genre is that of a major-party platform, the salesmanship's zeal and zingers are pure Perot, and the moral earnestness is first cousin to Hillary Rodham Clinton's "politics of meaning." If Amitai Etzioni doesn't have a winner here, it's not for lack of trying.

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky, a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University, is co-author (with Geoffrey Brennan) of Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference (Cambridge University Press).