Thou Protests Too Much
Tibor R. Machan
Back in 1991, quite unbeknownst to me, The Chronicles of Higher Education published an article by the leader of American communitarianism, George Washington University Professor Amitai Etzioni, about his frustrations related to starting out his journal, The Responsive Community. In the course of chronicling the ups and downs of his efforts, he makes mention of the fact that some people were critical of the views communitarians espouse. He proceeds to give an example:
Tibor Machan, professor of philosophy at Auburn University, wrote in an op-ed piece in the Orange County Register that "the mirage of a unified, organic community with its own needs and its own rights is a myth. Let us not be deceived by it and yield even more of our rights to the renewed but essentially worn-out call for subjugation of the individual. In my view, communitarianism is really socialism in a new disguise, with some people wishing to call the shots for the rest of us in line with their own valued objectives."
True enough, I did pen such a piece back then, and I also had an exchange with Etzioni, published in the magazine World & I back in 1995. Moreover, I was invited by Professor Etzioni to contribute a comment even earlier, in 1991, to his budding journal, mainly discussing aspects of libertarianism.
My essay, "Revised Socialism on the Horizon," in World & I, made the point more elaborately I made in The Register column, namely, that communitarianism is a not too subtle restatement of socialist ideals, whereby the community—instead of the society—stands as the primary concern of public policy. Individual rights, once again, can and would often be neglected in favor of what some leaders deem to be the important values of the community.
Etzioni didn’t wish to acknowledge this point, of course. In his earlier essay he wrote, accordingly,
We, of course, do not wish to subjugate anyone. We believe that communities arrive at moral standards by consensus. No coercion is involved. To charge us with subjugation when we say that what we stand for most is community--people treating each other as basically deserving of the same standing--is completely erroneous: it's like accusing a Republican of being a Democrat. Such wrong labeling precludes reasoned debate because critics start from premises that aren't valid.
Fair enough—communitarianism never openly advocate some kind of Draconian totalitarian state. My point was precisely that they wish to smuggle in elitism with a human face, thus the talk of community. (Although, recall that communism is not all that far, etymologically, from communitarianism.) What is notable in nearly everything communitarians say is their persistent, unrelenting use of the pronoun "we" or "the community."
Once, driving someplace with my kids, National Public Radio was featuring a talk by Etzioni at the National Press Club. He went on and on about the communitarian vision and at one point my twelve year old daughter, sitting in the back of our van, yelled out "What does this man mean by ‘we’? Who are the ‘we’ he is talking about?"
And that is exactly the problem with communitarianism—their systematic vagueness about the people they are talking about, as those who would set and enforce rules, makes it all too easy to accept a certain elite as speaking for everyone else. "We" too often tends to disguise both the designated authority and those to be held responsible for having made and enforced a policy. The consensus Etzioni spoke of is a myth since many in the community are left out, ignored by those who pretend to speak for everyone in it.
When one charges another with fostering unstated but dangerous implications, it is not a defense to say, "Oh, but that is not what I meant." Very few of those in whose name the worst tyrannies in the world have been perpetrated ever meant anything terrible to happen. Plato’s Socrates, when he sketched for us the ideal community in The Republic, wouldn’t have wanted centuries of monarchists to justify their despotic rule by reference to his ideas. Nor would even Karl Marx, if we are to believe one of his foremost interpreters, the late Sidney Hook, have supported Stalin’s Soviet Union. But that does not show that their ideas were not, in fact, most readily available to many power seekers because of their imprecisions and ambiguities.
Communitarians clearly de-emphasize individual rights and stress community interests above all. And that is a bad idea and tends strongly to lead to the rule of elites.