Etzioni and his critics

Libertarians accuse Amitai Etzioni of authoritarianism. But the populariser of communitarianism is in fact a classic liberal
August 19, 1997

There is no doubt about the significance of Amitai Etzioni in current political debate. People may not care to get their tongues around communitarianism, but the Labour government's rhetoric about balancing rights and duties owes much to his influence. In the US, he has acted as a bridge between academics debating the proper limits to individualism and policymakers anxious to counter its anti-social effects. In Britain, with David Selbourne and Jonathan Sacks, he has done most to propel to the front of public consciousness the need to restore duty and responsibility to public life.

Yet impatience with the man appears to have grown. At a recent meeting at the LSE to promote his latest book, The New Golden Rule, several questions were pointed and edgy. The caution of his answers appeared merely to foment further suspicions among the audience. Etzioni is simply not fashionable. Partly this is because he cuts a rather homely figure. Not for him the designer labels and post-post-modern jargon of the apologists for anomie.

His new book can be read not merely as an attempt to flesh out the principles behind communitarianism but also as a defence against its critics. Although US conservatives might regard him as a dangerous collectivist, there is no doubt that he is most sensitive to those attacks upon him from the other side of the divide, which seek to present him as an authoritarian conservative. Such attacks tend to elicit an immediate and volcanic response. It is true that his pitch does beg certain questions. He appears to dodge the tough conflicts-over family issues, for example-taking refuge in uncontentious examples: the use of seat belts, or first aid. But most attacks on him reflect a refusal to contemplate any challenge to the libertarian position. The easiest way to shut down this argument is to criticise him for being illiberal. In fact, he is one of the clearest examples of a classic liberal, precisely because of the ambiguity of his position.

Etzioni wants to synthesise elements of tradition, or order based on the virtues, with elements of modernity, or well protected autonomy. In his view, modernity was a necessary corrective to tradition. The problem was that it did not know when to stop correcting, and kept on seeking to expand liberty. The old golden rule, he writes, was the tension between what we would prefer to do to others and what we recognised as the right course of action. The new golden rule is to respect society's moral order in the same way as we would have society respect our autonomy. In other words, a balance has to be struck between social virtues and individual rights.

Argument over these issues has become very confused because the terminology has become confused. "Liberal" has become a weasel word. Libertarians tend to call themselves "liberal" even though they are not. To be liberal was never to advocate unfettered freedom but to stand for liberty bounded by and fostered by constraints of law, self-discipline and duty. Liberal values involved holding in equilibrium the apparently contradictory principles of order and autonomy. As Etzioni writes, each of these principles enhances the other; but if one becomes too strong, the other is inevitably diminished. Those who accuse him of wanting to abolish rights get the sharp edge of his tongue (and in view of the fact that his family fled the Nazis, sensitivity to such an accusation is hardly surprising).

Bounds to behaviour, he stresses, can only be established with common consent. The good society can be arrived at only through general agreement resulting from a process of public debate. To illustrate his point, he cites the American prohibition on alcohol earlier this century, which was counter-productive because it did not enjoy popular consent. By contrast, public education and argument about the effects of smoking have now brought about a change of attitude towards smoking from approval to disapproval. People object, however, that even if there is no consent, communitarians would impose the constraints anyway. Etzioni insists that if there is no consent, then the argument must continue until there is, however long this culture change may take.

He does not advocate imposing order from above, but rather changing a culture through normative means: education, leadership, consensus, peer pressure and role models. One can see strong echoes of this in the evangelical, exhortatory rhetoric of the new Labour government, attempting to change the culture of rights into a balance of rights and responsibilities. Its policies such as welfare to work (whatever one's reservations about the practicalities) or community safety orders are predicated upon a general agreement that such measures are necessary for the common good by encouraging pro-social behaviour. This is a significant change from the Tory government's libertarian position that a minimal state should not seek to influence individual behaviour. Social conservatives, on the other hand, differ from communitarians in that conservatives are more concerned with order and less with autonomy, and more reliant on the state than on the normative voice to enforce their values.

But there are some awkward questions which should not be ducked. Our culture, for example, has made a sacred cow of equality. Etzioni says he believes in redistribution; but not, it seems, very much. The state, he thinks, should provide the basics which individuals should top up by other means. But as one critic pointed out at his LSE meeting, the state has provided basics-for example, council housing-which then proved damaging because they eroded local initiative and collective organisation. Indeed, one could say the welfare state was all about providing the basics, which then entailed perverse consequences for behaviour which the new "third way" politics now seeks to tackle. Crucial to the communitarian agenda is the belief that both left and right have pursued equality without acknowledging its drawbacks. The left has sought to equalise distribution of services and cash; the right to promote the equality of consumers in the market-place. But both were promoting equality; and both in consequence eroded the networks of civil society which the communitarian project aims to restore.

It may be suggested that communitarians are control freaks. Some of them can be, which is why Etzioni insists that autonomy must be a foremost consideration in the endless balancing act. Some things are not negotiable, such as freedom of speech, democracy and monogamy. But that leaves plenty of space for localised attachments, whose variety promotes freedom and tolerance, disperses power and creates networks of mutual aid and belonging.

Libertarians, however, call any expression of social responsibility oppressive. Expressing undiluted horror at any proposed use of shame or blame to promote self-discipline, they attempt nevertheless to shut down the argument by stigmatising communitarians as moral fascists. As Etzioni points out, western intellectuals are keenly aware of the dangers of excessive order. They have seen enough this century, with authoritarianism, totalitarianism and now fundamentalism. They are far less prepared, however, to face up to the dangers of turning unbounded autonomy into an ideology, with the only permitted taboo being the one against taboos. Human beings, he writes, are social by nature; communal attachments should not be viewed as a form of imprisonment. The greatest danger to autonomy arises when individuals slip their social moorings. For the individualist, the cornerstone of society is the freestanding person; for the social conservative, it is a set of social virtues embodied in the state; for the communitarian, it is the balance between autonomy and order-a voluntary order limited to core values.

It is futile to argue, Etzioni writes, that people need more order or more liberty. It all depends on their context. To promote order in China or Japan would be inappropriate. Conversely, to promote unfettered autonomy in an already highly individualised society such as the US or Britain is to foster the anomie and social fragmentation which cause concern. It encourages a move from bounded autonomy to anarchy: burgeoning crime, movies romanticising incest, the spread of sexually violent material on television, date rape, deregulation, the marketing of drugs, the emergence of sweatshops, cash for political favours.

The new Labour government has started the process of regeneration. But its direction is unclear. Are we heading for an attempt to restore 1950s-style order (unrealistic)? Are we going fundamentalist (highly unlikely), social conservative or communitarian? Or are we just confused (very likely)? How are we going to agree on core values if some of us do not even agree that they exist? Are we heading for a culture war? Etzioni urges moral dialogue. Dialogue does not involve the hurling of insults and labels: pro-choice, pro-life. Rather, it is a way of accounting for the relative merits of different values, involving education, persuasion and leadership.

This process is resisted in some quarters with great force. Many who object appear to be frightened not of coercion but of obtaining popular consent and legitimacy for setting boundaries, for fear it may fetter their own freedoms. To them, the concept of self-restraint appears alien. To them, restraint means imposition; which makes it unacceptable.

Dialogue means that there is such a thing as society, which libertarians do their best to deny. Society means a common culture and common values. People who believe a common culture is neither possible nor desirable (many of them on the "left") really do agree that there is no such thing as society. Those who maintain a common culture is intrinsically oppressive effectively deny the validity of popular consent. Ultimately, says Etzioni, community provides us with culture and tradition, fellowship and a place for moral dialogue; but it is not the ultimate moral arbitrator. People are.

British politicians are flirting with these ideas. New model Labour's rhetoric may be communitarian, but the government has yet to go into battle for the family. For the Tories, Peter Lilley and David Willetts will attempt to reassert civic conservatism. But each side has yet to acknowledge the profound libertarian pressures within its own ranks.