Libertarians accuse Amitai Etzioni of authoritarianism. But the populariser of communitarianism is in fact a classic liberalby Melanie Phillips / August 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
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…