Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Do Communities Have a Right to Impose?

I got an email earlier this month from this student in the London Metropolitan University PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economy) program asking me for my opinion on communitarianism. In my response I asked him if his class had been introduced to Friedrich List's National System of Political Economy, and he replied no, he's never heard of List. Oliver is a third year bachelor.

Do communitarians believe the state has a right to impose a form of life on it’s citizens?


Oliver Hovorka (07016844)

Introduction to communitarians

Although the label communitarian is attached to certain thinkers most do not regard themselves as such, but combine certain core approaches towards community and the state. In this essay I will point out ideology that combines the communitarians in their thought, especially towards the state and try to draw a perspective on certain consequences. I will also take a critic approach towards the realization of communitarian politics on a national level.

The origins of the communitarian ideology are consisting of a wide spectrum of ideas; arguably the most significant influences arise from Aristotle’s, Hegel’s and Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Charles Taylor argues in the Aristotelian way that “Man is a social animal, indeed a political animal, because he is not self-sufficient alone, and in an important sense is not self-sufficient outside a polis”1. Hegel’s notion of “Sittlichkeit” applies to the same thought implying “substance of the will” through “community” (family, civil society and state). The last and arguably most important influence to communitarians is Wittgenstein. In his opinion “all human goods derive from a framework of overlapping communal practices and traditions”.2

Communitarianism as it is known today was founded in the late 20th century by the critical reaction towards liberalism (Rawls and Nozick in particular). Communitarians reject the notion of individualism in the sense that the state should provide economic and social structures that base sole on the idea of a self centered individual. Communitarians argue that there needs to be a balance between individual private interest and the common good. They emphasize that the individual is shaped by his or hers community and therefore not only learn linguistic behavior from birth, but also the way to act and behave and therefore translate this to the world they live in. These structures are built over time and interpretation of the common good can differ between societies, hence there is no overall theory. If the common good is not seen as a prime judgment in that community, but rather an “alienating” liberal individualistic view of rights, than the individual turns self centered which becomes destructive towards the social environment.

Therefore communitarianism is a critique of liberalism and its core value of individualism which when applied “one to one” leads according to Michael Walzer to:”...no consensus, no public meeting of minds, on the nature of the good life, hence the triumph of private caprice...the ideological reflection of everyday capriciousness”3. This means that there are no consequential and developed decisions but rather inconsequent short lived ones without a debate in public space. In its core Communitarianism therefore points out to the interest of communities and societies en bloc over those of the individual and therefore sees a need to balance individual rights towards a consensus. Communitarians see western societies of today as almost fragmentised and lacking a sense of overall purpose which could lead to an endless search for identity.

Communitarians and the State

The communitarian view of the role of the state is again in its main point a strong contrast towards liberal theory. Especially Nozicks conception is a good way to point this out, as he advocates a minimal state and does not see human beings as social entities that have an interest, or are even capable of deciding on the common good and refers to the free rider problem. According to a communitarian this would have the consequence that “their thinking is trapped by their self-imposed moral neutrality”4. Communitarianism supposes state legislation should promote, indeed favour, laws that are seen as a clear benefit towards the common good rather than pure individual benefit, which at the end will benefit the individual less. In the communitarian thinking individuals who want to achieve solely their own goals and still believe in liberal market mechanism are leading the state citizens towards exclusion, of participation in economic and cultural questions and therefore undermine the common good. In communitarianism citizens should be engaged in politics as a member of a nation/community in order to advance the common good rather than the private particular interest. Basically communitarians should participate “wherever the issue of power structure arise...in addition to what goes on in state institutions , citizens should be concerned with the impact of activities in the business sector, and in third sector of voluntary organization and community groups”. 5

In consequence this means that even at the lowest level of power the community should participate and decide on the common good. If this is not achievable , e.g. in community groups, the state institutions should respond to the issue. This also reflects the more direct approach to democracy as there are different communities such as historical developed or face to face commodities, which should be considered and given certain state privileges (i.e. the decisions if a new shopping mall should be built). In general rules and laws are different in societies as there is no universal or timeless approach but rather a specific community approach with different traditions and values.

An example of communitarian politics is Tony Blair’s “third way”, which combines socialist and conservative policy towards a communitarian like approach. A recent policy is the “Train to Gain” founded in 2006. It offers publicly funded training and education for business and specific training for employees which should benefit the business, economy and the individual skills of each worker. If a firm is willing to demand the “traintogain” depends on the majority of employees participating in it6. In theory, the policy benefits not only the individual but also the overall business. Consequently public money has been used to develop and run the scheme with the tax payer investing in the “common good” of training for an economic growth. The labour government has promoted the idea throughout the country and has reached over 143,000 businesses during the last 3years7. The government has therefore not imposed the policy on its citizens but promoted it in a manner that business not participating will have disadvantages. This approach is a non-neutrally one as the state promotes certain legislation or offers, based on the community, which according to communitarians holds a better form of life for individuals. Hence the negative rights system which protects the individual from the state is balanced towards the obligation each individual has towards the community.

Consequence and Criticism

The communitarian ideology in general and especially towards the state has made itself open to criticism. Although liberal ideas could be regarded as being promoted in western culture still every individual has the right of free choice.

In Communitarian politics this right is balanced with the obligation towards the community and in consequence restricted by the law in certain points. The general approach therefore raises questions. If the community balances the rights what consequences could occur. In my opinion it could mean that the community “we” expect to behave and obligate in a certain manner and “they” who behave anti social in whatever sense must except to be punished. This could certainly turn into a sort of community justice promoted by the government which splits life inside these communities into “we” and “them” with the state institution delivering certain outcomes in favour of this thinking. Not surprisingly the leader of the influential “Responsive Communitarian Platform”, Amitai Etzioni, a Lecturer at the George Washington University, has his own view of justice. On the question if there should be justice for terrorist, Etzioni defended his view that people who act like “civilians” in society but work against it do not deserve a fair judgment and should be regarded as “traitors” towards society. Or how he puts it “If someone in your own community attacks you it is particular offensive” and therefore should even receive a “harder punishment” without a fair trial. This seems like a community punishment for “traitors”, hence implied self justice.8 His ideas of limitations on free speech are very much leaning to community unity and in a recent interview he talked about the limitations he would suggest could not be committed publicly as “there would be a nonstop scandal on my campus”9.

The example of Etzionis justice is of course just one and there are numerous other opinions towards this. Still the argument that an individual inherits a feeling for the common good and to apply this nationwide with favouring laws, by the communitarian majority consensus, is in my opinion asking for misuse and Etzionis views can be interpreted in this way. The notion of a certain homogenous community, balanced by moral and cultural bonds acting as a “guard” against individualism seems almost utopian in certain aspects. In a world where everybody knows his place (e.g. case system) this is by no means automatically a balanced and equal society. This may be a western liberal perspective but if western societies have turned into a liberal mechanism it is also doubtful that this will shift if there was ever such a thing as ideal communitarians. One could even say that the great diversity in society and modern day democracy with the liberal spirit of contemporary society, means that a government which aims at realizing the communitarian ideology and harmonize society by balancing rights, needs to imply a certain form of life and behavior to be practical.

This will mean that an educational process needs to be involved which will remove liberal individualistic ideas that“…have infected the body politics, if you will”10.

Arguably this can easily tend to a “top-down” system outgrowth and leads to injustice towards different minority thoughts, with the argument of the common good and its educational process. The state even under ideal communitarian arguments favors and leads towards a certain moral obligation and behavior in regard to the majority. In addition the pressure to participate in the community at every level is on a large scale for the individual. John Rawls expressed the fear of totalitarian or authoritarian political programs that misuse communal solidarity as “the fact of pluralism”. Another main argument is that the communitarian ideology is not only vague but also empty, especially in universal aspects and such circumstances will most probably undermine the real spirit of communitarian solidarity.

Or how, Niki Rapaana co founder of the anti-communitarian league argues: “Not only is the ideology vague and not clearly structured, it is so full of holes a second grader can find them”11. A government on a national level is more or less invited to misuse it and imposing rather than favoring a form of life if nationwide implied. Etzioni made it clear that justice and freedom are having certain elements that must be “sacrificed” for the communitarian state. He himself grew up in an Israeli kibbutz where a form of communitarianism may have worked but to imply it nationwide seems unrealistic in western societies. In contrast Singapore has a communitarian political system and it has been an economical success. But at the cost of individual freedom (ranked 133 in worldwide list of free speech12) and certain policies that have almost perverse implications. The so-called “graduate mother policy” is such an example. Less educated woman are getting paid money to birth just one or two children in order to not “thin the gene pool” for the community.13 This strengthens me in the idea that communitarianism is not applicable on a national scale in western societies. Though in my opinion communitarians do think the state has a right to imply a form life on its citizens, in terms of favoring it and therefore promote it acting on the behalf of the common good and consensus, the ideological backbone of communitarianism is just too weak in its structure to exclude massive misinterpretation of this if practically applied.

Or how Beng-Huat Chua puts it.” The conflation of state /society not only legitimizes an interventionist state but also enables the guardians of the state to slip easily into authoritarianism”14


Tam, H. (1998), Communiterianism, MacMillan Press

Etzioni, A. et al (1995), New Communitarian Thinking, University Press of Virgenia

Paul, E. et al (1996), The Communitarian Challenge to Liberalism, Canbridge University Press

Bell, D. (1993), Communitarianism and its critics, Oxford University Press

Chua, B-H. (1995), Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapor, Routledge

Taylor, C. (1985), Philosophical Arguments, Harvard University Press

Frazer, E. (1999), The Problem of Communitarian Politics, Oxford University Press

Email question by the author of the essay to the co-founder of the Anti-Communitarian League, Niki Raapana

www.youtube.com, Amitai Etzioni on the rights of terrorists, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byrcN1fgPlk&feature=related

www.youtube.com, Amitai Etzioni on free speech, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6IiG2k--dA&feature=related

Reporters Without Borders, Press Freedom Index 2009, http://www.rsf.org/en-classement1003-2009.html

Harvey Shoolman, Lecture Notes Week 9 , Justice, Rights and the State

1 comment:

Justa Numerican said...

Negative rights are really the only principled rights... all individuals [by their human inheritance] MUST retain... in order to guard against... the well-known excesses... of the stupid mob. Without them... comes a return to... selective authorization... and selective interpretation... of what is permissible... in a civilized society... from one day to the next.

Oliver has it right: "Community law" thus... can easily slip into old-style authoritarianism... even into... some perverse forms... of modern [totalitarian] slavery.

As well can it easily give rise to "selective enforcement" of that... [nonsensical] body of law. Pile them on - like the communitarians are wont to do - and the people will see themselves... forced onto the brown-edged pages... of an old George Orwell novel.

I'll tell you what. These idiot "change agents"... today's university professors... so want to turn out nowadays [as "world servers" and such]... should be damned glad... they didn't have to count me... as one of their students. Not only would I have demanded back... my tuition money... I would have personally declared... every last one of those cretins... treasonous... "enemy combatants"... for life!

Ollie, just remember this: YOU are the expert on how to rule your own life. Also, THE one expert on how to conduct that life... within the storied life... of some nebulous "community." No-one else [that can be described as remotely human] is the least bit qualified!