This volume of essays further promotes the communitarian cause outlined by sociologist Amitai Etzioni in earlier books such as The Spirit of Community (1993) and The New Golden Rule (1996). Here, the founder of that movement answers objections and articulates the principles of his program for encouraging cohesive communities that nonetheless protect autonomous individuals.
ACLU liberals will dispute Etzioni’s criticisms, as will many conservatives. In a jiu-jitsu of moral equivalence, he attempts to marginalize what he sees as unacceptable extremes (largely by caricaturing conservatives), so he can position himself as a moderate, enlightened centrist. But The Monochrome Society reveals fundamental theoretical weaknesses in the communitarian project.
Etzioni’s strengths—preeminently his willingness as a sociologist to recognize the importance of virtue for society—are not inconsiderable. A good example is his first essay, which argues that we are much more a “monochrome society than a rainbow society.” To Etzioni, the claim that color defines opinion is “implicitly and inadvertently racist.” Nonetheless, he acknowledges a serious problem: “The ways Hispanics come to see themselves in the near future is the single most important factor in determining to what extent America will continue to be a primarily monochrome society.” Though multiculturalism is not yet the American creed, we wonder, what is it that prompts and inspirits it?
As though responding to this question, Etzioni’s next essays explore specific means of producing communities and the character essential to maintaining them.
The six essays in the second half of the book flesh out the character of the good society and explain how it can be fostered through “moral dialogues.” Etzioni claims that recent dialogues concerning, among other subjects, “proper race relations, relations between men and women, between heterosexual and homosexual people, and numerous others,” enable the good society to rely on the “moral voice—the informal controls members of communities exert on one another—rather than the law.” Law is thus “the continuation of morality by other means” (italics his).
This formulation sounds Aristotelian, but it is mere positivism. Etzioni believes that there are “universal values,” but can’t give “empirical evidence” for them, aside from asserting the “[d]ignity of the person and the value of affective particularistic social bonds.” (Does he mean marriage and the family?) Hence, “concerns for civil society may well need to be supplemented by concern about the nature of the good society.”
In the second half of the book, the theoretical weaknesses in communitarianism emerge, as Etzioni attempts to elaborate on the nature of the good society. The heart of Etzioni’s difficulty may be seen in his contention that
There are several rather philosophical reasons scholars and others are abandoning relativism. I add a rather simple one: when we learn about sex slaves, the forced marriage of young girls to old men, the beheading of adulterous princes, or the amputation of the hands of thieves, moral responses do form in our hearts.
Of course, correct liberal opinions about sex and property inform Etzioni’s “moral responses.” This avoidance of casuistry is hardly solid ground for a serious discussion of morality or rights.
By wrongly insisting that Americans today overemphasize rights, communitarians imperil the case for limited government. Of course, Etzioni is hostile to an individual right to firearms ownership. He is, moreover, a squish on property rights. He admonishes the “world community” to embrace the “self-evident truths” of the American Founders. (Plus “other self-evident moral truths,” he adds.) But two pages later he blithely denies one of those truths, when he maintains that “private property” is “not an expression of some kind of ‘natural,’ self-evident, absolute, incontestable right.”
Contrary to communitarian conceit, abuse of property rights is hardly the cause of contemporary moral license—quite the opposite. Rather, we no longer take fundamental rights seriously because of the “empirical evidence” of the everyday trampling of them, for example by local governments’ frequent use of eminent domain. When this natural (sans quotation marks) right is no longer respected, any whim becomes a right.
Etzioni’s dismissal of property rights reflects the need he proclaimed earlier for “another round of progressive reforms” to complete the original goals of progressivism. Somehow, an even more powerful federal government and professionalized bureaucracy would “make government more responsive to the will of the people.”
The danger posed to limited government mounts when society presses more and greater claims on the individual—the very project of communitarianism. His self-confessed vagueness on what constitute “core values” (he won’t call them “virtues” here) leaves him open to the charge of encouraging “the tyranny of the majority”—no matter how “enlightened” the majority might understand itself to be.
These objections come through in the book’s most intriguing chapter, appropriately enough a dialogue with Princeton legal theorist Robert George. Etzioni accuses social conservatives such as George of being “more inclined than communitarians to rely on the state to promote virtue.” Under questioning, Etzioni admits that communitarians can’t agree whether legal restrictions should encumber bathhouses, “abortion, pornography, adultery, prostitution, etc.” What then are the “core values” on which communitarians rely, besides expanding state power over the economy?
That communitarians have the standing they possess is testimony to the failure of current politics and public intellectuals to make use of the superior intellectual resources at hand.
Ken Masugi is director of the Center for Local Government at the Claremont Institute.