De-Nationalizing Community

We are all indebted to Amitai Etzioni for leading the effort to restore the concept of community to our public discourse. I happen to share his view that the principal crisis of our time is a social crisis, as well as his central concern that rights and responsibilities have been disconnected and urgently need to be reunited. In a way, I have been a closet communitarian for most of my life, and I was honored recently when a libertarian critic included me in his denunciation of Amitai. But I have two reservations. I do not share Amitai’s analysis of the causes of the disquieting signs of social disintegration. As a result, I also have somewhat different ideas about the remedies.


The unmistakable signs of alienation we see are not due to the ravages of what communitarian Robert Bellah called “savage capitalism” or market-induced, autistic individualism, but rather to a failed effort to rationalize society by nationalizing community. This enterprise had its roots in certain strains of nineteenth-century thought, and took on a more coherent shape in the early 20th. Wilson flight-tested it briefly in World War I, but its serious implementation began during the Great Depression. So it is just slightly younger than I am and in even worse shape.

This project to nationalize community was a response to revolutionary social changes. In a period not much longer than the interval between Watergate and Whitewater, America changed from a nation of farmers who lived in the country to a nation of industrial employees who lived in cities, while at the same time it was absorbing the greatest immigration of people in the history in the world. This meant, of course, that America’s fabled knack for community-building had to find new forms appropriate to new and unfamiliar tasks. Habits of social action that had been largely personal and local now faced problems that were more systemic and general. Industrialization meant that community had to be reinvented.

Americans were apparently not dismayed by this new requirement. One historian wrote of the period from the 1900 to 1914 that “most middle-class citizens remained convinced that they had the power and the time to affect a new social order.” Much larger numbers of working-class people were involved in an enterprising variety of associations for mutual aid. Thousands upon thousands of voluntary organizations had been formed, seeking to cope with literally every dimension of the newly transfigured society: voluntary efforts to regularize employment and thus ease the pain of the business cycle; ways to provide protection for the unemployed; new mutual or employer-provided forms of health and retirement insurance; systems to assure that electrical appliances were safe and to establish the thousands of standards necessary for manufactured products, among hundreds of other tasks. There was literally no aspect of the new social agenda that did not evoke an imaginative voluntary response. This is progressivism’s almost forgotten voluntarist and humanist dimension.

What soon prevailed was almost its opposite: a conviction that the impulse to build a good society in a more complex and interdependent world would have to be expressed primarily through the national state. The need for this new role of the state was mistakenly inferred from the apparent reasons for the astonishing productivity of the emerging corporations. It had three elements.

The first was monopoly: you could only manage the use of a resource or service rationally if you controlled all of it; second, centralization of authority: rational decision-making required knowledge of all the facts and alternatives and these were available only at the top; third, scientific management by specialized professionals. Ordinary people, uneducated and superstitious, and moreover degraded and disoriented by life in an industrial society, would need to be carefully directed not only in their work but in their personal lives.

This plausible “scientific” vision of how to organize human undertakings in a scientific age promptly worked its way into the conventional wisdom and was for decades the unspoken rationale for massive transfers of responsibility from local and voluntary institutions to remote and authoritarian ones. Its most striking characteristic was its pessimistic estimate of the capacities of ordinary people to participate in the complicated affairs of an urbanizing, industrializing society, a pessimism that extended to local and voluntary organizations. What was local and voluntary was thought primitive, unsophisticated, unreliable, and prone to corruption.

Guided by this mistaken perception of where the strength of the society lay and how best to bring that strength to bear on social problems, there ensued a sustained and continuous transfer of responsibility in a single direction, away from society’s most primary institutions – individuals, families, circles of friends, local voluntary organizations, local governments – toward state government and in the end, inevitably, to the federal government. Thus was the secular version of the familiar doctrine of subsidiarity stood on its head. A tradition that the family should do only what individuals could not reasonably do for themselves, that the neighbors should do only what the family could not do on its own, that the town should do only what the neighbors could not do, and so forth, gave way to its opposite. By the time I got to college in the mid-1940s, this centralizing view was as uncontroversial among educated people as the idea that the world was round, and dissent from it got about the same reception as the Flat Earth Society does today.

For the century before 1929, the total cost of all levels of government never exceeded 10 percent of the national income except during wars. Federal spending was about a third of that, two-thirds was state and local. Fifty years later, the total cost of government was more than a third of the national income, and the traditional division had been up-ended, as two-thirds of the vastly greater cost was now federal and only one-third state and local. Along the way, voluntary organizations had become insignificant contenders for social responsibility. The structure of American society had been altered elementally.

The drive to nationalize community had produced a society that was badly out of balance, misshapen, its central government grossly overgrown, and its capacity for concerted local and voluntary action severely underdeveloped, atrophied. The once proudly pluralistic society where initiative was widely diffused, diversity was celebrated, monopoly thought bad and choice thought good, where fixing what seemed to be wrong with the society was a game any number could play, had become the opposite. I expect it was at about this time that we began to talk about giving people a “sense” of community because opportunities for real and rewarding involvement in community affairs were disappearing.

The tragic legacy of this epoch of rationalization was the systematic, irrational disconnection of ordinary people from the business of the society, a radical constriction of the definition of the citizen’s role. In the end, the only opportunities for participation left to ordinary Americans were voting and paying their taxes on time. They had been prejudged incompetent to do much else. Even voluntary organizations, themselves altered by the rationalization philosophy, assumed that ordinary people could not be directly involved in helping each other overcome addictions, find and hold jobs, or make their way out of poverty.

Volunteers could raise money and attend meetings, but only technically trained professionals could do the real work. I believe this ill-considered disconnection of people from the work of their society not only deprived the society of its most valuable and abundant resource, but that it is the real root cause of the evident loss of the feeling of cohesion and solidarity. Community is not an act of will that can be induced by persuasion or exhortation. Community is a consequence. It results when people come together to accomplish things that are important to them and succeed. People who are uninvolved cannot feel this connection. The signs we see of a fading of the spirit of community are not so much the result of a disinclination to participate, but a scarcity of opportunities to make a serious difference.

I have a thick file of examples that suggest to me that people everywhere, as Alfred Doolittle would put it, are willing to get involved, wanting to get involved, waiting to get involved. Whenever a particular person is in trouble and his or her plight publicized, and when the way to help is clear (as when the child falls into a well or gets lost in the woods), the response is often overwhelming.

Years ago in Indianapolis, a group of us put together the organizational machinery that would enable volunteers, mostly working people, to help those we then called “the hardcore unemployed” to find and hold jobs. Senator Lugar, who was then mayor of Indianapolis, appealed for volunteers on television and thousands responded, far more than we had imagined or knew how to put to work.


The spirit of community will be revived as we succeed in devising ways to reinvolve people in solving the perplexing problems they see about them, not just in talking about them and certainly not in petitioning government to solve them. It is a monumental task and a fabulous opportunity for private philanthropy. Ironically, philanthropy was, from the beginning, enthusiastically involved in the project to nationalize community. It financed the studies that documented the presumed inadequacies of primary and voluntary institutions. It trained the specialized professionals who now comprise what critics call “the new class.” It financed the new institutions that devised the step by step centralization of responsibility.

Early on, philanthropy moved from providing direct services to advocacy, dutifully and consistently advocating transfers of responsibility to more monopolistic, centralized, professionalized, and authoritarian institutions. In the 1950s and 1960s, I was what Dwight McDonald called a “philanthropoid.” Then it was simply understood that philanthropy’s task was to lubricate transfers of responsibility to ever more remote and authoritarian institutions.

The defining polarity of our time is the choice between two antithetical ways of coordinating cooperative human activity, one based on the concentration of responsibility and authority, and the other based on its diffusion. Corporations are finally discovering that manipulative management misuses and underuses people. They are learning how to engage all the willing energies of working people: initiative, imagination, and their incomparably detailed knowledge of the particulars of the business. Businesses are finding ways to achieve coherence, cohesion, and coordination through horizontal rather than vertical organization, and they are substituting self-supervision for the hierarchies of the past. In the same way, society works best if its responsibility flows without friction to whichever of its entities is best able to take it. For most of this century, responsibility has been distributed according to a misplaced confidence in the utility of centralization. We have begun to grasp the awful cost of that centralizing epoch in lost precision, lost affect, lost energy, lost imagination, and as a consequence, lost stability, lost cohesion, lost community.

But now we can see, almost feel, the society moving in another direction. We are clearly entering another era marked not by the centralization of responsibility of all sorts, but by its devolution, decentralization, denationalization, deurbanization, deprofessionalization. There are signs everywhere at every level. People are reassuming responsibility for maintaining their own health. More and more young people, convinced they will never see a Social Security check, are providing for retirement on their own. Parents are reclaiming their responsibility for choosing their children’s schools. Millions of people are involved in hundreds of thousands of mutual aid groups, many recently formed. Cities are shedding traditional functions without guilt when they see evidence that commercial providers can get better results for less money. Volunteers are demanding more rewarding tasks than selling Christmas trees.

The good news is that the devolution revolution has begun, but the sober truth is that devolution will be a monumental task. Centralization was a breeze. Governments have an overdeveloped appetite for responsibility, and our primary institutions gave it up with next to no resistance. We were all stricken by the plausibility of the case for centralization, traumatized by the Great Depression, and pathetically willing to believe the worst about ourselves and our local and voluntary institutions.

An immense entrenched centrist establishment has built up over the decades with an enormous personal stake in the perpetuation of central authority. Its rank and file will resist devolution as fiercely as bookkeepers resisted computers. In one of the most visible illustrations, the educational establishment has gone to the barricades to oppose school choice with all its great strength and awesome political influence.

Even more important, devolution is a deceptive phrase because in fact responsibility will not somehow flow naturally to the institutions best able to take it. It will have to be reclaimed, and our primary institutions are not in the best shape to enter into what will surely be a long, demanding battle for responsibility. They have been in the shadows for almost a century. They have suffered from inactivity and neglect. They have, to some extent, become what they were assumed to be: inert and unsure. They have low self-esteem. As President Eisenhower found in the 1950s, you cannot devolve responsibility to people who are hesitant or unwilling to take it. Our primary institutions have little sense of their crucial place in the staggering task of social reconstruction. They are our last best hope for rebuilding and restoring society, but they are going to need a lot of help from people with vision, independence, and means.


Let me suggest a few of the many ways philanthropy can help. In capital markets, responsibility flows from the less effective to the more effective enterprises as investors invest in some and disinvest in others on the basis of their probable profitability. There are no corresponding indicators in the nonprofit world, and we urgently need to develop some. As alternative schools proliferate, we need to develop ways to make accurate estimates of their comparative performance. More and more, we are coming to believe that decentralization will work better. But to make it happen, we will need the means to prove it for schooling and a long list of other undertakings.

There is a great emphasis in conventional philanthropic circles on better management of voluntary agencies, but this necessarily involves established organizations in what I think of as the rust belt of the voluntary sector. If we are to overcome 75 years of neglect and devise and develop new ways of reinvolving citizens in solving the looming problems in American society, we are going to need pioneering entrepreneurs more than managers. This is probably a capacity that has to be discovered rather than developed, but we should quicken the search.

The scope of what we call policy research needs to be greatly enlarged. Over the last two decades, we have developed a large, depressing literature on the failures of centralization. There is no corresponding literature on the power and potential of primary institutions. The citizenry increasingly despises and distrusts the federal establishment, but can no longer imagine any alternative. The new, unfamiliar task is to present credible visions of alternatives to the failing programs of centrism. Retirement security, undiscussable politically until some alternative can be widely visualized, would be a good place to start.

Reconnecting citizens to the vital business of their world in ways that are both demanding and rewarding will be a long and arduous process. It will not be an easy way to rebuild community, but it may be the only way. 

Richard Cornuelle is president of the Critical Review Foundation and author of Reclaiming the American Dream (1965), De-Managing America (1975), and Healing America (1983).

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