Communitarians Still Don’t Get It

I continue to believe that the communitarian critique of libertarianism (or liberalism, as it is often called in political philosophy) is fundamentally flawed. As a system for understanding the role of the state, it is based upon misconceptions that undercut its whole mission and lead to the conclusion that communitarianism is simply authoritarianism with a prettier name. The responses to my recent blog posts on this topic have done little to persuade me differently. To give a sense of the problems common to these pro-communitarian arguments, I’ve reproduced my response to one of them below. In a cross-post of my article, “Communitarianism’s Fatal Misconception,” to the popular community news site, Newsvine, Adrian Thorn took me to task for failing to understand what communitarians say about liberalism. His comment is indicative, however, of a broader confusion within communitarian thought. My response to him — and to this line of communitarian reasoning — is as follows:

Thank you for taking the time to write this long and thoughtful response, Adrian. You make some interesting points, which I’ll respond to below, but I want to draw an important distinction up front, because I think it informs much of our disagreement about the nature of communitarianism vs. liberalism. Namely, I am interested in communitarianism as a political philosophy. I am interested in it as a normative theory of the state. It may be true (in fact, it almost certainly is) that we are better off as members of large and thriving communities than as social hermits seeking only our own pleasure. The crucial question in my mind, however, is not what sort of life is best for us (both as individuals and as members of families and communities), but what role the state ought to have in promoting that life. Communitarianism is quite explicitly a political philosophy, with communitarian philosophers making arguments about what government ought to do to change the existing order to one more communitarian. That is what I am concerned with.

… the Communitarian suggests that the inevitable and real-world outcome of such perspectives is in contradiction to its philosophical concepts, namely that in practice Individualism does not allow the evolution of social institutions and that the pursuit of individual becomes a detriment to society as a whole.

Here is a rather obvious example of the distinction between social and political philosophy. Liberalism as a theory of the state is not about promoting radical individualism. Rather it is about what powers the state may exercise over those who live within its borders (and outside its borders, but we need not focus on questions of foreign policy here).

Recast in that context, it is silly to say that individualism (read: liberalism) “does not allow for the evolution of social institutions.” Of course it does. The state had little or nothing to do with forming my family or friendships or extended community (aside from establishing a rule of law that keeps me safe enough from immediate harm that I have the opportunity to focus on developing relationships, rather than defending myself from attack and scrounging for food). I was either born into those or chose them. And how my friends and family and their friends and family interact in the large social institutions of life can be — and, indeed, is — a voluntary process. In fact, to choose but one example, the entire thrust of economics since Adam Smith is a study of how voluntary interactions within a free market create large scale and beneficial social institutions. The most vibrant, pluralistic, and friendly societies are usually found where government plays a smaller role. The Soviet Union was not known for its profound sense of community and social openness.

They are arguing in this circumstance that the creation of micro-communities fosters the development of conflicting cultures that in turn causes individuals to have less of a capacity to understand and identify with others.

This sounds nice when put so plainly. Of course a nation made up of countless tiny, gated, isolated communities would foster development of conflicting cultures. But what evidence leads you to assume that liberalism would result in such a world? Most people enjoy being part of large communities. Given the choice, they will opt to live in them. And micro-communities need not be exclusive. I am right now part of the micro-community of Newsvine contributors. I am also part of the micro-community of employees of the Cato Institute and members of the larger libertarian movement. I consider myself a community member of my circle of friends, my family, my town, the folks I went to law school with, my fellow students as an undergraduate, the people I grew up with, the readers of my novel, and on and on and on. Each is a micro-community and I interact with each on a regular basis. This is perfectly compatible with liberalism, with a minimal state. Freedom to explore a multitude of cultures and micro-communities has increased my capacity to understand and identify with others, not hindered it.

… the entire critique of Liberalism did not begin with their thoughts on government but rather the consequences of individualism on society as a whole.

But they move from their critiques of liberalism’s impact on society (critiques I find unconvincing) to making specific policy suggestions about the role of the state. Like I said, that is what interests me about communitarianism.

Never in your analysis does it cross your mind that the communitarian would deem popular support for communitarian ideology to be a pre-requisite for the implementation of their reforms. Rather, you have simply asserted the philosophy must be authoritarian by virtue of the fact that, well, you don’t support it.

What is popular support? Let us say that we took a vote in 1890 asking whether marriage between blacks and whites is socially beneficial. What would the result be? If there was broad popular support for the idea that miscegenation ought to be banned in the interests of community stability, what would the communitarian say about the state then stepping in to prevent a black person and a white person from marrying? What about the large communities that exist throughout the United States (and the world) that see gay marriage as leading to a break down of the social fabric? Are those community values acceptable to a communitarian? As a liberal, I’d assert that the state has no right to prevent two people from marrying each other. What argument can the communitarian make that gay marriage ought to be allowed, even in the face of popular opposition? Or do communitarians simply assume that community values will be decided by people like them, people who are nice and have modern, cosmopolitan values?

This is the fundamental problem with communitarianism. Who decides what the community’s values are? Who decides what’s good for the community? For that matter, who decides what makes up the community in the first place? Obviously, if everyone agreed that we shouldn’t engage in a certain behavior, then there’d be no need for the state to regulate it. It is only when someone disagrees that the state must play a role in enforcement. How big must the community be before it stops being micro and is of concern to communitarians? And where do they (where do you) draw the line on saying that the “community’s” decision about what’s good for it is immoral, unjust, and just plain impermissible?