'Communitarian Dreams" by Roger Scruton, in City Journal (Autumn 1996),Manhattan Institute, 52 Vanderbilt Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017; "Belonging in the Past" by Michael Ignatieff, in Prospect (Nov. 1996),4 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3RA.
Communitarianism is the latest star in the political-intellectual firmament, attracting the rapt attention of the White House and the mainstream national media. The communitar- ians are unconservative critics of liberalism who denounce the ethos of rights without responsi- bilities and commend the virtues of communi- ty as a corrective to unrestrained individualism. That is all well and good, argues Scruton, edi- tor of Britain's Salisbury Review, but when push comes to shove, communitarian thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and Michael Sandel show themselves to be, beneath their sentimental "rhetoric of fellow feeling," liberals in disguise.
In Sources of the Self (1989), for instance, Taylor attacks the contemporary cult of self, but then urges a community with "a decid- edly liberal aspect," Scruton writes. "He defends 'multiculturalism' against the tyran- ny of majority values, the welfare state against the 'selfishness' of unbridled capital- ism, and 'participatory democracy' against the shadowy machinations of institutional power." Similarly, Walzer and Sandel make the welfare state "the very symbol of 'com- munity.'" Missing from that equation, Scruton claims, is "any appreciation of the real communities that give meaning to our lives, the associations and attachments that go today by the name of civil society."
In The Spirit of Community (1991), Amitai Etzioni, chief movement publicist, contends that the liberal emphasis on rights "encour- ages people to ask but not to give," Scruton notes, and that America must "wake up to the duties of citizenship, if it is not to degenerate into an anarchic crowd of welfare dependents, tax dodgers, and disloyal egoists." Though conservatives would agree, Scruton writes, they also "would point out that much of the damage to the sense of community in America has issued from liberal reforms that Etzioni and his followers seem to endorse. Commun- itarians regard sexual conduct as a private mat- ter and liberal legislation on such matters as essential. They are 'caring' people who do not wish to disturb or interfere with anybody's cho- sen life-style or to take an 'authoritarian' atti- tude toward the problems that freedom cre- ates." And they are wary of "the spirit of com- munity as it tends to show itself in ordinary people," for that spirit "seeks to impose a com- mon morality, a common culture, and a com- mon respect for basic social norms."
In this internal division, however, commu- nitarians may be like most people today. "Modernity's core value is freedom, especial- ly the freedom to fashion one's identity and one's life as one will," argues Ignatieff, author of A Just Measure of Pain (1989). Yet most continue to long for community. Finding a balance between these two desires is difficult, Ignatieff argues, but to seek a restoration of community through politics is a fool's errand-and one that can only feed the mod- ern disillusion with politics. Through poli- tics, society can be made fairer, more just, and more efficient. That, Ignatieff believes, ought to be quite enough.