Norton Garfinkle

Communitarianism and Partnership Government

VTR Date: November 1, 1999

Guest: Garfinkle, Norton


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norton Garfinkle
Title: Communitarianism and “Partnership Government”
Recorded: 1/11/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and my guest today is a quite newly found friend.

Also a Columbia College alumnus (though long after my time), he went on to graduate work at Columbia and at Princeton, then served as a member of the Economics Department at Amherst and as an Editor of the Journal of Economic History.

But the dismal science has also served my guest in much less theoretical and much more practical ways.

For Norton Garfinkle not only heads the Executive Committee of the Lamaze Institute for Family Education, he is Chairman of Oxford Management Corporation as well, an investment company specializing in building new companies.

Now, we met, to be sure, in Mr. Garfinkle’s role as Chair of George Washington University’s burgeoning Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, where in pressing for what he calls “Partnership Government” my guest and his colleagues stress the value of the community as always a critical force in shaping the Good Society.

Which, of course, leads me to ask my guest: the community in place or, or opposed to, just what? — The private sector and free enterprise … or the public sector and government? Now, that’s a loaded question, Norton.

GARFINKLE: Well, I’m not so sure. I mean we actually believe both in the government and in the private sector. And we believe that we’ve learned some things in the last few decades. One thing we’ve learned is that a command economy, like the one that Russia tried to mount and some others … doesn’t work. You need incentives. You need individuals to have the freedom to function in an economic society. If you want growth, if you want prosperity you have to have a relatively free and open society. But you also need the government to insure that there is the common good. That the values of our society of justice and compassion and fairness are satisfied. And they aren’t satisfied simply by the market, you need a combination of the government and the market to achieve our goals as a community.

HEFFNER: Well, there was a time in this country when … well, Franklin Roosevelt said much the same thing … I think when there was the feeling as in his Commonwealth Club Address during the campaign of 1932 that he was there really to save capitalism. And to save the free marketplace by adding to it as you suggest, restraints, a sense of responsibility, etc. But in recent years haven’t we come to dichotomize the situation more? Isn’t it more of a case today of people saying “either the one or the other”?

GARFINKLE: Well, that … that’s an accurate description of today’s debate … the form of today’s debate. But the form of today’s debate is actually completely off center. The reality is not “should we have more or less government”? The reality is what kind of government do we need and that’s why we talk about “partnership government”. A government that engages the individual, engages community groups, that acts as a facilitator rather than a bureaucratic command and control environment. The one thing we’ve learned is that government is necessary. The second thing we’ve learned is that command and control, bureaucratic techniques don’t work. It’s those two pieces of wisdom that, that need to animate the task … and it’s simply a task of finding the right solutions to the right problems as we go along.

HEFFNER: But you know, reading a paper you wrote … a very brief paper you … the phrase here “the triumph of Communitarian free market economics”. Now, isn’t there something of a contradiction in terms there. If you’re talking about a “free market”, don’t you mean “free” as the First Amendment people say, “Congress shall make no law”. Doesn’t free mean absolutely free?

GARFINKLE: It really means, at least in my context … non-bureaucratic.


GARFINKLE: It means incentive based. It means that the individual should be provided with an environment in which he can use his own creative energies to satisfy his individual objectives, but which we should not go to the extreme of libertarianism which allows the individual to do anything in a totally unregulated way. So the balance between autonomy and community needs to be strike. And that’s, that’s the fundamental idea that we try to talk about when we talk about both “communitarianism” and about “partnership government”.

HEFFNER: Does that mean that the Communitarian Movement is the target of both those who believe it an unbelievably free market place and those who believe in government, government, government?

GARFINKLE: Yes, we’re sought of in the middle ground. And we are the advocates of the middle way. Which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It does mean that we’re the target of the extremes on both sides. But it also means that we’re providing the essential … both moral and intellectual framework …for what is now being called, “The Middle Way” both in this country and in Europe and that’s represented by people on both sides. Both on the Right and on the Left. Politicians are being to adopt these ideas and we’ve got politicians was widely disparate as Bill Clinton and Al Gore and Tony Blair on one side and Jack Kempt an Bill Bennett. And both groups are being to adopt and accept and support communitarian ideas as they begin to think about how to actually do the work of public policy. Public policy doesn’t go away … the government is here … interestingly enough with the all the talk about reducing government and all the efforts … all the words that were used after the 1994 about cutting back on government, the reality is almost no government programs were reduced. They all exist. They’re not growing as fast as they were. And that’s the advantage. There is a context in which we say that there’s the right kind of government and the right amount of government. And those are the two objectives. Too much government does burden the economy; too little doesn’t achieve our goals.

HEFFNER: How does too much government burden the economy?

GARFINKLE: The basic benefit of our American economy is that the, is that individuals and companies and groups have a high degree of freedom to use their creativity to invent new products, new systems, new companies to take advantage of things like the Internet, which is now the biggest part of our growing economy. It’s not by accident that the Internet is growing more rapidly in the United States than anywhere else. The reason is that the creative capability of the society is let loose in our country more readily than in most other countries. And that’s because there’s an absence of bureaucratic influence. And the more government you have the more tendency there is to use the bureaucratic techniques of the command and control society. Also the government does use the economic resources of the country. If the government uses too large a portion of the GDP than there’s less around to perform this creative, economic function.

HEFFNER: But the, the question of profit … for profit motive. Where does that come in in this equation that you suggest?

GARFINKLE: Well, it’s interesting. There’s nothing wrong with incentive based systems. And in our society the profit motive is the ultimate incentive based system for everybody who functions in an effort to satisfy his own individual and family needs. On the other hand the community does have a legitimate claim to a certain portion of the GDP and it’s that portion that needs to be utilized by the government to fulfill the objectives of justice and fairness and compassion. And we are a compassionate society, government is in fact the agent of the compassion of our society. So, it’s not that you’re trying to eliminate the profit motive. The profit motive is, in fact, an essential feature of the engine of our economy. But you’re not trying to have an unbridled market and an unbridled profit motive function as the sole factor in our economic society.

HEFFNER: Well, two questions. First, those initials that you use … what do they stand for?

GARFINKLE: Oh. Gross Domestic Product. It’s the measurement that we economists sadly use to describe the total quantity of goods and services that are developed every year. And the more it grows, the more there is to go around to share one way or another.

HEFFNER: And you feel that it will grow less rapidly, or it will not grow as well if there is a limit placed upon profit motive?

GARFINKLE: If there is an overbearing limit place on profit motive …

HEFFNER: Now, define that.

GARFINKLE: Well, we have, we have a progressive taxation system …

HEFFNER: MmmmHmmm.

GARFINKLE: …which is the way in which our society, in fact, generates that part of the gross product that is used for the purposes of government.
HEFFNER: But the great battles, political battles that have been waged in this country and the great lobbying battles have been against …or let’s put it this way, for lowering those taxes. So you can’t just say, “we have them, we all embrace them”.

GARFINKLE: With all of those battles, we in fact have not really lowered the percentage of the gross product that the government utilizes for the purposes of the common good. So, while the battles are interesting and they’re delightful to watch and they seem as if they have people at opposite sides really trying to go to one extreme or the other, the reality is that we’re at a stasis level in this country that works pretty well.

HEFFNER: You have to explain that to me. Because one assumes that the battle cries are so loud that they literally stand for something … “lower taxes”, less money being taken out of the wealthy or the poor man’s pocket for government?

GARFINKLE: Well, the battles actually are a reflection of another feature of our society which can be described as special interest. We have a special interest orientation to government. We have not yet built the procedures where through dialogue around a core set of values we come up with solutions that represent the good of the society. So these extremely acrimonious battles which really devolve around narrow changes are demeaning in some sense the task that we have as a society which is to try to come up solutions that actually will within the framework roughly of this common structure that we have that doesn’t change very much in any radical kinds of ways, we found that you can’t really change the amount of the product that’s spent by the government and you can’t eliminate the market as the agent of building our common economic well-being.

HEFFNER: And the role of those pressures? Of those interest groups?

GARFINKLE: Well, they, they work very hard to try to get benefits for themselves. One of the reasons that our whole campaign finance law is … needs to be overhauled is that today it encourages special interest government rather than partnership government or common good government, or government oriented to the Good Society. And the arguments that say, “well money is the same thing as speech” are arguments that are doing a disservice, I believe to moving toward the kind of partnership government where the government partners with individuals and groups rather than groups setting themselves up against each other and trying to get special benefits by bribing politicians through campaign contributions.

HEFFNER: But when you say that, aren’t you pitting yourself as a leader of the Communitarian Movement against the very substantial, very important part of our political structure.

GARFINKLE: Well, what I’m really saying is that we have a society which does have core values. They are held in common by most of the people in our society. And they … the belief that the Good Society consists of a society in which there is equality of opportunity, material well-being, which is the economic side, and opportunity for individual self-fulfillment. And a society that’s based upon fairness and justice and compassion. That those are commonly held values. That if, as a society, we address the issues that face us. Things change, we now have to deal with, with the change in the welfare program. We have to deal with the change in Social Security because of demographic changes. We have to address those issues, we can address them optimistically based upon our common core values. Or we can set interest groups up against each other … older people versus younger people and whatever. And the …

HEFFNER: Which is it we are doing?

GARFINKLE: We’re doing a lot of both. And that is the tension today between a structure that tends to support one kind of thing, which is disadvantageous and the good sense of the American people that really goes in the other direction. And the good sense of the American people, if it’s been going to be given an opportunity to present itself, will in fact, almost invariably avoid these big debates, these legalistic debates that go on as if we’ve got one set of lawyers fighting against another set of lawyers and that’s the way we should do things. We shouldn’t do things that way, we should do things through dialogue. Dialogue around a common set of values. And the good sense of the American people knows that, despite the fact that the entertainment media insists on providing these conflicts as entertainment and the public does like to watch that kind of entertainment. But the fact that the public likes to watch that kind of entertainment does not mean that they want public policy to be formed.

HEFFNER: You’re quite certain about that.

GARFINKLE: I … yes I am.
HEFFNER: Then I was going to say, as my grandson would say …”How come? How come the entertainment media have been able to do so well (meaning financially) by taking an opposite point of view?”.

GARFINKLE: Well, because entertainment is entertainment. And the public is interested in that kind of entertainment. So if your objective is to provide entertainment and achieve higher ratings, and to do it in the current mode that seems to be providing good audiences, then you do that kind of thing. But that doesn’t mean that the public wants to make decisions that way. As public policy issues arise, the public has its own way of coming to judgment on these issues. And that way has little to do with the, this notion that the entertainment quality of people arguing at each other at all times is something that’s a sympathetic approach on the part of the public.

HEFFNER: Well, when Deborah Tannen has sat at this table, and you know Deborah, and you’ve talked about the debate society. One can say ay de me, this is where we are and I wonder how you identify something other than that as what the American people basically want. Where does this optimism come from and what supports it?

GARFINKLE: Well, let me try to address that in two ways. We have a pretty good society. I am an optimist. I do think that American society, today, partly because of our economic success, but our economic success is tied to these, this creative opportunity that people have for self-fulfillment is working quite well. Maybe better than any other society in our history. Now there are things wrong with it. There are things that need to be improved. You and I agree that the argument culture that’s fostered by the media, who are … insist on presenting everything as a “horse race” is a disadvantageous …

HEFFNER: Not a horse race …


HEFFNER: … side by side, as a battle.

GARFINKLE: Side by side as a battle.

HEFFNER: “Mano a mano”.

GARFINKLE: Right. And the disadvantage, the difficulty in overcoming it is that it is viewed by many people as entertainment. They’re not offended by it, but they’re not acting on it. So we have a disconnect between the media who are engaged in entertainment even though some of those shows are called “news shows” and the public that watches the entertainment is somewhat interested in it, but goes about its own daily lives in their communities and their families and their churches. And to the extent that pubic policy arises, they don’t engage themselves in the way in which the argument culture is suggesting that they should engage themselves. So I think that we will work this out somehow. If you’re asking me “how quickly and how readily”, that’s a different story. Because the reality is that the media seem to be locked into the pattern that they’re now following. And there’s no obvious way to get them out of it.

HEFFNER: But then if I were to ask you the question, I think you and I would agree in stipulating that we live in a wonderful society, only you and I want something still better.


HEFFNER: We believe that the promise of American life offers much more. If we accept all of this, I come back to the question of how do you break out of the pattern that you’ve just described, particularly since the entertainment media plays such a major, major role in our lives, in our society.

GARFINKLE: Well, one of the interesting things that we’ve learned as we’ve studied communities and the history of communities is that if you are successful in developing, generating and communicating new and better ideas, and pointing to the disadvantages of existing ways of doing things, and I would point to the media as one issue. I would point to our campaign finance systems right now as another extreme disadvantage of the way in which our society works. What we’ve learned is that by pointing out these disadvantages and generating public support and generating politicians who will be responsive to these ideas that you get better things. That better things do happen.

HEFFNER: I know you’ve mentioned the word “dialogue” and I know that dialogue means so much to you. I know that in the Conference that the Communitarian Society is holding … Institute is holding in Washington at the end of February, 1999, there is dialogue going on for two whole days. You feel that a great deal comes out of that.

GARFINKLE: Well I think two things. I think that there is a great deal that comes from dialogue because what happens in the magic of dialogue is that if two people start from what they think are opposite points of view, that if they relieve that oppositnessness and take an empathic approach to the other person … what Martin Bobber called the “I/thou” relationship that they will begin to understand where the other person is coming from. And it’s rather interesting that as we look at some of the new studies done by the Public Agenda that, that people, groups that are conceived the be at opposite ends of the scale actually do share the common values of our American society. So the function of dialogue, the benefit of dialogue is to get to the bedroot values that people share and get them to come to solutions based upon those bedroot values. Now the other thing and this …and now we talk about one of the kinds of things that economists like to think they do. And that’s they like to be ingenious. And some of the difficulties of our problems need to be resolved through ingenuity. There are techniques that you can use. They’re incentive based techniques that will achieve the goals of a society rather than command and control techniques. And those are needed to come up with solutions. So the combination of community points of view that influence the members of the community and ingenious solutions that provide incentive based approaches rather than bureaucratic approaches seem to be the two best features than can solve some of these difficult problems.

HEFFNER: And yet there are many people who feel that within the context of the notion that most important of all is the free market, we can’t achieve that kind of give and take.

GARFINKLE: Yeah, I don’t think that’s the case. I actually hold the opposite view that, that the free market is not the unbridled market. That you need … certainly you need regulation. I mean some of them … think of child labor regulations. We will not live without child labor regulations. We will not live without drug regulations where the FDA goes through approval processes before things can be sold in the corner drug store.

HEFFNER: Norton, I’m sorry … we only have two minutes left and I’m not … I should let you go on and then … but goodness, recently what we have seen is that those regulations have been diminished in strength. What we have seen is de-regulation, de-regulation, de-regulation. Isn’t that true?

GARFINKLE: Partly. The other part is that the American will not allow the elimination of government where it’s necessary and while de-regulation can be of benefit in eliminating bureaucratic controls, we will not go too far, this will not happen. We can be frustrated by times where we go too far in one direction, but we come back. This is a very healthy society and in this healthy society this balance between individual autonomy and the, the needs and values of the community constantly is maintained. I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna. Obviously, it doesn’t happen by itself. We all have to pitch in, we all have to do our part. We’re trying to do our part by developing communitarian ideas. We hope the politicians will do their part by adopting them, and we’re … But things work pretty well so I don’t think we should be pessimistic, I think we should be optimistic about the way in which these things are being resolved in this great and good society of ours.

HEFFNER: Norton Garfinkle, if you, if you promise me that your optimism is well-based, I’ll say thank you very much and I agree with you [laughter] and thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

GARFINKLE: My pleasure. Thank you.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.