Amitai Etzioni

A Golden Mean … Between the Individual and the Community

VTR Date: October 19, 1991

Guest: Etzioni, Amitai


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Amitai Etzioni
Title: “A Golden Mean…Between the Individual and the Community”
VTR: 10/19/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And what I hope we can talk about today – talk about in clearly measured terms – is certain American intellectuals’ sense that the middle must be found again in our national life between extremes that for too long now have threatened the very fabric of a potentially “good society”, a middle way between an extraordinarily heightened sense of personal rights on the one hand, and a penchant for almost authoritarian community manipulation and controls on the other.

Indeed, even that description of the emerging philosophy that dubs itself “communitarianism” may fall into the trap of mindless extremism that is quite reasonably but quite firmly rejected by these communitarians, represented here today by Amitai Etzioni, the distinguished sociologist, now of George Washington University, and the Founding Editor of the new “Communitarian” quarterly journal: “The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities”.

For Professor Etzioni is quoted as wanting to “debunk” the notion that “either you have individual choice – free and unencumbered – or you have a police state – and there’s nothing in between”. Instead, presuming their ability to identify an Aristotelian golden mean between individual rights and community needs, the communitarians say “We think paying attention to the moral needs of the community is not antithetical to protecting individual rights”.

All well and good. But I want to ask Professor Etzioni now whether his recent, quite intriguing Wall Street Journal OpEd piece on communitarianism isn’t itself somewhat imbalanced in emphasizing what he describes as “the twin need to curb the minting of rights and to balance existing ones with greater willingness to shoulder responsibilities and commitments to the common good”. As he writes, the Communitarians “emphasize the…moral claims staked by shared needs and futures, as distinct from the claims of various subgroups and individuals”.

And, though he concedes that: ”There is a danger that the moral voice of the community itself will become oppressive”…he finds that danger to be “remote”, which just may sound too much like famous last words to his critics. And which is why I want to ask Professor Etzioni: however much we Americans need now to embrace his sense of community needs and responsibilities, are we by national character, by common history, by political and economic structure and orientation likely to achieve it in tandem with an adequate continuing concern for individualism? Historically, after all, measure or balance hasn’t precisely been the hallmark of American thinking. Professor Etzioni, do you think we can get away with it? Can we do both?

Etzioni: Well, that’s a…challenge of our whole movement. It’s a very fair and penetrating question. It is somewhat like riding a bicycle…leans one way, you lean the other way and it leans over there…you have to keep correcting it. Or to put it differently, even more seriously, you have to think within history. If I would be now in China or in Albania or even in the Soviet Union, whatever is left of it, my colleagues and I would argue day and night for individual rights, because these societies are loaded with authoritarian collective demands despite some recent changes. In continental Europe, Scandinavia and Britain, you find a still different mix. The United States at this moment, in the last ten, twenty years…even thirty, I would say, we’ve been going very far in the other direction. We have been minting more and more rights, which is fine. We’re not against rights at all. But now we have to balance them with some responsibility to the community. There is one little finding, by itself not terribly important, which really highlights the situation very, very well for us. When we ask young Americans if they would insist on the right, as it’s due them to be tried before a jury of their peers, if they’re caught committing a crime, they say, “of course, it’s one of my rights”. When we ask them if they’d serve on a jury, they say, “not me, I’m busy, get some unemployed, some retired citizen”. Well, the illogic of it. You cannot have a jury of your peers, if your peers won’t serve. You cannot take and not give in a community. Now, it’s a, it’s a small finding…in a much larger way we do studies of what Americans feel about the government. And they find a lot of Americans feel the government is too big, it should be cut, there should be less taxes, less regulations. Then we ask them about government services, and they all say, “We need more health care, we need more child care, we need more housing, we need more education”. And you put them next to each other and you see the illogic of it, aside from the indecency of it. That they want to take and they don’t want to give. Who’s going to pay for it? There isn’t in Uncle Sam the deep pocket who can take care of it all. One last example. Many Americas, not all, but an overwhelming majority of Americans are very, very proud of what we did in the Gulf. They don’t want to serve in the Armed Forces, they don’t want their children to serve, they don’t even want to pay for it. Well, if you want to have defense, if you want to have government services, if you want to have a moral community, somebody has to give and not just take.

Heffner: But Professor Etzioni, you said if you were living in another society where the traditions were different, you wouldn’t be so concerned. In fact, you would be pressing rights rather than the opposite…

Etzioni: That’s right.

Heffner: …how long do you think it would take? Given our history, given our history, not theirs, for you to take the responsive community and when you write about rights and responsibilities, to have to emphasize the rights once again. Aren’t you concerned that his rather academic view…logical, intelligent, responsible view, might quickly go by the boards?

Etzioni: No, not quickly, it took us a generation…it’s after all…the last time we had any of that ugly stuff was in the fifties under Joe McCarthy. It took us 40 years to go down that other road, and I would say it would take us another 40 before we could possibly come to a point we would successfully tighten, but I don’t even want to go near that place. So what we talk about is in very carefully, as you said earlier, measured things. So, for instance, we have now in all airports, the screening gates which allow each of us, by giving a small fraction of our time to improve the public safety. Up to ’73 you did not have that encumbrance, and you could just go to the airport without going through those gates which did hassle some and we had a lot of hi-jacking, a lot of terrorism and a lot of lives were lost. And we…the society decided to slightly draw the line by saying “we’ll all put our luggage on this thing, we’re all familiar with them, and we’ll go through those gates”. The ACLU said in 1973, that it was terrible. It’s going to condition us to a police state. The same issue you raise now. Several billion people pass through this…God knows how many times…and I don’t think we moved closer to police state, and if we did, it wasn’t because of screening gates. We have now sobriety check-points in 38 states. Some 12 still object to them. The average time you give a sobriety check-point is 90 seconds. That…we think that is reasonable. That does not open the flood gates to some kind of a new authoritarianism. Above all we don’t want to run the state. Again, a small example may serve. It’s gradually catching on in this country now, the notion of a “designated driver”. It’s a lovely concept. It’s a moral commitment. If you come to a party, or to a drinking place, and we say, “One of us, carpool or family, is not going to drink tonight”. And it makes it a point of honor and he says to himself “Tonight I am the designated driver”. It means he takes moral responsibility to bring everybody home safely. That’s lovely. That is not a danger of some kind of authoritarianism coming out of that.

Heffner: But it’s interesting that first you talk about two mechanisms of control that are government oriented…

Etzioni: Yes.

Heffner: …and then you say, “We’re not really talking about the government”. Then you talk about an individual responsibility…the designated driver. But first you talk about government action.

Etzioni: It’s true that I mention it first. But in effect the main thing you need is a loud moral voice. That’s why we talk about communitarianism, or community, to emphasize that our markets over here and they ought to be, and there is a role for government. I’ll come back to that. But the main thing we’re interested in is the revival and re-strengthening of the community, so its moral voice will take again. So we will use the social fiber to encourage people, to convince people, to educate people to do what’s right. Now I don’t want to deny that when he community fails, and you have that many tragic deaths on the highway, that there is a role for government. But the government should step in as a last resort…not as a first mover.

Heffner: But you seem to be expanding the areas in which either the community or individuals in the community, or government should step in.

Etzioni: Yes. Why? Because we have major, major problems which we’ve been talking about for 30 years, and our citizens, especially in the cities, are close to despair. There are parts of our communities where people cannot walk the street. They cannot sleep in their own homes. In, in some of our inner cities, people have to sleep on the floor to dodge drug-dealer bullets. We have gang warfare in Los Angeles. We have an incredible tidal wave of crime. If we’re not going to do anything about it, then we’re really going to invite an authoritarian backlash. When you have that kind of inattention to public needs, you do call…what they’re talking about…suspending the constitution until the war against drugs be won, hanging drug dealers at random…quarantining all AIDS carriers.

Heffner: You know I can bait you; I can ask the, the questions that are going to be asked of you when I read “The Responsive Community”, or your new publication. I’m enormously impressed by what you and your colleagues write, and I share your feelings. But I do have to come back again and again to the traditional fears that when one puts ones emphasis upon community authority. Whether seen through the state, or seen through individuals themselves, we’re running into the potential…a potential for real trouble, particularly given the American heritage. That’s why I ask you the questions I do.

Etzioni: And that’s a fair question. What created the Nazis? The lack of community. Fascism rises, tyranny rises…the anarchy in the Soviet Union brought out tyrannical Communism. When you lose the social fiber, when society comes apart, when you do not attend to the urgent needs of the citizens, you open them up to demagogues and tyrants. When the…a viable community…the social bonds…Tocqueville talks about the mediating structures, the voluntary association, the families, the neighborhoods…they’re your best protection against tyranny. And nobody ever disagreed with that. You’re not talking about authority in the community. You’re talking about peer relationships…neighbors, crime watch, for instance. If people watch for each other…if somebody…and such…

Heffner: But Tocqueville was most concerned about the tyranny of the majority…

Etzioni: Yes.

Heffner: …he wasn’t…so that…all that much concerned about the tyranny of government, he was concerned about what happens to us when we emphasize the community need, when those who function outside the community needs are anathema to the rest of us. Now what greater tyranny can there be?

Etzioni: They…that’s why they have to ask “where we are at”. If you have …if you had been in Salem during the witch hunts, if you would be in Geneva during the Communists, and that is a very strong, tight community…anybody who misbehaves gets sent – sort of excommunicated, we would be pushing those forces back. But when you have next to no community left, when you have the whole country being churned because we all move around so much that is next to impossible to establish firm relationships…stable relationships. Then you have schools which no longer can educate, barely teach. When you have families coming apart…you don’t have to worry about communities being too tight. You have to worry about the most elementary human fabric, which is social. Isolated individuals cut off from the social moorings are the most dangerous social material you can imagine.

Heffner: And you think…and I guess this is the tough question…you think that this can be remedied…in our time, in this place?

Etzioni: We started moving in that direction.

Heffner: You intellectuals have started moving in this direction. What indication do you have that aside from that extraordinarily impressive group of people who are contributing to your magazine, and the vast numbers who are reading it now…seriously, what indication do you have that you are reflecting a…an American potential in 1990, 1,2,3,4?

Etzioni: Well, there’s a small indication and a bigger one. The small one is we got a tremendous response. We came out with our call on January 15th, one day before the war started, in the depths of the recession. And we got an enormous response from all over the country…citizens like us, ministers; people who are not on campus…the press gave us a wonderful welcome…not because we are so smart. I’m too good of a sociologist to give me credit for that. It’s because there’s a need out there. The bigger point is, that the yearning for a society in which there’s more of a moral fiber, more order, you can see in the fact that there are, again, for instance, even in New York City, out of all places, block associations which try to revive community relations, festivals, crime watch. In Seattle they have a program which trains citizens in CPR, so they can revive people when their hearts stop. You have voluntary sorting of garbage introduced in many communities, especially in the West to help the environment. The whole environmental movement is a concern of people working together for our shared future. So the, the yearning for community in the good sense, not the authoritarian, but the one or two who together work to make their lives better is immense and active and one of the best features of American character.

Heffner: One of the best features…do you think as someone with historical knowledge, and someone who knows the community…

Etzioni: Yes.

Heffner: …what…I guess the question is “what’s your bet, Professor Etzioni”?

Etzioni: My bet is that we have to move cautiously. We have to keep one eye all the time on an animal you describe. But take the issue of majoritarianism. We are not a simple democracy…we have a wonderful Constitution, and what it does; it sorts the areas into packages. Those areas in which the majority are told…we, we want the majority to have a say on which side of the street you’re going to drive…we don’t want the minority to drive in the opposite direction of everybody else. We want to talk about how many taxes everybody should pay, we don’t want everybody to make that decision alone. So there are clearly designated areas which are legitimate, proper places for the majority, and then there are areas which are sacred, not to be touched. We cannot have a majority vote to take away your right to speak. We cannot have a majority vote to sell you as a slave. So the Constitution defines areas we very much respect in which the community will have no say, individual rights will be set up, enshrined and protected. And the other areas in which majority should rule by any concern.

Heffner: But the whole history of this country has been the history of a continuing debate over what the Constitution does permit. You are now urging upon us certain activities whether they have to do with designated drivers on a community level, or more significantly…

Etzioni: Yes.

Heffner: …with limitations upon, I would assume, the sale of, of liquor, and you want to have these stop points…to me, quite understandable. But certainly that is in tension with (or against) a long standing Constitutional tradition. You are…you are asking us to move in a certain direction. I would go with you…

Etzioni: Yes?

Heffner: But I wonder whether we have not moved in that direction in the past because of some visceral understanding that we’re the kind of people who don’t make, take the kind of rational, slow, reasonable, balanced steps you want us to take. But when we start down a certain road, we go down it so fast we better not start at all.

Etzioni: Well, I have to go back…what is the alternative? To fear that any move because it may one day lead us too far? We shouldn’t move at all? And we should just sit back…by whatever precedent was created…and inevitably, mind you, if you’re going to go down that road, privacy is not found in the Constitution. The right to privacy was created so that the process which you say we should fear…Miranda didn’t exist in the mid-sixties. So, these rights, too are created, so the same process. So if you must freeze and not move, all we will do is wallow in crime and in disease.

Heffner: When you mention Miranda and when you mention privacy, are you speaking as one of those who say “these are not mentioned, therefore the courts have had no right”?

Etzioni: No…I’m in favor of them…

Heffner: Okay.

Etzioni: …but you cannot buy…that the Constitution, which I share with you is a living thing, which means it’s subject to some re-interpretation, by the way rather limited, as circumstances change and then say, “wait a moment, I’m not going to play when I want to slightly re-interpret it so we can enhance public safety”.

Heffner: Well, I was interested when you, when you wrote this piece for the Wall Street Journal. It’s titled “The New Community of Thinkers…Both Liberal and Conservative”…

Etzioni: That’s right.

Heffner: …I would think that very quickly that clash must surface in your counsels between those who would embrace…happily, delightfully, delightedly…some of the restrictions upon liberties that you want to impose. And others of you who say as a last resort “we must do these things to bolster the sense of community”…

Etzioni: But we…I don’t want to restrict anybody’s liberty…I want to protect it, so I want to protect your right to drive in a world free from murderous drunken drivers. And I want you to be able to fly without having to worry that the pilot is drunk. And I want to be able to take the subway without having to worry that the engineer may be zonked on drugs. I’m protecting your liberties and I don’t want to restrict your liberties at all…

Heffner: Now…now…

Etzioni: …and that’s why my colleagues and I get along so well.

Heffner: But you and I as academics can play that game. We understand what you’re saying…you’re taking…you’re saying the glass is not half empty, it’s half full. Fine.

Etzioni: Yes.

Heffner: Others can say it’s half empty, that what you have done in order to protect the community at large, is to limit the rights of certain individuals in the community.

Etzioni: No, no, no.

Heffner: No?

Etzioni: And that’s a game…it’s not a game. If I ask you, as a citizen, whose right I want to vigilantly observe to make a contribution, would you please every time you go to the airport, come five minutes earlier…so we’ll all be safe of terrorists? Is that such an unreasonable, un-Constitutional request?

Heffner: No.

Etzioni: Because of the First Amendment, Sir, if you want to become technical now, talks about “reasonable and unreasonable search” and it leaves the line between reasonable and unreasonable for us all to interpret.

Heffner: Yes, but you see the problem here at this table is that I don’t disagree with you…

Etzioni: I know that.

Heffner: …but I have a great problem with your stating it so simply…”there isn’t really a problem here”…no limitations…you know perfectly well that if I don’t get there five minutes ahead of time, and you have determined that I must be there five minutes ahead of time…I don’t get on that plane. Right?

Etzioni: Well, it’s not I determined and you have to comply. It’s where…is the community agrees with each other, and there are a few radicals who object…that that is better for all of us, and that is well within our rights.

Heffner: But this concept of what is better for all of us has always been debated with, on the other side, those who have said, “Look, if you have to make your bets…bet on the side of unrestricted liberty and individualism because in the long history of mankind, the real problem, the greater problem comes in terms of those who want to impose limitations”.

Etzioni: And look…

Heffner: Better to risk that…

Etzioni: …look, look where we are. We are at a place where we are one step from a society which in part…completely unworkable and nothing…I repeat that…invites tyranny more quickly than the sense of complete frustration And alienation of a system which no longer works in many places. Now, we, we focus so much on this one question…of the danger of suddenly getting too much community, that we haven’t talked at all about the family and the schools, which is something we have paid a lot of attention to. Which are for us the two most important places and you can re-instill values because I think one thing…everybody would have to agree…if you are Left or Right or Center is that a child is born without values…I mean I not only studied this, I have five of them. When you take them home from the hospital, there are no inborn ethics in them. They have no civilization in them, and so somebody has to install it before they become civil, before they become moral. Now with…with often nobody at home, and I don’t care if it’s one or two parents, they often are very preoccupied outside the home…coming home exhausted or not at all, we have the new thing is “quality” phone calls where between the job and date you call home and say, “Jimmy, I love you. Bye”. There’s nobody to educate the child by a TV set.

Heffner: Then?

Etzioni: …then you get people who are not capable to function in a democracy or a civil society or community…

Heffner: No, no, I understand that…but I’m asking…by “then” I mean…then what…what do you do?

Etzioni: We feel that we have to re-value children. They have to tell to each other again what we forgot, what we allowed top wash out…the children are important…important to us personally, and important to our collective future.

Heffner: Again…I find myself in total agreement with you, but how do we bring that about when you have just described an economic system that takes the mother and takes the father and takes them out of the home?

Etzioni: Well, in part the corporations would have to yield. Allow for more flex-time, allowing exactly for unpaid leave, and the famous lists of things.

Heffner: By law, Professor Etzioni?

Etzioni: Well, I’m…rather they do it voluntarily out of a moral call because they be concerned as we are about the future of the next generation, but if they will not, then there is no other way to reach them. But let me add that each one of us except the real poor have to make our own choices, what’s more important to us…a green lawn, another…a nice yard in the suburbs, a newer car, a summer house, or depending where you are in the class structure, new clothing, or dedicate more of our time to children because we all make all the time trade-offs into how much we invest in our career, how much we invest in our children.

Heffner: Do you want us to continue to live in a society where everything about us…this medium, television, whatever…advertising, etc. pushes us in the consumerist direction of the green lawn, of the other house, of all of those accomplishments or accoutrements. Now, what do we do about those things?

Etzioni: Well, it’s so that our society replaced God with consumer products. But we…there is a measure we can…how much we have to worship that Golden Calf, and I’m not asking us to go back to kind of wear a sack and kind of a hippie life…but if we could all just cut back a bit, we could find…especially those of us more privileged…

Heffner: And those who are listening or watching and say, “Professor Etzioni, not on your tintype”…maybe most people say that now…what does the communitarian do?

Etzioni: Well, in the end, all we have is a moral voice…all we can tell people that if they will invest in consumer goods more and more and less and less in their children…first of all they personally are going to regret it, because there’s nothing more beautiful than having a good relationship with our child, nothing more gratifying. And we have a little trick. We asked people, as ethicists; to show that that’s not our invention…we asked this at the end of the day: “What do you want to have on your tombstone? This guy had more designer jeans than anybody else? Or ‘I contributed to the upbringing of some decent human beings?’” You’re not going to take it with you, so what gives more meaning to life… a decent, fulfilling relationship or polka dot ties and striped shirts?

Heffner: I guess…

Etzioni: I like to say “striped shirts”.

Heffner: I guess the point that I really have to get to is the one that says when you haven’t by moral suasion achieved this, don’t you want some authority to take steps in this direction?

Etzioni: No. No, not in that way. At a margin…yes…I would like to get drunk drivers off the road. I would like to remove arms for…from the streets. I would…the Second Amendment to me does not have a right to bear arms. It has a right of well-regulated militias to bear arms. But when it comes to the family and to moral education in schools, if you can’t convince our fellow citizens then it cannot be done.

Heffner: We’ve got to go back to this another time. Thank you so much for joining me today, Professor Etzioni.

Etzioni: Thanks for having me.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, our guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.