Communitarian values and why they matter

Posted: March 30, 2011 in Books
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Cover of "Radical Middle: The Politics We...

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Communitarianism differs from liberalism in that it affirms that the community as a whole has rights, not just the individuals in it.

This view has suffered a great deal of bad press over the last 20 years, pretty much ever since Ross Perot and various other ‘third way’ US politicians espoused it. Attack dogs -mostly from the conservative side of politics- strove hard to discredit it as a dressed-up form of leftism.

Unfortunately the same word is applied to two concepts. The first, as meant by Perot, is communitarianism as a political ideology. It is very similar to radical centrism, an approach that affirms the essential truth of both sides of a political disagreement and thus treats the dilemma as moot. For example, unfair dismissal laws. A political communitarian would affirm that yes, unfair dismissal laws impose a cost on business but yes, they are also an important protection for vulnerable workers. It’s a “both/and” approach.

To me it seems hard to avoid seeing situations where both perspectives are ‘right’. Throughout this blog I argue for the need to improve working conditions in developing countries both as a social concern and as a business imperative.

However for today I want to talk about the second meaning of communitarianism: a philosophical tradition.

I suspect the reason we hear so little about it is because pundits fail to make the distinction from political communitarianism which does not have a large following and is thus regarded as a fringe concern.

Philosophical communitarianism is important for anyone concerned about the rough edges of modern society. Its defenders are strongly critical of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), an eloquent defense of liberalism of the kind espoused by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with her famous one-liner that “there is no such thing as society”.

Communitarianism on the other hand regards social cohesion as important. Unbridled liberalism leads to large disparities between wealthy and poor. Communitarians argue that this should be avoided as it leads to division and disharmony in society, particularly when the problems become self-reinforcing, for example America’s problem with poorly-performing schools in its least-wealthy neighbourhoods. Communitarians’ approach is to say that people do have certain basic rights that go beyond the minimums of free speech, free association, etc. For the good of society, people should also be entitled to a reasonable education, to be paid a living wage, to have access to health care, etc.

Critics of communitarianism assert that, if they ever got their hands on the levers of power, communitarians would likely turn out to be paternalistic, telling people what they want without asking. It’s hard to comment on this since we’ve never seen it happen but I just thought I should mention it to be fair.

Anyone concerned with social issues would benefit from learning about communitarianism, it is a strong and cohesive approach to many of the problems that arise in a liberal capitalist society.

Read More:

  • Liberalism and the Limits of Justice by American Michael Sandel is a sustained critique of Rawls’ Theory of Justice mainly on the grounds that human beings cannot be separated from the culture that shaped them and thus never act as ‘pure’ individuals. In other words, even Rawls is importing his beliefs about the benefits of individualism from elsewhere.
  • After Virtue by Scotsman Alasdair MacIntyre articulates the need for personal virtue in public life – acting out of concern for the community instead of just oneself – and that this should not be seen merely a hobby for interested do-gooders but as something expected of everybody.
  • Sources of the Self by Canadian Charles Taylor is an appeal to the modern producer-consumer that ‘you can be so much more’. He points out that our (limited) understanding of our self is a result of the prevailing culture and, even if we want to pretend otherwise, it contains assumptions about what is good in life. It wouldn’t hurt us to question these once in a while.

If you are more interested in the political form of communitarianism / radical centrism, a good introduction is Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now by Mark Satin (also on Kindle).

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  3. tedseay says:

    >A political communitarian would affirm that yes, unfair dismissal laws impose a cost on business but yes, they are also an important protection for vulnerable workers. It’s a “both/and” approach.

    So the business loses and certain individual workers gain, probably at the expense of at least some of their fellow workers.

    …so tell me again how this is a “middle” position?

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