Contra the Fonz

January-February 1992By C.H. Ross

C. H. Ross, a lawyer, writes from Nashville.

The Good Society.  By Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. Knopf. 331 pages. $25.

Sometimes you can tell something about the significance of a book by the kind of response it elicits. A few years ago the authors of The Good Society collaborated on another book called Habits of the Heart. It caused a sensation. Reviewers either praised it warmly or reacted with the kind of anger that often speaks of a target fairly struck. That book turned out to be the herald of something big. A growing body of American intellectuals has become impatient with the atoms-and-the-void type of individualism that was so justly scored in Habits of the Heart — an abstract ideology that focuses on “The Individual,” while studiously ignoring the matrix of family and social relationships in which real individuals necessarily live and move.

The authors take it for granted that the unhealthy delusion they describe stems chiefly from American devotion to the political philosophy of John Locke. Actually, there is a fairly spirited debate going on about the extent of Locke’s influence, but whatever the etiology of the disease, there is no denying that Americans are peculiarly susceptible to it.

These writers are representative spokesmen for a group of thinkers who are called, and call themselves, “communitarians.” Their movement is one of the most important developments in recent intellectual history. It has the potential for doing great good. But it also carries built-in temptations to go wrong in big ways. The Good Society is fairly representative of both tendencies.

The authors address the question of our social matrix by focusing on the role of institutions. In so doing, they set themselves another daunting task, for Americans are conditioned to think of institutions as Bad Things. In reading these passages, I was reminded of an episode in the situation comedy Happy Days, in which that eminent sociologist, Arthur Fonzarelli, uttered a quintessential American judgment: “Institutions are not cool. People are cool.” Sad to say, most of our countrymen still approach the question on the level of the Fonz. It is the great merit of the authors that they realize the vital nature of institutions. They are the places where our individual and social existences intersect — the structural manifestations of a community’s vitality. They provide, as it were, the skeleton of our body politic. Ever so much depends on our ability to make our institutions more humane, more participatory, more responsive — in two words, more cool.

Much of this book is an examination of various existing institutions. The authors show, usually without much difficulty, that our institutions are failing in various ways, usually related to our habit of applying individualistic categories of thought in areas where they can have no real application.

I was fascinated by the discussion of our legal institutions. I was also surprised, because the authors in general think them healthier than they seem to me. In some respects (e.g., environmental regulation) there is a refreshing absence of the laissez-faire reflex and a growing acceptance of community interests. Though particular policies may be counterproductive and even stupid, the underlying orientation is sound. And yet vast areas of the law remain unaffected by these impulses. The authors believe that law is inherently limited, because the courts can act only in individual cases and not in an advisory capacity. That limitation is more apparent than real. It is not at all hard to get up a test case if the principle at issue is one that somebody really cares about. A far greater problem is the willingness of the law, in some areas, to accept and promote individual autonomy as the highest legal good. The law increases individual freedom as it becomes nihilistic about other moral goods. There has never in the history of law been a time when lawyers were so little concerned about the nature of the good, and the reason is that lawyers, even more than other people, tend to believe that good and evil are in most areas matters of personal taste, that as long as choice is free, it does not matter what is chosen.

The danger here is obvious, not just to the Christian but to the well-grounded natural philosopher. But in this book, as in the rest of the communitarian movement, there is a tendency to seek the wrong remedy. Where discussion of individual rights is concerned, too many in the movement are ready to adopt the maxim abusus tollit usum. If people talk nonsense about individual rights, the argument runs, the thing to do is not talk about them at all.

At one level, the drawbacks of this approach are fairly obvious. A philosophy that disparages the concept of individual rights is going to be a definite nonstarter.

More to the point, such an approach is completely unnecessary. What would be so difficult about pointing out that, in a sane society, rights must be understood hierarchically, and that weighing the interests of the community would be an integral part of determining where the rights of individual members fit into the scheme of things? Man is by nature a social being; therefore, the opportunity to live in a healthy community is itself one of the most important individual rights. What great obstacle is there to emphasizing such an obvious fact?

That so many communitarians are not only reluctant but positively disdainful about framing the issues along these lines is disturbing. Perhaps this problem has to do with another that I have observed — the tendency of communitarians to assume that a sound community life is one in which friction is at a minimum. Recently, the noted communitarian Amitai Etzioni published a column in The Wall Street Journal arguing that talk about individual rights leads ineluctably to conflicts like the one over abortion in Wichita last summer. Now, Etzioni is basically on the side of the angels; any doubt about that should have been dispelled by the vitriolic attack on him by the president of the ACLU in the Journal’s correspondence section. And there’s certainly no denying that where individual rights are prized, people can have god-awful fights about them. But is that the worst thing that can happen? Suppose nobody cared about the right to life or “reproductive rights.” That outlook would probably result in a certain bovine comity, and no doubt some people would be silly enough to call it peace. But as for me, give me a Wichita every weekend rather than that. I go with Burke: “I like a clamor when there is an abuse. The fire-bell in the night may disturb our sleep, but it keeps us from being burnt in our beds.”

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