Why I am not a Communitarian

A philosophy called ‘communitarianism’ has often been proposed recently as an alternative to the growing libertarianism of our time.  This philosophy, they say, can combine social conservatism and economic moderation, as well as potentially reviving an emphasis on the local community, depending on how ‘community’ is defined; some define it at the nation-state level!  This of course should be of interest to me, because I define myself as a ‘social conservative’ and a ‘fiscal moderate.’

But I’m afraid I can’t entirely buy-in to communitarianism.  There is a lot of vagueness as to how ‘community’ is defined. Based on Kuyperian philosophy and some diagrams in Francis Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption I posit five basic forms of authority; other spheres, like education and science, are derived from these five and are often hybrids between them.

Three of them have been recognized in evangelical thought; two have not.  The state is the first form of authority we generally think of; it is the form that Fukuyama classifies as ‘Hierarchical–Rational’.  Second is the church, in which I tend to include religious institutions in general and the non-profit sector; they put forth ‘revealed’ norms that Fukuyama calls ‘Hierarchical–A-rational’.  This is true whether the organization of the church is ‘hierarchical’ or not, because the norms they advocate are revealed by God or by some source that is definitely at the top of a hierarchy!  The third is the family, which I regard as a small-scale mix of the other four.

Evangelical thought has not generally dealt with the other two corners of the diagram.  One of them is ‘Rational–Non-hierarchical’; Fukuyama puts in this category the ‘slug’ rules that arose in the Washington D.C. area after carpool lanes were installed on some major freeways there; they pertain to picking up strangers to fill the car enough to fill the lanes.  But I would put into that category the whole category of property ownership, business, the right to make rules regarding the conduct of others on our property, and the right to determine the conditions under which we do business.  With the rise of the great corporation in the 19th century, this became a much bigger issue.  Before the rise of the great corporations, it was generally understood that limited government was the preferential option for the poor.  Now that we have big corporations, it is often contended that we need a big government to control them for the sake of the people. Admittedly the two often end up forming alliances, which is called ‘crony capitalism’.  But the rules of business and property ownership do guide our lives; many of the ‘regulations’ under which we live come not from the government but from what banks will and will not lend on, and what insurance companies will and will not insure.  [Not that there isn’t some political influence on those!]  Most of the software I use I don’t ‘own’, but have a ‘license to use’.

The other is one that evangelicals have interested themselves in the cause of world mission, but have not generally thought of it as a God-ordained sphere of authority.  I speak of customs, cultures, and manners, including languages and their rules.  We do not think of these, usually, as moral absolutes, but we try to observe them.  If I’m in Japan, I don’t tromp into a house with my outside shoes proclaiming that “The Bible doesn’t say I’m supposed to take my shoes off when I come into a house!”  No, this custom is a form of authority.  And just because proper English avoids double negatives, I do not insist that in Spanish “No hay nadie” really should mean “There is somebody” or the opposite of “Nadie hay”!  They mean the same thing.

Sorry for this digression, but a big part of my problem with ‘communitarianism’ is that the ‘communitarians’ are not always clear on which of these a ‘community’ is.  Is it a local government?  A religious community?  A society with certain customs?  A mere geographical expression?  Each of these forms of authority, ideally, has certain limits, but these limits differ according to the telos, the ultimate purpose, of the form of authority. For example, the state, which bears the sword, is primarily an instrument of justice; therefore constitutions and bills of rights are useful to keep it from acting unjustly.  The same restrictions [which is what ‘rights’ are; restrictions on authority, in my view] do not apply to families, businesses, churches, or societies.  A child’s parents, or an employee’s boss, can make rules regarding speech, the press, travel and personal mobility, that it would not be suitable for a government to enact; they are not obligated to be ‘constitutional’.  The telos of these forms of authority, though they should not be blatantly unjust, is not primarily the enforcement of justice.  Parents are supposed to bring up children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” and prepare them for life.  Business is supposed to produce a quality product or service and make money in the process.  Government is not supposed to do these things.

Catholic thought has promoted the doctrine of ‘subsidiarity’, which means that issue should be dealt with at the smallest and most local level possible.  [The Pope does not micromanage the local parish!]  I have no problem with this, but it is not sufficient.  If we affirm ‘subsidiarity’, and don’t keep the distinction between the spheres clear at the most local level [only the family is a hybrid of all five forms], we can end up justifying tyranny at City Hall instead of from Washington D.C.  And some ‘conservatives’ seem to do just exactly that.  [The lesser evil is that you don’t have to move so far to get out!]  In so far as there is such a thing as a ‘community’, it is, in my opinion, part of the sphere of manners and customs. Margaret Thatcher had a point, but was not quite right, when she proclaimed that “there is no such thing as society;” there is, but it is not the state, does not ordain the state or decree transcendental morals, or do business.  It does, however, ordain manners, customs, and languages.  And there is no real organization that decrees these things; that’s why ‘society’ is hard to pin down.

My second protest is this.  Christians, and to some extent the post-Christian culture that is succeeding Christendom [and has inherited this impulse from the Christian era], have a special interest in the poor, widows, orphans, and the excluded and marginalized.  Well, by whom are the marginalized marginalized? By communities, of course.  This indicates that ‘communities’ cannot be absolutely free to decree as they will. There should be just enough of a check from higher levels of authority to give opportunity to the poor and marginalized.  I think it is good that there is more talk of the ‘common good’ nowadays.  But in a society where most people are no longer dirt-poor, the ‘common good’ and the good of the poor and the marginalized are not always the same, especially on the local level.  The cost of what is helpful to the poor in terms of education, employment, etc., may be very costly to a ‘community’.  [Though in the U.S. at this time the most costly government programs are not those for the poor, but those for the elderly of most classes.]  And some local communities are defined by the exclusion of the relatively impecunious, and indeed depend on it for their identity.  [In older days, exclusion based on race was part of this; thank God this is less so now.]  What I call ‘incomism’, the belief that the less affluent are inferior people or at the very least undesirable neighbors, still drives a lot of local political behavior.

One good work I would recommend that tries to bring in the balance between ‘the marginalized’ and ‘communities’ [especially in communities of the marginalized] is Bob Lupton’s book Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life.  [Full disclosure; Fieldstead suggested and supported the publication of this book.]  In it he explains why churches are not necessarily considered desirable neighbors nowadays [hint: the commuter church of our time] and that it is possible to minister to people as individuals in a way that is not good for communities.  Though I am not a philosophical libertarian I have tended to be a ‘land-use libertarian’, and his book has made me willing to rethink my views on this.

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