Liberty, Community, and the National Idea

Nothing is so central to America's image of itself as the idea of individual liberty. It is, we believe, what spurred many of the first European settlers to leave their homelands and come to our shores. It drove the revolutionaries who broke with England and created a new nation. It shaped the Constitution and, above all, the Bill of Rights. And it has been, we claim, the defining characteristic of our democracy for more than two centuries.

It is true, of course, that rights and freedoms have been central to our history and basic to our political and social system. But they have not been the only force shaping our public world. At least equally important, through most of American history, has been the idea of community.

In our present political world, there is considerable anxiety about how successfully the idea of community has survived in the twentieth century and considerable criticism of the preoccupation with rights that many critics claim has dominated (and distorted) both liberalism and conservatism in the postwar era. This is an old complaint. Americans have been lamenting the decline of community for centuries--since at least the seventeenth century, when Puritan clerics began delivering jeremiads lamenting the passing of the close-knit religious communities of the first years of English settlement. The laments about the decline of community today are less theological, but no less impassioned. Intellectual and popular discourse alike are filled with warnings that the core of our life as a nation is disappearing, that we will soon find ourselves bereft of the institutional and cultural underpinnings of a healthy society.

A growing chorus of powerful voices has emerged in recent years--led by (among others) Michael Sandel, Robert Putnam, Alan Ehrenhalt, Michael Walzer, Benjamin Barber, Amitai Etzioni, along with a very large part of the political right--charging that the bonds of community in the United States are dangerously eroding; that the character of our civic life has changed in ways that often seem to accentuate individual, as opposed to community, loyalties; that we are in danger of becoming an atomized society unable to forge the social bonds capable of sustaining our shared life. Both liberalism and conservatism in our time, some communitarian critics claim, have often tended to elevate rights to so high a place in the lexicon of values that other, equally important, values have suffered. There is at least some truth in these claims.



American liberalism for most of the past 50 years has at times seemed wedded to the idea that individual rights are paramount and that only in exceptional cases can a national or community interest override them. Michael Sandel, for example, argues that liberals insist on government remaining neutral on questions of values and morality--on it playing no role in defining a good life or a good society, because any such definition would likely favor one group's values over those of another. Citizens are autonomous--independent selves who must define their own values and goals. And government's role is to create the kind of society in which every individual can live, as much as possible, as he or she chooses. Sandel is correct, in theory at least, that liberalism in our time has at times seemed firmly wedded to the ideas of individual autonomy and unfettered personal choice, and that some liberals have celebrated their marriage to that concept by pointing to dark alternatives-to the dangers inherent in more collective social orders. Indeed, to some liberal intellectuals, the idea of community has not only seemed less important than individual rights, but even a potential threat to them. They have embraced an argument, made particularly clear more than 60 years ago by Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society. "Individual men," Niebuhr wrote,


may be moral. . . . They are endowed by nature with a measure of sympathy and consideration for their kind. . . . Their rational faculty prompts them to a sense of justice. . . . But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egotism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.

In other words, Niebuhr (and some more recent liberals) claim that liberty, and even morality, reside most effectively within the autonomous individual; the more the individual becomes embedded within a group (a "crowd," a "mass"), the more endangered liberty and morality become. It is on the basis of this strain--an often powerful strain--within liberalism that the communitarian critique is founded.

Subscribe to The American Prospect

Much of American conservatism, despite its contempt for what liberals have done in the last half century, rests heavily on a similar set of beliefs. Many conservatives also attribute to liberty a value far higher than they attribute to any community or collective interest; they too see the collective as not just inferior to, but a threat to, personal freedom. Their definition of liberty rests much more heavily than the liberal definition on the idea of economic freedom: the commitment to an unregulated free market, the belief that economic freedom, as Friedrich Hayek wrote 50 years ago in The Road to Serfdom, is inseparable from all other notions of freedom because economic power "is the control of the means of all our ends." Where some liberals believe government must be neutral in its relationship to values, behavior, and social norms, many conservatives believe government must be neutral in terms of markets, economic institutions, and the distribution of personal wealth. Where some liberals fear the irrationality and immorality of the "mass," some conservatives fear the tyranny of the state.

This regime of rights and freedoms--a regime supported, in different ways, by elements in both political parties and by some of the most powerful political philosophies of the last half century--has culminated, its critics charge, in our present political moment: in a raging popular discontent with the public world, in a sense among many of our people that they have lost control of their lives, in a growing despair about the future, and in a belief that the institutions that have guided us through most of our history have somehow spent themselves. The public world as we have known it in our time, many have come to believe, seems to lack the resources to answer that cry. Society yearns, they claim, for something more than rights and freedom--for a sense of community capable of giving individual lives meaning, for the civic life that forms the basis for the liberty we cherish.



The communitarian critique, as eloquent and compelling as it seems in the context of our present, unhappy public life, has serious shortcomings--both as a description of politics as it is and as a prescription for politics as it should be. It is not wholly clear, first of all, that the bonds of civic life have in fact eroded as thoroughly as some critics charge. The supposed erosion of what communitarians (and many others) call "civil society" and what Robert Putnam has called "social capital" is almost impossible to document. Many traditional institutions of civic life have indeed weakened or vanished, but many new ones have emerged to replace them--a process that has been continuous in American society for two centuries.

Nor is it clear that either liberalism or conservatism in our time have been as wholly wedded to the idea of rights as the critics claim. There are, in fact, countless examples of the ways in which both liberals and conservatives have, in fact, offered definitions of the "good life" and the "moral society," definitions that go far beyond a simple endorsement of personal liberty. For liberals, a wide range of social policies--housing subsidies, highway building, environmental regulations, civil rights and affirmative action, public support for the arts, and others--do, in fact, express a vision of a "good life," even if it is one that critics of liberalism may find insufficiently ennobling. Many liberals have gone further and endorsed ideas of national service, cooperative workplace structures, and other explicitly communitarian goals. Conservatives, too, have proposed visions of community based on a prescriptive moral agenda that proposes a wide range of behavioral norms rooted in a normative (and often religious) concept of how individuals and families should live and behave.

But the largest shortcoming of the communitarian argument is the way some of its advocates define community itself. Many (although certainly not all) contemporary communitarians consider community inseparable from localism. It is the neighborhood church, PTA, Little League, Boy Scout chapter, Elks Club, or (to use Robert Putnam's now famous example) bowling league that is the source of civic life. It is the local voluntary association--the sort of organization that Tocqueville argued was so characteristic of early nineteenth-century America--that makes it possible for individuals to embed themselves in a community. Some communitarians, to be sure, see a link between the local community and the nation. They see in local civic life a vehicle for creating habits of community interaction and social trust, out of which a larger political community can eventually emerge. But other communitarians--those on the right in particular--envision no such links. The threat to community, they claim, is not just excessive individualism; it is also excessive centralization. The "community" stands in opposition to the "nation" or the "government." It is a defense against impersonal bureaucracies, against the state, against the larger world. And as such, they claim, it is part of a tradition deeply embedded in American history.

It is true, needless to say, that this localistic vision of community has deep roots in the American past--as the frequent evocations of Tocqueville by today's communitarians make clear. Historians, and others, have spent several decades now exploring the tradition of what they call republicanism, a vision of society that emerged in the eighteenth century and survived (according to some, although not all, of its chroniclers) through the nineteenth and into the twentieth (in the form of various populist movements, in some areas of the labor movement, in some parts of the left, and even in parts of the communitarian right). The republican tradition (closely associated with, among others, Thomas Jefferson) places a high value on personal liberty, to be sure, but it situates liberty within the fabric of a relatively small and homogeneous community whose citizens operate according to a shared moral code and a respect for social norms.

What gives rights and freedoms meaning? Many liberals and libertarians would argue that their meaning is inherent, that they are themselves the foundation of our public world. But republicans would argue differently. Liberty has no meaning except in a social context; rights cannot be sustained unless there is a civic life healthy enough to create a shared commitment to them. Communities create freedom; freedom does not create itself. But in order to create freedom, communities also create obligations--obligations to honor certain common values, to respect certain institutions, to accept some common definition of what is good. We cannot hope to be truly free, according to the tradition of republicanism, unless we identify with and share in the governance of the political community upon which our freedom depends. And we can only do so, many republicans have argued throughout American history, if the community remains small enough that individuals can realistically expect to exercise some power within it.

The historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, in one of his last books, The True and Only Heaven, drew particular attention to today's close-knit, ethnically homogeneous, working-class communities as examples of healthy, vibrant societies. Lasch was deeply disheartened by the condition of modern middle-class life--by what he considered its heedless materialism, its resistance to social bonds, its rejection of obligation to family and neighborhood, its isolation of individuals into self-regarding, narcissistic beings. The strong Italian or Irish or Jewish or other ethnic neighborhoods of many American cities, with their strong family and community bonds, seemed to him a model for what the rest of society might become. And it is true that there is much to admire in the close and enduring ties of family and church and neighborhood, in the sense of mutual obligation, that characterize many such communities. A healthy society depends on strong families, vibrant neighborhoods, healthy schools, churches, and fraternal societies--thriving patterns of local, personal association. Those things are the foundations of community. Without them, the forces in modern society that isolate individuals would be impossible to withstand.

But Lasch's example, although he never said so, also reveals the problem of basing our hopes for community entirely on local, family-centered, and neighborhood-centered structures. The United States is a vast nation of remarkable diversity, and its most difficult dilemma throughout its history has been finding a way for so many different kinds of people, and so many different kinds of communities, to live together peacefully and productively. That dilemma has become even more perplexing in the twentieth century, as a modern industrial economy and a pervasive mass culture have made it virtually impossible for any group to live in complete isolation. A purely local vision of community is, today at least, a prescription not for harmony, but for balkanization and conflict. The tight-knit ethnic communities Christopher Lasch celebrates may have many virtues, but they can also be, and have often been, places where bigotry flourishes and inter-racial violence often erupts. Other kinds of insular communities seem even more hostile to any notion of a stable, tolerant society: the gated, affluent communities that are now spreading across our landscape, based on an understandable fear of crime, to be sure, but an ominous sign of the fragmentation of our nation; the armed cults and militias, which have become visible to us only relatively recently, which set themselves up in opposition (at times violent opposition) to government and mainstream society; some, although by no means all, of the militant Christian communities, which attempt to impose a rigid religious orthodoxy on unwilling neighbors; and many others.



But there is also a larger vision of community, with equally strong roots in American history. The kind of community that forms the basis of a stable, healthy society--particularly a society as vast and diverse as ours--transcends parochialism. It rests at least as much on a concept of the nation as it does on the concept of the neighborhood, or the town, or the region. This idea of a national community is, in fact, among the oldest and most powerful in our history--at least as old and as powerful as the republican ideal with which it sometimes seems, at least, to compete. It is the source of our Constitution and the basis of the most powerful political traditions of the first century of our nation's existence.

The framers of the Constitution wanted, of course, to protect liberty. They wanted to create a form of government that would ensure the rights of the individual. But they understood, too, that liberty could only be secure in a large political community, a genuine nation. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia (according to James Madison's diaries), Alexander Hamilton "confessed that he was much discouraged by the amazing extent of the Country in expecting the desired blessings from any general sovereignty that could be substituted." How, he asked, could a national government effectively unite such a vast and diverse nation? Hamilton was expressing a widely shared fear, expressed most prominently by the French political theorist Montesquieu and widely understood throughout the English-speaking world. Popular government, Montesquieu warned, could not function within a large country; such a government would be torn apart by "a thousand private views" and would lead to efforts by ambitious leaders to produce despotism.

But James Madison offered an answer to Hamilton and Montesquieu--an answer that Hamilton ultimately embraced and that became the heart of the American national idea. The size and diversity of the nation, Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 10, was in fact the best hope for stability. The greatest danger to a healthy society, Madison argued, was "faction": "a number of citizens . . . who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." How could a society avoid the plague of faction? There were two ways, Madison argued. One was "removing the causes of faction," a dangerous course because it would involve either destroying liberty or creating an enforced uniformity of views--both of which would be remedies "worse than the disease." The other was "controlling [the] effects" of faction. And to do that, he claimed, required a large political community in which every faction, no matter how large, would have to deal with, and accommodate, others. "A pure Democracy," Madison wrote, "by which I mean, a Society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction." The solution to faction lay in an extensive republic, spanning a vast and diverse country, where no one faction could prevail.

George Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address (largely written by Hamilton), stressed the importance of a strong national union as the framework for a workable national community. The union was not simply a structure within which factions could do battle; nor was it simply a strong central government capable of tempering local passions; it was a state of mind--a commitment of citizens to each other and to a common sense of purpose and obligation, "an indissoluble community of interest as one nation." Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and the other founders of our nation had great respect for the small communities that bound the lives of most citizens. But they understood, too, that for America to survive and flourish, there had to be a larger idea of community as well, one that embraced the nation.

Their idea was not uncontested. Jefferson for a time offered a partial dissent, in his vision of a small agrarian republic united by the commonality of interest and sentiment of its citizens rather than by the power of a strong national political community; but Jefferson, as president, gradually moved away from his agrarian vision and presided over a significant increase in both the extent and the unity of the nation. A more serious challenge came in the mid-nineteenth century from the American South. "The very idea of an American People, as constituting a single community, is a mere chimera," John C. Calhoun once said. "Such a community never for a moment existed." The Civil War was, among other things, a battle to defeat Calhoun's idea. Daniel Webster based his famous defense of the Union on the idea that the survival of liberty depended on the survival of a national community--"Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and forever." There was, he insisted, a "common good" that transcended local interests, a partnership based in part on economic interest but also in part on spiritual union. One of the great admirers of Webster's words was Abraham Lincoln.



The concept of a national community met a challenge again in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the rise of large-scale industrial capitalism and the enormous social and economic dislocations that accompanied it. Laissez-faire capitalism--and such intellectual rationales for it as social Darwinism--celebrated individual initiative, the "survival of the fittest," and the value of acquisitive individualism as the basis of society. Everyone ultimately benefited from the achievements of talented, successful people, the social Darwinists claimed. Constraining their activities in the interests of the "community" would be to retard the healthy progress of society.

The populists offered one answer to laissez-faire. Economic growth that disempowered individuals and eroded communities was, they insisted, both unfair and unnecessary. The economy could grow and prosper in a more humane way, through a network of smaller-scale institutions rooted in communities; but it could also grow and prosper through the intervention of a powerful national government holding industrialists, financiers, and in the end everyone to a higher standard than maximizing profit. The local communities they were fighting to preserve could not survive, the populists believed, without a national community capable of restraining private power and protecting the interests of ordinary people. (The "populism" of our own time, which sees the only danger in society in a powerful national government, is a radical perversion of the original populist idea, which rested in part on the older republican notion of a "moral community" but that also embraced the more modern notion of a strong national government that defended individuals and communities from the great predatory organizations that had grown up to threaten them.)

Another response to laissez-faire came from progressive reformers, among them Theodore Roosevelt, a great champion of industrial growth and economic progress, but also a staunch defender of the idea of "the solidarity, the essential unity of our [national community]." Great forces had been unleashed in the modern world, Roosevelt recognized, forces that had enormous capacity to do good, to create progress. But that progress would be for naught if it came at the cost of the dignity of individuals and the vitality of communities. Individuals and localistic communities were powerless by themselves to withstand the assaults of modern, large-scale organizations. Only a national community--embodied, Roosevelt believed, in a vigorous democratic state--would make it possible for local communities, and the individual liberty dependent on them, to survive. "I believe in corporations," Roosevelt once said. "They are indispensable instruments of our modern civilization; but I believe that they should be so supervised and so regulated that they shall act for the interest of the community as a whole." The health of the nation depended on the "capacity to subordinate the interests of the individual to the interests of the community," and the realization of that capacity depended on national standards and national power.

The New Deal is remembered, and often excoriated, today as the source of contemporary liberalism, and its supposed preoccupation with rights and entitlements. And the New Deal did, of course, contribute in critical ways to the creation of the rights-based liberalism that has been so much in evidence in the last half century. But the New Deal was also deeply committed to the concept of community--both to the restoration of local communities and to the strengthening of the national community in which those smaller units are embedded. From the beginning of his administration, Franklin Roosevelt's rhetoric was suffused with images of nationhood, of interdependence, of community. In his first inaugural address, he never once used the words liberty, individual, or equality. The early New Deal was, above all else, an effort to find concepts of community capable of transcending the bitter struggles dividing groups in the economy and the society from one another. The New Deal's first major effort at economic reform, the National Recovery Administration, tried (although it ultimately failed) to create what New Dealers called "cooperative action among trade groups," to define a "community of interest" that would draw together capital, labor, government, and the consumer. It was an effort to temper the brutality of the industrial economy, to insist on national standards of "community interest" amid the brutal competitive struggle of capitalism.

Many of those impulses ultimately faded from New Deal thought, and others--which focused more intently on rights and entitlements--emerged to replace them, so that postwar liberalism had a weaker connection with the idea of community than most of the progressive and reform traditions that preceded it. Postwar conservatism, too, in its preoccupation with delegitimizing the New Deal and opposing communism, elevated the idea of liberty to a more central place than it had ever occupied before. The present popular discontent with the public world may or may not be a result of a real decline in community sentiment and community institutions. But that discontent has often taken the form of a lament for the passing of community and a yearning for its revival; and many of those who make such laments have found contemporary political discourse barren of language and ideas capable of satisfying them. The arguments of the communitarians of both the right and the left in recent years have emerged in response to that broad frustration.

These small chapters in the history of ideas of community in America, therefore, resonate with questions that preoccupy our own time. History teaches us, we hear from many quarters (including the halls of Congress and the bench of the Supreme Court), that a strong national community, and a powerful national government, are artificial accretions of modern liberalism, incompatible with our traditions and our values. But history teaches us no such thing. Our traditions and our values have never been fixed or uniform and they have always included--in addition to a strong commitment to individual rights and personal freedoms--a powerful sense of the value of community and the importance of nation.

The political world of today is preoccupied with divisions and oppositions: the government versus the market; the national versus the local; the public versus the private; liberty versus community. The rhetoric of our time asks us to choose among these conflicting values and ideas--to accept that we can have one but not the other. But the history of our nation's political traditions suggests that these divisions are entirely artificial, that it is unnecessary to choose. Indeed, not just unnecessary, but destructive. We need a vigorous government and a healthy market. We need strong national institutions and strong local ones. We need a healthy public world and a healthy private one. Above all, perhaps, we need--to paraphrase Webster--liberty and community; for neither is sustainable without the other.

You may also like