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Next: The Road To The Good Society

may 2002

Next: The Road To The Good Society, Amitai Etzioni
New York: Basic Books, 2001. 126 pages.

[Disclosure: Next is one of a stack of books sent to me by Perseus Publishing when I signed my contract--my editor thought I might be interested in them.]

Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University, has emerged as one of the leaders of the new, centrist political philosophy called communitarianism. In this book, he seeks to articulate a concrete vision of communitarianism and centrist policies, going beyond the common vague descriptions of what centrism is not. As articulated by Etzioni, communitarianism defines society as comprising three sectors: the government, the market, and the community. It avoids both the dangers of the left (statism) and the right (rampant free-marketism) by clearly defining and limiting the powers of each sector; the third sector, community, is responsible for many of the social service responsibilities formerly administered by the state. In this scheme, engaged communities oversee a government that is limited to clearly defined responsibilities; the government oversees a strong, judiciously contained market; and the market and government thereby strengthen and benefit the community. Active communities support their own members, engage in 'moral dialogues' that define and redefine important values, and enforce community standards through the weight of a shared moral culture.

Next is the intersection of this communitarian approach and Etzioni's premise that 'a good society is one in which people treat one another as ends in themselves, and not merely as instruments' or, using philosopher Martin Buber's terms, 'a good society nourishes authentic, bonding I-Thou relations, although it recognizes the inevitability and significant role of instrumental I-It relations.' From this single premise, Etzioni arrives inescapably at some quite progressive conclusions, notably a 'rich basic minimum', guaranteed to all citizens. While he asserts that the rights accorded to citizens may be fewer than some would like, constitutional rights and other clearly defined basics are not earned, but guaranteed.

Etzioni envisions a society in which many, if not most, of these basics are provided by communities, but he acknowledges that the final responsibility for any guaranteed standard of living will rest with the government. In Etzioni's ideal society, community members care for one another, but his conclusion is inescapable: even in a society where the government is not the first source of social services, it must be the final one, though his preference is that even then this support would come through community organizations. In fact, despite his repeated admonition that government must be limited in its power, his vision of a 'lean but active' government is bound to be rejected by conservatives because of the high level of social services it provides. Make no mistake: I heartily approve of Etzioni's vision of a rich basic minimum, I just have trouble envisioning a world in which conservatives and libertarians agree that, regardless of their conduct: 'Simply for being human, everyone deserves at least shelter, clothing, food, and elementary health care'.

Further proposals are eminently sensible: In the matter of public safety, a focus on high apprehension (rather than long sentences) as the most effective way to curb crime (this view is supported by Ross Hammond's work in his study of artificial societies and social corruption). Government must follow the same environmental regulations it imposes on the private sector. White collar and corporate crime must be prosecuted as stringently as other crime. Government regulations must be equipped with built-in expiration dates in order to prevent the government from becoming bloated. Work must be available to everyone who seeks it, community work (which does not compete with existing jobs) to be provided when it is not. In order to decriminalize politics, the House and the Senate must agree to clearly define impeachable offenses and those for which politicians may be driven out of office. English as the official language of the United States is 'an empty and divisive symbol;' instead, we should ensure that immigrants receive the language training they want and need.

Probably the most controversial proposition in this book is Etzioni's call for radical campaign finance reform. His specifics make sense to me: 'banning all contributions by nonindividuals, outlawing contributions from overseas and from people not registered to vote in the district of the politician to whom they contribute, and limiting the size of contributions to a small amount.' If I could enact only one proposal from this book of proposals, this is the one I would choose.

In addressing the subject of the regulation, restraint, and promise of the Internet, unfortunately Etzioni betrays a lack of understanding of both the technology and issues. Web filters simply do not work very well. We are still exploring the economic realities of digital content--while much free content is available today on the Web, it is unreliable and of varying quality. The fact that digital content can be shared and used at the same time is a profound change which creates complex, as yet unanswered, questions about the limits of intellectual property, the rights of lawful consumers, and the realities of making a living creating content that can be digitized.

Next's biggest failing is, unfortunately, fundamental to the work itself. At the heart of the communitarian philosophy is a reliance on communities to undertake important functions currently performed by government, while informing and overseeing the other two branches of society. While Etzioni refers often to the importance of ensuring that government programs shore up existing communities instead of undermining them, nowhere does he provide a concrete outline of what such actions would entail. Further, his descriptions of the role of the community in the good society, in contrast to his many proposals for actions to be taken by the government, are frustratingly vague. While he seems willing to point us to a general idea for the role of community in an effective, humane society, he has neglected to provide us with specifics as to how this would actually manifest.

There is much here that is genuinely thoughful, thought-provoking, and even wise, but because of its lack of specificity with regard to this central aspect of Etzioni's envisioned communitarian society, Next ultimately is a flawed effort. Still, apart from his recommendations regarding the Internet, I find little in this book to argue with. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the problem of defining and creating an ethical, prosperous, well-balanced society.

rebecca blood
may 2002


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