What is communitarianism? Communitarians would probably define themselves as people who recognise the importance of community and social relations, but that is a bit like saying that environmentalists are people who care about the environment, or that feminists are people who believe in gender equality. Defining a political outlook in motherhood-and-apple-pie terms, so that you could not disagree with it without coming across like a complete psychopath, is not particularly useful. Apart from Britain’s four or five Randians, everybody recognises the importance of community and social relations. (And presumably, Britain’s four or five Randians tacitly recognise it too.)
In practice, communitarianism is little else but a knee-jerk anti-liberalism. Communitarians define themselves in opposition to an imaginary hyper-materialistic, hyper-individualistic liberal, who sees life as no more than a long string of financial transactions, and society as no more than a bunch of isolated individuals who happen to live side by side. Communitarians never identify any specific person who actually holds that view, which is not too surprising, because, apart from Britain’s aforementioned four or five Randians (who, on a bad day, might come a little bit close to that caricature), no such person exists.
And yet, these fictitious people are absolutely central to the self-image of communitarians. Communitarians derive a great sense of unwarranted smugness and imaginary superiority from it. If you define yourself in opposition to a worldview which is, in obvious ways, reductionist and one-dimensional, you can constantly congratulate yourself on how your own worldview is so much richer, so much more well-rounded, and so much more nuanced than that of your imaginary opponents.
But is it not true that economic liberals tend to talk a lot more about GDP, productivity, inflation, unemployment, labour force participation, exchange rates etc. than they talk about the value of community and the search for meaning in life? Does this not suggest that their view of society is somewhat one-sided?
The answer is no. It is obviously true that most people are not just striving for material prosperity, but also seek a sense of purpose and meaning, which can come from being a member of a community, from strong social bonds, from a sense of place, from an attachment to a town, a region or a country. However, this is such an obvious, and such a trivial observation that it is simply not worth explicitly stating it. You, dear reader, have chosen to read this blog, when you had thousands of others to choose from, alongside news outlets, podcasts, vidcasts, or cat videos. Thank you for that! I’m not going to repay you by boring you with clichés, trivialities and truisms.
Further, communitarians also labour under the misapprehension that liberal economists somehow have the power to change social norms. It is, of course, easy to think of examples of social developments that might raise GDP, but also weaken social ties. Other things equal, a society where people are geographically mobile, and prepared to move to where the high-paying jobs are, will be richer than a society where people are more attached to their place of origin. But in such a society, it may also be harder to put down deep roots, and form stable social relations. Other things equal, a society with high levels of job mobility, where people are constantly looking out for better options and are prepared to change jobs frequently, will be richer than a society where people are more attached to their workplace. But in such a society, workplace relations may also be shallower. Other things equal, a society where people put their careers ahead of everything else, even if it adversely affects their family life, will be richer than a society where people prioritise their family life. But there are obvious downsides to this. And so on. It is true that where such trade-offs exist, economic statistics will not capture those non-material aspects.
But this is not a problem, because they don’t need to. Liberal economists have no influence on what people value, and seek no such influence. We don’t make people move places. We don’t make people change jobs. We don’t make people prioritise their careers over other things.
If you value the community spirit of a small town in rural Wales more highly than the job prospects of the English Southeast, or if you value the collegiality of your current workplace more highly than the better pay you could earn elsewhere, or if you turn down a promotion because you would rather spend more time with your family – that’s great. There’s not a single economist in the world, liberal or otherwise, who would tell you that you are doing anything wrong. (And even if there were, why would you care about some random person’s opinion?)
Communitarians are really just channelling the old left-wing trope that “capitalism” somehow makes people more materialistic, and that supporters of capitalism are therefore supporters of materialistic values. This is false. Capitalism allows you to pursue material ambitions, just as it allows you to pursue communitarian values, or something in between, or something else entirely. It’s up to you. Don’t blame “the system” if other people don’t make the choices you think they should make.
The main problem with communitarianism, though, is in its policy implications. Communitarians are often a bit vague about what kind of policies they actually want to see. This could barely be otherwise, because while it is easy to talk about community, rootedness etc. in soundbite format, at the end of the day, the state cannot “make” a society more cohesive. What would a communitarian policy platform look like? Mandatory attendance at community centre events? A system of local residence permits, like in the former Soviet Union, so that people don’t stray too far away from where they were born? Ban the retail sale of alcoholic drinks, so that people are forced to socialise at the pub?
Since communitarians do not have much of a policy agenda of their own, they usually stick to abstract waffle about “investing in communities”. And herein lies the danger. I’m a classical liberal, so I’m naturally more sceptical of government action than at least 95% of the population. But even if you don’t share that general scepticism, I hope we can at least agree that government action is usually at its worst in areas where we have no clear metric of what constitutes “success”, and what constitutes “failure”. Under those circumstances, there can be no scrutiny, and no accountability.
That is why, even if I had greater sympathy for communitarianism in principle, I would not want the government to get involved in any community-building projects. It would just be a licence for activists to push their own pet projects, because if you look for it, you can always find a way to claim that your project is somehow “vital” for “the social fabric” of the community. More, you could never criticise any such project, because you would just be dismissed as a bean-counting philistine, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
And that, in a nutshell, is what communitarianism is. It is a crude “anti-economism”. Communitarianism is the pretence that trivial clichés are profound wisdoms, and that an unwillingness to engage with economic arguments makes you an especially highbrow thinker.