I’ve recently set myself the project of studying the political philosophies in disagreement with my own. I’m approaching it as an intellectual puzzle, trying to answer the remarkably difficult question, Why do people as smart and educated as I, and with the same data to work with, come to radically different conclusions? This is far more interesting than reading more support for my currently held views. While my first step in the journey was a conservative critique of classical liberalism (Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political, a deeply weird argument), I’m putting off that books’s blog post to focus on a different variety of anti-liberal viewpoint entirely: communitarianism.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent entry summarizing this philosophy, which I recommend reading if you’re not already familiar with the communitarian position. To put it simply, however, communitarians reject liberalism (and I use liberal here not in its modern sense of being synonymous with “progressive,” but in the classical sense of limited government, individual rights, private property, and the rule of law) because they see its focus on the individual as the sole chooser of his or her own beliefs and values as myopic. Most of our beliefs and values, communitarians argue, are the result of the community and social circles we are a part of. A politics based wholly on the right of the individual, therefore, is a politics that misses much (or most) of what it means to be human.

But the communitarians have liberalism completely wrong. While it is true that the classical liberal perspective is methodologically individualist (i.e., the unit of understanding is the individual, not the group), that does not mean it is anti-society. Far from it, in fact. Liberals, especially those in the Hayekian mould, are strong supporters of social institutions and complex communities–but their support is more pluralistic than the communitarians’. For the liberal, social institutions that evolve over time are valuable and ought to be respected. But that respect must not be so strong that we don’t allow the institutions to change naturally. Liberals, then, embrace social processes that lead to communities, while communitarians embrace specific sorts of communities and lambast all processes that would lead to varieties outside the chosen few.

Communitarianism can be reduced to a simple claim, one that is at the root of most non-liberal philosophies. The anti-liberal, be he communitarian, conservative, or totalitarian, argues as follows:

I prefer X over Y. Other people prefer Y over X. The fact that some people are doing Y is (1) harmful to me because I don’t like Y and (2) harmful to them because they’d be better off doing X instead of Y.

The only difference between communitarians, conservatives, totalitarians, and the rest of the anti-liberal pantheon is the specific content of X and Y. The communitarian form is to say that “communities” of their favored varieties are better than others–and so the state should promote those favored communities. Take this example:

Critics have objected to residential community associations, or ‘walled communities’, on the grounds that they undermine attachment to the polity at large and erode the social cohesion and trust needed to promote social justice and sustain the democratic process (McKenzie 1994). Might it then be possible to reform urban planning so that people can nurture strong local communities without undermining attachment to the national community, perhaps even strengthening broader forms of public-spiritedness? Many practical suggestions along these lines have been raised. Architects and urban planners in the US known as the New Urbanists, for example, have proposed various measures to strengthen community building—affordable housing, public transport, pedestrian focused environments, and public space as an integral part of neighborhoods—that would not have the ‘privatizing’ consequences of gated communities. The problem, as Gerald Frug points out, is that ‘virtually everything they want to do is now illegal. To promote the new urbanist version of urban design, cities would have revise municipal zoning laws and development policy from top to bottom.’ This points to the need for public policy recommendations explicitly designed to favor complementing forms of communal attachments.

We’ll set aside the deep problems with New Urbanism when conducted in the real world (this paper is a good place to start for those interested) and instead look at the assumptions present in the communitarian position. Because residential community associates are communities, the communitarians are not offering a choice between community and non-community (whatever that would mean), but between two varieties of community. Because both exist, actual people can choose which to live in. I can buy a house in the suburbs governed by a homeowners association, for example, or I can buy a condo in a mixed-use, urban environment. The communitarians are, in effect, saying that one choice many people make–to live in the suburbs–is bad from the perspective of promoting community, and thus municipal zoning laws will have to be changed to affect limits on that choice “from top to bottom.” It doesn’t occur to them that many people don’t live in New Urban towns, not because of laws, but because they just don’t want to.

But more ominous is the inability of communitarians to understand the difference between society and state or, more specifically, between social support for a behavior or belief and state coercion in favor of that behavior or belief. Their entire critique of liberal politics boils down to “Liberals don’t have any appreciation for traditional social structures because they don’t want the state to use its monopoly on violent force to prop up those structures.”

In other words, they’ve never met a Hayekian liberal and, instead, appear to be reacting wholly to the sort of “liberalism” of the turn on/tune in/drop out generation. They don’t understand that social structures can be emergent and self-enforcing without state coercion. Every bit of communitarianism I’ve read makes this fundamental mistake. They simply assume that society and state power are synonymous, and then condemn liberals for rejecting society when, in fact, liberals are rejecting state power. It appears beyond communitarians to acknowledge that strong social institutions can exist without a powerful government subsidizing them and coercing its citizens to join them.

For this reason, I have difficulty seeing the communitarian critique of classical liberalism as anything more than a straw man.