In the name of the common good

Things like dogs, guns, pornography, and drugs go to the heart of the distinction between two philosophies which diverge generally (if crudely) into what we call "libertarianism" and "communitarianism." I've gone so far as to place the words in quotes and use the lower case "l" and lower case "c" because I think they represent tendencies in human thought rather than "isms" to be looked up and cited line and verse (say, by reference to Ayn Rand or Amitai Etzioni).

Regular readers know that I fall on the libertarian side of this divide, but where it comes to things like national defense, I tend towards a communitarian view of self defense. (Nationalism is, to a certain extent, a communitarian concept, because there is a certain inescapable "we" once borders are set up and a constitutional government agreed upon.)

However, I admit my abhorrence of communitarianism where it comes to policing the purely private lives of citizens. The notion that what A does in the privacy of his own property "affects us all," and should thus be regulated is something anathema to my free spirit, and (I think) anathema to the free traditions of this country. (I realize that many people do not see it that way, and that they will try to use government force to compel me to live the way they want me to live.)

As I have said too many times to count, I think the "we" word is one of the most misused words in the English language.

(Really, we use the we word far too much, and we ought to stop!)

The "we" problem touches on one of my biggest problems with the communitarian philosophy -- precisely who is the "we"?

Robert Moran touched on the problem in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer:

As the city grapples with rising juvenile violence, Jackson-Burke, 41, says we must take personal responsibility and live with our choices. Ferguson made his choice and is now serving 15 to 30 years in prison.

"Everyone has issues, some worse than others," Jackson-Burke, a single mother raising her family in Tacony, said after reading about Ferguson's troubled life in an Inquirer story last Sunday on juvenile violence and street culture. "It's all about how you deal with it."

Her view reflects one side of a heated national debate about individual and collective responsibility, especially in the low-income black community, which is facing particularly high rates of violence.

Bill Cosby struck a nerve when he argued that African Americans should not blame racism, but should, instead, take responsibility.

"It's not what they're doing to us. It's what we're not doing," Cosby said in his controversial 2004 speech criticizing black parents and youth culture.

However, other black leaders and scholars argue that racism and the failure of institutions such as inner-city schools are issues that cannot be ignored. (Emphasis added.)

Using a communitarian analysis, who is the community? The black community? The "institutional" community? The taxpayers? The government? All of us? There is no clear delineation, and an enormous amount of time is spent debating the meaning of numerous unagreed-upon "we" topics. Multiculturalism, in my view (especially the view of the primacy of the "group") so complicates communitarian analysis as to make it seem almost anarchistic. Groupthink is bad enough, but when the fact of each group being defined by its own "identity" and its own "philosophy" is compounded by communitarian thinking applied to divergent groups, what happens when Group A (radical Islamists) declares war on Group B (gay activists, feminists, or Jews)?

I realize that communitarianism cannot be called an official "movement," but to the extent there is one, to the extent that there are communitarian thinkers, they ought to be quite troubled by multiculturalism.

No wonder they want gun control! As leading communitarian Amitai Etzioni argues, because gun control is for the greater good of society, it is unethical for liberal scholars (such as Harvard's Laurence Tribe and Duke's William Van Alstyne) to study or acknowledge the historical basis for the Second Amendment:

However high the case goes, it has most certainly been affected by the arguments of the revisionist professors. For instance, Joyce Lee Malcolm of Bentley College is one of the most influential scholars to make the historical argument in favor of the individual right to bear arms. She asserts that an individual right to weapons can be traced back to the English Declaration of Rights of 1689. In his ruling on the case that reversed Emerson's indictment, Sam R. Cummings, judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, used Professor Malcolm's work as one of his sources.

If one believes that privately held guns allow innocent citizens to protect themselves from criminals and are essential for keeping a nation free, one is sure to cheer that frame of reference. If one holds, as most studies do, that guns provide more danger than protection, and notes that other democratic societies greatly limit private gun ownership, one is naturally troubled by the threat that the new scholarship may help to overturn a strong and long-established endorsement of gun control laws by the Supreme Court.

Communitarianism can be seen as a utilitarian form of social management which looks to the greatest good for the greatest number of people -- to which individual rights must be subordinated. Interestingly, Brannon Denning and Glenn Reynolds stood the communitarian position on its head in a very convincing argument that the Second Amendment's "well rgulated militia" language presents the "Communitarian Case for Compulsory Arms Bearing":
It is possible that community might somehow be achieved through Habitat-for-Humanity style group projects, extensive discourse, and the creation of conditions necessary for "social justice."[171] As the community gets larger, however, and as the powers the "community" exercises are granted to bodies increasingly remote from those for whose benefit the powers are supposed to be exercised, our antennae ought to be set aquiver. The twentieth century surely has taught that more long term destruction has been committed in the name of the "community" than by "radical individualists." According to Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck, in this century, "the number of people killed by their own governments under authoritarian regimes is four times the number killed in all this century's wars combined."[172] As writer Hannah Arendt reminds us, "It was not out of a desire for freedom that people eventually demanded their share in government or admission to the political realm, but out of mistrust in those who held the power over their life and goods."[173] Advocates of Communitarianism, whose numbers (judging from the number of new books) seem to be growing, would do well to consider the logical implications of their newfound "third way" and consider whether their position on the Second Amendment dictates that the cartridge box be restored, along with the ballot box and the jury box, as a hallmark of civic responsibility and a vehicle for the transmission of civic virtue. If they are not willing to consider this implication of their thinking, perhaps we should not take them very seriously in the future.
The authors are particularly critical of the Etzioni argument that Second Amendment scholarship should be deliberately biased in the direction they feel is in the common good:
Although a certain amount of excess enthusiasm for one's own arguments is only human, academics should rise above such sentiments to the extent possible. As a movement started by academics, and as one that celebrates forbearance and the subordination of self-gratification for the good of the community, Communitarianism should be relatively free from such sins. The fact that it is not free suggests that honest, self-critical constitutional scholarship must be a very difficult thing indeed.

That is unfortunate, because constitutional scholarship is important, and honest constitutional scholarship plays, or should play, an important role in our society as a check on the actions of judges and politicians. Faithful interpretation of the Constitution is difficult, and, if done honestly and consistently, it is certain to generate at least some answers that the interpreter does not like. Thus, we should be suspicious of those whose constitutional theories generate only answers they find congenial, regardless of their ideological stripe. Unfortunately, constitutional scholarship that passes this test appears to be in short supply.

We have no solution to this problem beyond that offered by the Communitarians: suasion. We hope that as a result of our criticisms, and, no doubt, those of others, the Communitarians will revisit their views on this issue and at least consider that their own approach, if taken seriously, may produce answers other than the "domestic disarmament" they so clearly desire. In this much, at least, we agree with the Communitarians: dialogue is important. We hope that our contribution to the debate will promote more thinking about both Communitarianism and the Second Amendment.

I didn't expect to stumble onto this, but I'm glad I did.

The "greater good" theory would deny me not only the right to own a gun in self defense, but (as I'm fond of pointing out) would deny me the right to keep my dog:

To me, the fact that there are people who'd hold a gun to my head and demand money is a good reason to be armed.

Yet to others, the presence of people who behave that way is an argument against anyone having guns. Even law abiding people.

I don't see any way to bridge this hopeless gap.

It reminds me of the sad fact I discussed yesterday: some people would take Coco away from me because bad people own pit bulls.

I see pit bulls as a sort of foot in the door (analogous to the phony "assault weapons" meme), and if that breed didn't exist (or if it is wiped out by mandatory sterilization laws), the Rottweiller or Doberman pinscher would do just as well. The right of an individual means little or noting. In China last week 50,000 dogs were clubbed to death by government dog-killing teams.
Last week, a county in southwestern Yunnan province killed 50,000 dogs, many of them beaten to death in front of their owners, after three people died of rabies.

The slaughters have outraged animal rights groups, who call them cruel and a sign of government incompetence in dealing with rabies, an often fatal disease that attacks the nervous system but which can be warded off with a series of injections.

"I think this is completely insane," said Zhang Luping, founder of the Beijing Human and Animal Environmental Education Center.

"What's more, this really damages our national image and sets a really bad example to show how lazy and inconsiderate those local government officials are," Zhang said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called such killings a "hideously cruel response," in a statement on its Web site.

After last week's slaughter, the group canceled about $300,000 orders for merchandise made in China and called for a boycott of Chinese-made products to protest what it calls widespread cruelty to animals in the country.

It is not insane if you believe that the greater good trumps the rights of the individual.

But what is the greater good? Whose greater good? Who gets to decide?

This touches on something I missed in my discussion last week.

As Clayton Cramer points out in The Racist Roots of Gun Control, the racist efforts at gun control also included race-based restrictions on dog ownership:

The perception that free blacks were sympathetic to the plight of their enslaved brothers, and the dangerous example that "a Negro could be free" also caused the slave states to pass laws designed to disarm all blacks, both slave and free. Unlike the gun control laws passed after the Civil War, these antebellum statutes were for blacks alone. In Maryland, these prohibitions went so far as to prohibit free blacks from owning dogs without a license, and authorizing any white to kill an unlicensed dog owned by a free black, for fear that blacks would use dogs as weapons. Mississippi went further, and prohibited any ownership of a dog by a black person.[5]
That ties right into my speculations the other day about whether anti-pit bull hysteria might be (like some of the anti-gun hysteria) fueled by unacknowledged racism.

Is there a distinction between racist communitarianism and regular communitarianism? If we factor in multiculturalism, it's very fuzzy. As I pointed out recently, certain black leaders argue for the disarmament of their own communities, but they realize that because this cannot be done legally, the argument morphs into an accusation that people not living in those communities who oppose gun control are guilty of racism.

Thus, in the same country where racists once advocated disarming minorities, refusing to disarm minorities can now be seen as racism!

What is remarkable about communitarianism is its sliding scale. Individuals become subordinated to a group dominated by the groupthink of identity politics. This groupthink is in turn subordinated (via multiculturalism) to a greater groupthink which uses identity politics as a protective shield against criticism. If you are not a member of the group, you have no right to say anything about it -- and if you criticize the ultimate result of the collectivized groupthink, you may be considered guilty of attacking the group!

Pornography differs from guns in many respects. It is not protected by a specific constitutional amendment, nor is it a life and death issue involving survival or self preservation. I consider it personally uninteresting, and if it comes in the form of a popup, I find it actually annoying. I don't want it or need it, although I am not opposed to it as a form of personal self entertainment or as a sex aid. I think it's one of those things some people choose to enjoy and others don't, and obviously I don't think it is my business to decide whether anyone should like it or not, or have it or not. That's generally the libertarian position. While there doesn't seem to be a single, "official" communitarian position on pornography, I think that the anti-pornography regulatory mindset derives from a communitarian "common good" perspective. (BTW, I am not talking about kiddie porn here, which does harm to the subjects themselves, who are no more capable of consent to be in pornography than they are capable of consent to sex.)

The argument against pornography in private is that because some people cannot handle it, it should not be allowed. Pornography in public places in view of children is complicated by the failure (or inability) of parental supervision, especially on the Internet. It's one thing to prevent adult bookstores from displaying their wares, but the Internet is a live machine. I don't look for pornography, but I know it's everywhere, and if I had a kid and didn't want him to find it, I might have to keep him offline unless he was supervised. But because some parents can't or won't do that, does that mean there should be an online crackdown on everything including blogs?

In the name of a common "we"?

It may sound bizarre, but while I was researching this, I found myself wondering whether racism had ever been implicated one way or another vis-a-vis pornography. During the Jim Crow period, pornography was already illegal everywhere, so I wouldn't expect to find special laws restricting it to whites.

But amazingly, I did find an account of a major race riot in Atlanta fueled by rumors of "white pornography" in "black brothels":

Atlanta also wanted to show that it had no racial problems and that blacks would provide their share of a stable work force. Accordingly there was a Negro Pavilion, and Booker T Washington was invited to make one of the speeches at the opening of the fair. He responded with the famous “Atlanta Compromise”—a speech accepting social and political segregation in exchange for allowing blacks to make economic progress within a well-defined sphere. Washington’s compromise was bitterly and zealously opposed by W. E. B. Du Bois, the great writer, scholar, editor, and anthropologist, who taught for a while at Atlanta University. It was Du Bois who wrote, prophetically, that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line.

For the white community, however, Washington’s words were exactly what they wanted to hear. Businessmen from around the world were coming to the fair to assess investment possibilities in the region. Crucial to Atlanta’s attractiveness was the appearance of racial harmony. But just a decade later that seeming harmony was brutally shattered by the race riot of 1906. Stirred up by highly exaggerated accounts of assaults on white women by black men and by the supposed discovery of white pornography in black brothels, white mobs surged through the city beating and shooting blacks. Public officials tried to stop the riots, even turning fire hoses on the whites, but the violence continued for several days, leaving about twenty-five blacks and one white dead.

But what if the white mobs believed they were acting in the name of the common good? Would that have made it a communitarian riot, or is there no such thing? (I pose this admittedly facetious question because the only riot at which I was present also had heavy communitarian overtones. My memories of that riot, BTW, serve as a permanent reminder of the dangers of identity politics, and groupthink.)

(Much as I'd like to be fair and balanced, I can't come up with any instances of libertarian or libertarian-related riots. Sorry, no objectivist riots either. Of course, it's proverbial that libertarians won't even show up at meetings, so I guess their failure to riot should come as no surprise.)

posted by Eric on 08.07.06 at 10:43 AM


The real question, I feel is, is about the legality of computer generated/drawn child pornography-pornographic material that depicts children without having to actually abuse a child to make the material.

Jon Thompson   ·  August 8, 2006 4:11 AM

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