As an American, you are free to go pretty much wherever and do pretty much whatever you wish. At any time, you can go to work, to a museum, fishing, or anywhere else on the map. That is individual liberty. (Most people in most other countries of the world have as much freedom as Americans, but for the moment let’s view freedom as a treasured American value.)

Even in America, there are rules. You can go where you wish, but you have to keep to the right side of the road. You have to travel at proscribed speeds and obey rules like signaling, stopping for school buses and ambulances, etc. That is societal control. The rules constrain individual liberty. But they bring such benefit with them that even lovers of liberty accept them. The individual’s goal of arriving somewhere is best attained when they and everyone else follow the rules. If the highway were a purely libertarian Road Warrior free-for-all, timely arrivals would be rare.

Cheering for your favorite sports team becomes more enjoyable when hundreds or thousands of other people are doing the same thing. Each fan cheers, claps, and shouts as he wishes. But the general enthusiasm enhances the atmosphere for everyone. The same with work. Each man or woman has a job to do, but the productivity of each is linked to that of others and makes the final outcome more than the sum of its parts. Without cooperation, productivity in the workplace would suffer. indeed, cooperation is necessary to accomplish many sorts of goal. Want to make the property values in your neighborhood rise? It isn’t enough to keep your own house in good repair. Everyone on the block must do the same. One house with peeling paint can negate the effect of all the rest.

The preceding shows briefly that society requires (in some matters, not all) a balance between individual liberty and social norms. Everyone agrees with that except Sovereign Citizens and other extreme Libertarians. But most Americans don’t know how cooperation and shared goals fit into social and political thinking. They don’t understand “Communitarianism.”

Communitarianism is the social theory that people thrive best in relation to other people – in communities. When people encounter the word, many are turned off because the word ends with “–ism” and starts with “Communi—.” They assume it means living in an ashram or kibbutz or some other overbearing, restrictive and foreign arrangement. But it is the opposite of that. The community in Communitarianism starts with family, and then expands to include neighborhood, workplace, church, and other free associations. These institutions already play a role in most people’s lives. Communitarians say they should be strengthened. Communitarians don’t say community is all-important. Individual choices and rights are also very important and inviolable. The best society is one that balances liberty and community.

According to the website called The Communitarian Trap, Communitarianism is a codeword for big government. It says, “Communitarianism is a global agenda toward world government. It uses a coalition of government, business, and church who shore up the social, moral, and political environment, while slowly robbing the freedom of the participants.” This is wrong. Big government is what happens when important local and voluntary associations are neglected or circumvented. A federally funded youth program governed by a thick code of regulations written by lawyers is what happens when families, churches, workplaces and neighborhoods fail to play their proper role. Such failures are common, of course. The liberal response is to create those federally funded government programs I mentioned. The Communitarian response would be to shift focus back to the family, the workplace, the church, and other local and immediate groups. The emphasis is on community, but the goal is that more individuals should live as they wish. Who could be against that?


I’ve also written about Communitarianism at Internet Monk.

Read more at the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies.