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A New Plea for the Public's Interest

By Amitai EtzioniAmitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is editor of "The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities" and author of "The Moral Dimension." / May 7, 1991



AMERICANS have recently called for more government services, but showed greater opposition to new taxes; they express their willingness to show the flag anywhere from Central America to the Gulf, but many are reluctant to serve in the armed forces; and they have a firm sense that one ought to have the right to be tried before a jury of one's peers, but evade serving on such juries. While the imbalance of rights and responsibilities may well have existed for a long time, some argue it is a basic trait of the American character. In recent years, leadership has exacerbated this tendency.

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John F. Kennedy was able to generate a tremendous response, including a stream of thousands of volunteers to serve in the Peace Corps, when he stated, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." In recent years, however, presidents have preferred the less challenging course of suggesting to the citizenship that they can have their cake and eat it too, gaining ever more economic growth to finance government services, while paying ever less for them via tax cuts.

In many areas, from public education to the war on drugs, facile non-taxing "solutions" have been offered. To deal with illicit demands for drugs we are told to "just say no." Radical individualists, from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to libertarians, have effectively blocked attempts to increase public responsibilities, from drug testing, even of people directly involved in public safety (e.g., train engineers), to measures that would enhance public health (such as requiring carriers of the AIDS virus to disclose sexual contacts).

A new communitarian movement is taking on this set of issues, making restoration of civility and commitment to the common good its theme. The movement is in part social philosophy and sociology, in part a moral call, and in part a matter of taking a different slant on public policies.

Communitarians point out the illogic of demanding the right to be tried before a jury of one's peers without agreeing to serve on a jury. They point out that a government trying to make do by serving special interests neglects important matters for which there are no powerful pressure groups, from public education to public safety and health. And communitarians are showing that the Constitution, as a living thing rather than a dead letter the Founding Fathers left behind, can be adapted to changing chal lenges.

Before laying out specific communitarian measures, it is necessary to stress two points to avoid misunderstanding.

First, while several of these measures involve legal matters and governmental actions, the core of the communitarian position is moral and com- munity-based. What is needed most is a change in the moral climate, a greater willingness to shoulder responsibilities, and a greater readiness to curb one's demands. Without such a change, required changes in public service and the definition of rights will not be considered acceptable.

Most important, the more called-for changes are made morally acceptable and are socially enforced, the less need there will be for governmental actions - such as policing and jails. One example illustrates this point well. To enhance public safety we must reduce the number of drunk drivers. To combat drunken driving we need, among other things, a willingness of individuals, as a moral commitment, to embrace the notion of a designated driver. Already this is becoming part of American culture because of i ts moral and social base. People who state they are not drinking because they are designated drivers are gaining social approval.

Similarly, we need to support sobriety checkpoints (rather than fight them as the ACLU does) to help enforce the new social, moral dictum. The changed moral orientation ensures that drunken driving will be significantly reduced largely without state action and that whatever limited state action is needed will merely round off new social pressures and will be supported by the electorate.