RECENT headlines about gang members in Lakewood, Calif., who took sexual advantage of young girls, or about three youths who burst into a Dartmouth, Mass., classroom and killed a student without provocation, suggest that Amitai Etzioni may be correct: The time is right for a movement that combines moral suasion and political action to instill in Americans a greater sense of responsibility for their fellow human beings.
But Dr. Etzioni, who teaches at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., wouldn't base the timeliness of his proposals just on reports of vicious behavior. The time is right, he says, because people are showing a readiness to take action on fronts as diverse as appointing "designated drivers" to be sure drunken friends get home safely and pushing toward far-reaching reform of lobbying and campaign-spending practices.
Etzioni's new book, "The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda" (Crown Publishers), proposes a broad plan of action for bolstering the foundations of American society - the family, the schools, and the institutions of community life and government.
During a recent interview in Boston, Etzioni reissued his warning that proliferating "rights" and unbridled individualism have gotten out of hand.
People often ask, he says, "If responsibilities are so important, why do we have a Bill of Rights instead of responsibilities?" His response: At its founding, the United States was reacting to the oppression of the British monarchy, so rights had to be proclaimed. What's needed two centuries later, Etzioni says, is a declaration of responsibilities.
That, in essence, is the purpose of the Communitarian movement being nurtured by Etzioni and like-minded thinkers in academic life and in politics.
Communitarians can be found in the new Clinton administration, notably William Galston, a top adviser on national service and family issues. With Etzioni, Mr. Galston helped launch Communi- tarianism as a school of thought back in 1990. Etzioni's supporters include such well-known social philosophers and writers as Robert Bellah at the University of California and John Gardner at Stanford University. The Communitarians' quarterly publication, The Responsive Community, is in its third year.
Etzioni's "agenda" includes a greatly expanded program of national service, the strengthening of moral education in the public schools, mandatory paid family leave for parents, and the elimination of political action committees (PACs). All these proposals - as well as policies like sobriety checkpoints on the roads and drug-testing in the workplace - illustrate the Communitarian preference for giving added weight to what's best for the larger community, even if some individuals complain that their rights
are being violated.
Etzioni also issues a broad appeal for moral leadership, a restoration of civility, and a willingness to distinguish right from wrong. But he recognizes the difficulty of making such distinctions in contemporary society.
On abortion, for example, Etzioni sees people "dug in" on the extremes, with most Americans occupying the middle ground of being "anti-abortion and pro-choice." He sees little chance of resolving the controversy and admits, "It's not an issue I spend a lot of time with."
An issue like moral education in the schools is more to his liking. As Etzioni acknowledges in his book, the question arises, "Whose morals will be taught?" He argues that Americans share a set of values - such as tolerance, respect for others, and democratic decisionmaking - that can be incorporated into instruction and into the culture of schools.
That's fine, say critics such as David Boaz, vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, but it won't silence questions about how moral instruction is to be carried out. Minus a religious context, which is generally ruled out in public schools, how do you explain to youngsters why they should adhere to a set of values? Mr. Boaz asks. And doesn't the whole idea of moral instruction in public - government-run - schools usurp the role of the family? The best solution, Boaz says, is a sch ool-choice program that includes parochial and private institutions.
An underlying flaw in Communitarian thinking, according to Boaz, is its blindness to the corrosive influence of governmental intrusions on individual, family, and community prerogatives. "Lots of the problems he [Etzioni] talks about result from the fact we have too much government," Boaz contends.
Etzioni may claim he's talking about change through persuasion and dialogue, not laws and regulations, says Boaz, but many of his proposals call for more action by the government. Boaz mentions, in particular, Etzioni's backing for much stronger family-leave provisions in federal law.
New public policies are a large part of what Etzioni and fellow Communitarians have in mind, and they have high hopes that the Clinton administration will be the vehicle for programs like national service and campaign-spending and lobbying reform. On the latter issue, Etzioni shares the podium with Ross Perot, whom he approvingly calls an "enforcer" on restricting PACs and cutting the deficit.
The deficit, says Etzioni, is "90 percent a moral issue and 10 percent economics. It's eating your heritage and depriving your children. If that's not a moral issue, what is?"
But Etzioni's ultimate goal is a new moral tone for society, and that, he admits, will have to come through thousands of individual and community efforts, not federal action. He writes, "There is a gap between rights and rightness that cannot be closed without a richer moral vocabulary - one that invokes principles of decency, duty, responsibility, and the common good...."
"Society is like an ocean liner," says the founder of Communitarianism. "It doesn't turn on a dime."