Communitarianism: A Legislator's Perspective

Article excerpt

Communitarianism is a modern social movement consisting of individuals and organizations who have come together to promote the view that individual liberties depend upon bolstering the foundations of civil society: community consensus on social and moral values; emphasis on the responsibilities of citizenship; and a focus on the community rather than on individuals or the state. Communitarianism is a non sectarian, and non partisan movement which held a Forum on February 16, 1996. Speakers included Professors Amitai Etzioni and Charles Taylor, Father Bill Ryan, Andrew Coyne and Pat Lorje. The Forum was held on Parliament Hill through the co-operation of the Deputy Speaker, David Kilgour. In this article the author examines some of the new and creative approaches found in Communitarianism and offers some cautionary and practical notes.

In the excitement of embracing a "new movement", we must not forget a basic truth embodied in E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. Parents will recognize this cautionary tale of a curious and deep friendship between Wilbur, the very innocent pig, and Charlotte, the very wise spider. One line speaks to me and my ilk: "Wilbur ran again to the top of the manure pile, full of energy and hope."

My re-election to a once honourable profession makes me keenly aware of the need to mix idealism and practicality as we trumpet the New Jerusalem. We need whisker-sharp antennae to know how far, and how fast to implement our ideas. If we are too far ahead of people, we lose. If we are too far behind, we atrophy. So, like Wilbur, politicians constantly run to the top of the manure pile, full of energy and hope.

Indeed, many communitarian ideas certainly fill me with energy and hope that the partisan debate can be transformed to a discourse on effective improvements. Nevertheless, I have been around the political game long enough to be wary of the shifting nature of the pile where I stand. Our modern task, to move the public agenda from the central level to the community level, will be most effectively accomplished if we engage the public in dialogue and action on the important and compelling notion of stewardship, the balance between citizens' rights and responsibilities. Simultaneously, the discussion needs to move beyond individuals and also focus on the duties and obligations of our systems in this objective. This means we need to be acutely aware of some of the practical problems associated with devolving power and enhancing and enriching communities.

It is wonderful, as we move beyond an international duel of command versus market economies, to come across fresh ideas that shift our thinking into completely new directions. My only caveat to the lure of communitarianism is one expected from an unapologetic social democrat: this movement, to succeed at all, must not rely simply upon attitudinal change. Economic change is equally important. Otherwise communitarianism will be seen as mere middle-class moralizing, and pompous rhetoric from those who already have their oar for the lifeboat. Enlightened self-interest is a tacky excuse for a social movement.

Governments today come in two forms - maintenance, or change. The former simply props up the status quo of the privileged. This leads to bitterness, cynicism, and disdain for the political process. The logical consequence is demands for direct democracy (which surely is the most easily manipulable tool of all) and government by referendum. In Saskatchewan, we try to buck the trend, and be a government of change - by design not default. It is not easy. Our key job is to involve people in a meaningful communal fashion, and to make sure that the politicians stay out of the way as much as possible.

These strategic changes aim to ensure that everyone feels a sense of stake. Citizens cannot be meaningfully engaged in change, or even in the day-to-day maintenance of systems unless they feel a sense of urgency and involvement. …