Liberalism and the Common Good: A Hayekian Perspective on Communitarianism

By Raeder, Linda C. | Independent Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Liberalism and the Common Good: A Hayekian Perspective on Communitarianism


Raeder, Linda C., Independent Review


In the end, given liberty to learn, men will find out that freedom means community.

--William Aylott Orton

In recent years, a spirited exchange between certain critics and defenders of liberalism has engaged the interest of many North American political philosophers. Although the philosophical differences between the two camps should not be exaggerated, the so-called new communitarians (Gutmann 1985, 308) dearly part company with their liberal cousins over one fundamental issue: the new communitarians are convinced that liberal public philosophy is undermining the social foundations of "the good society." Under its influence, they claim, inhabitants of contemporary liberal society have grown ever more isolated, asocial, selfish, calculating, and spiritually barren. Preoccupied by their blind pursuit of trivial and arbitrarily chosen "private goods," modern men no longer recognize the existence of, let alone an obligation to pursue, a comprehensive common good that transcends mere personal interest.

The new communitarians include Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Benjamin Barber, Michael Walzer, Roberto Unger, and others. Antiliberalism is not new, of course; it is a critical tradition that extends back as least as far as Joseph de Maistre. The new communitarian critique of liberalism, however, may be distinguished from earlier variants in that its proponents have drawn their Inspiration primarily from Aristotle and Hegel, rather than Marx, Rousseau, or Nietzsche. Following Aristotle, they conceive of political society as a "community whose primary bond is a shared understanding both of the good for man and the good of th[e] community"; and, following Hegel, they regard the "free[,] ... rational, [and autonomous] being[s]" who people the pages of rationalist-liberal tracts as mere figments of the philosophical imagination (Gutmann 1985, 308).

The new communitarians are united by their common apprehension that our sense of community--the recognition that we arc a people bound by shared values, meanings, traditions, purposes, and obligations;--is being destroyed by an "atomistic" liberalism (Taylor 1985, 187-210) that trumpets the "rights" of the individual at the expense of social cohesion, fellowship, and the pursuit of the common good. Although they may offer different remedies for the social ravages allegedly wrought by the liberal creed, the new communitarians all agree that we must seek to transform the stridently individualistic "politics of rights" that presently dominates public discourse and practice into a more fraternal and morally elevated "politics of the common good" (Sandel 1984, 93; 1992, 222).

Liberals have always been suspicious of calls for "community." Calvin, Rousseau, Marx, and Hitler have cast a long shadow on communitarian dreams. Moreover, liberals regard appeals to the common good warily because historically such rhetoric has accompanied various dangerous or oppressive sentiments--religious Intolerance, nationalism, militarism, and the like. Indeed, "far from being innocent," writes Stephen Holmes (1989), "the idea of the common good was traditionally implicated in the justification of privilege, hierarchy, and deference" (240). Ever since Aristotle distinguished between master and slave by asserting the former's superior ability to recognize and comprehend the common good, there has been no shortage of potential rulers claiming a special insight into Its nature and seeking to impose their exclusive conception of goodness or virtue on the social order.

Despite such abuse, however, few theorists, liberal or otherwise, would challenge the principle that in a free society, governmental coercion may legitimately be employed only in the service of the common good. Of course, the ambiguity of the concept "common good" (general welfare, public interest) generates seemingly intractable difficulties and lack of consensus regarding the proper application of that principle.

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