E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 11 1997 12:30 AM



Dear Michael Sandel,


       This is a welcome chance to get your reaction to an issue that divides communitarians of the left from libertarians like me (Tory libertarians?).
       We agree that the geographic neighborhood is important as a resource for living a satisfying life. Not for everybody; for a relatively thin slice of the population, mostly affluent and highly educated, little platoons are defined in terms of professional and social affiliations that are spread all over the country or world, with the geographic neighborhood being a place to get away from it all. My private opinion is that their lives tend to be shiny but two-dimensional, but it's their choice.
       For most people, however, geographic neighborhood is crucial. Insofar as the neighborhood is engaged in the stuff of life--celebrating joys, sharing sorrows, coping with common problems, helping those who need help, chastising the sinners--I think the geographic neighborhood accomplishes three wonderful things: It adds a third dimension to the satisfactions of vocation and family; it deals with human needs much more effectively than the bureaucracies downtown can; and it provides authentically valued places for people of all levels of ability and all kinds of personal characteristics. Someone with a low IQ (to pick a personal characteristic at random) can be a genuinely valued neighbor and take genuine satisfaction from that role--if the neighborhood is engaged in genuinely important functions.
       That's where I split from the communitarians. Henry Stimson once said that the only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. The same is true of communities. The work of communities generally falls into the category of things-we-are-glad-we-have-done rather than things-we-would-choose-to-do-at-the-time-if-we had-an-unfettered-choice. Every parent who looks back with satisfaction on the function called "raising a child" knows exactly what I mean. We take our daughter to the violin lesson on Saturday morning when we want to sleep in because if we don't do it, no one else will. This is true of some very large proportion of the things that good parents do for their children. Good neighbors see to it that their hungry neighbors are fed for the same reason--if they don't do it, nobody else will. If someone else will, they are inclined to let that someone else do it.
       To me, this means there is no such thing as a partnership of communities and the federal government, no program in which the government provides some of the money but the community has "control." The reason is partly that the government invariably converts feisty local institutions into grant-writing supplicants; partly that the government is inherently unable to give out money without attaching more and more strings as time goes on; but overwhelmingly because government involvement strips away the essential condition for vital communities: The community really, truly, has to have the action. What we get with attempts at partnerships between big government and communities is a simulacrum, pallid and disappointing, of what communities might be if their citizens were left alone to run the life of the community, limited only (but quite strictly limited) to the two core libertarian principles: Thou shalt not initiate the use of force, and thou shalt not deceive or defraud.
       This leaves us many things we could argue about (most obviously: If the central government doesn't get involved, will the problems be adequately met by communities?), but I'm most curious about your reflections on the bedrock question of how vital communities come about. I am saying that if you want vital communities, human nature and government nature combine to mean that the communitarians' mixed model--more latitude for communities, but an activist central government as well--is now and forever a pipe dream. You can't get there from here.

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a Bradley fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of What It Means to Be a Libertarian. Excerpts of his book are available on the MSNBC Web site. Michael Sandel is a professor at Harvard University and author of Democracy's Discontent: America In Search of a Public Philosophy.