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An unseen enemy of freedom

By Henry Lamb
web posted September 15, 2008

From the highest rafters of academia comes another enemy of freedom: communitarianism.  This is a belief system that opposes both authoritarianism and individualism, and promotes instead, a social organization that is governed by policies designed by civil society to limit individual freedom as required for the benefit the community.  Dr.  Amitai Etzioni is credited with founding this communitarian movement.

Described by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as "The Third Way," this relatively new philosophy has actually guided design and structure of the sustainable development movement.  The goals of communitarianism and of sustainable development are quite laudable.  In a word, they seek to balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the community.  The problems arise in the methods employed to achieve these goals.

In the first instance, the very statement of the goal presupposes that someone must decide what the needs of the community are.  Someone must decide whether those needs are being met. Someone must decide how those needs will be met, and someone must decide how to provide the resources to meet those needs.

For more than two-hundred years, all these questions were addressed by elected representatives of the community.  Individual members of the community have always been free to propose projects to meet unmet community needs.  Elected officials, who failed to respond to the wishes of the community, could always be replaced at the next election.

 In the 1980s and 1990s, the environmental movement, joined by "social justice" advocates grew impatient with the rate of change under this traditional policy-making procedure.  That's why the President's Council on Sustainable Development declared that "We need a new decision process…."  This new decision process is constructed on a communitarian philosophy and employs the consensus process.

Nearly every community has seen the creation of some form of a "Vision 2020" council, whose task was to identify the unmet needs of the community and design a plan to transform the community into a "sustainable" community for the future. 

Typically, these councils have been initiated and funded by special interest groups or by the federal government – not by the local community.  These councils inevitably create a plan that incorporates the recommendations set forth in Agenda 21, the U.N.'s bible on sustainable development. These plans limit individual freedom, and impose individual responsibilities in order to create a community that the Vision Council has determined to be in the best interest of the community.

The King County Washington plan, for example, limits the freedom of property owners, to use only 35% of their land, while imposing the requirement that 65% of the land be left in its natural condition.  In Houston County, Wisconsin, the plan limits individual freedom to build no more than one home on a 40-acre parcel.  Similar restrictions on individual freedom have been imposed by so-called vision councils all across the country in order to "balance the rights of individuals against the needs of the community" – as determined by a non-elected group of communitarians.

This philosophy and the implementation procedure are enemies of freedom. Why should anyone have the right to tell another person that he cannot use 65% of the land he owns? This philosophy, of course, requires government to enforce the vision it imposes upon the community. 

In a free society, individuals pursue their own happiness as they wish.  If their pursuit intrudes upon the freedom of others, there are legal remedies in place.  In a free society, individual initiative, tempered by competition and tamed by the courts, produce a balanced community, constantly working toward higher achievement.

In a communitarian society, individuals pursue their own happiness as best they can within the confines of a comprehensive plan written by others.  Individual initiative is chilled; competition is replaced by public/private partnerships, and prosperity is taxed appropriately to insure that responsibility to the community is met.

Communitarianism has been called "communism-lite;" others refer to it as "sophisticated socialism.  On the ground, it appears to be academic justification for transforming the policy-making process, taking authority away from elected officials, and empowering non-elected representatives of special interest groups. 

The goals of communitarianism, and sustainable development may well be sincere and needed, but not at the expense of freedom and the purest possible democratic process.   Among those opposed to this process are the Anti-Communitarianism League; American Policy Center; Sovereignty International, and others.

The great challenge is to inform people that the method being used to create sustainable communities is actually transforming our system of government from one that celebrates individual freedom, to a system that minimizes freedom.  America doesn't need another enemy of freedom. ESR

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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