Is there a positive side to communitarianism?

Elliot Engstrom Lead Counsel, Civitas Institute
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I’ll admit, maybe the flat-screen TV’s and minifridges are a bit much, but, as far as socialist-leaning countries go, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Scandinavia. While for many libertarians and conservatives the “taxation is theft” debate immediately comes to mind when speaking of such countries, I’d rather point to the rationale behind Norway building the world’s “most humane prison”—to attempt to give people who are imprisoned a real chance at reintegrating into society upon release. In other words, a real, tangible concern for the welfare of people other than one’s self. Time writes:

”‘In the Norwegian prison system, there’s a focus on human rights and respect,” says Are Hoidal, the prison’s governor. “We don’t see any of this as unusual.’

Halden, Norway’s second largest prison, with a capacity of 252 inmates, opened on April 8. It embodies the guiding principles of the country’s penal system: that repressive prisons do not work and that treating prisoners humanely boosts their chances of reintegrating into society. ‘When they arrive, many of them are in bad shape,’ Hoidal says, noting that Halden houses drug dealers, murderers and rapists, among others. ‘We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people.’

…There’s plenty of enthusiasm for transforming lives. ‘None of us were forced to work here. We chose to,’ says Charlott-Renee Sandvik Clasen, a music teacher in the prison and a member of Halden’s security-guard chorus. ‘Our goal is to give all the prisoners — we call them our pupils — a meaningful life inside these walls. It’s warmth like that, not the expensive television sets, that will likely have the most lasting impact.’”

While I am aware that there are numerous flaws in the Scandinavian political model as a whole, I still think it is useful to ask whether this idea of how a prison should function could be a lesson to the governors of American prisons. Regardless, a great way to make prisons in the United States better places would simply be to reduce the number of prisoners by reducing the number of laws—a kid caught selling marijuana does not have his situation in any way improved by spending time in a cell next to violent criminals. Of course, that assumes that prisons are in a sense “corrective” institutions, rather than institutions that just get people that bother us out of our hair.

While on the topic, I would like to put forth the idea that there is some merit—yes, I said merit—to certain tenants of communitarian systems, so long as they are applied at the local level. In other words, “bottom-up, localist” communitarianism rather than “top-down, national” communitarianism. It is true that many of the original socialists developed their doctrines specifically as a method of top-down control; it is also true that there are numerous flaws in mainstream socialist political and economic doctrine. And, certainly, this article paints a bit of an idyllic picture of the Norwegian political system.

Still, one of the key flaws I see in communitarian political philosophies is not so much the non-cohesive nature of the doctrines themselves, but rather the level at which they are prescribed. If communitarianism was only applied at the local level, could it really survive without an element of voluntarism? Capitalist leaning nation-states are begging the question in saying that ideologies like socialism don’t work, because they are assuming that they must be applied at the nation-state level. It is assumed that if you want some sort of communitarianism, then you have to elect some ruler to do it from the top down, which of course does not work for multiple reasons, both economic and political—the reason that it’s hard for me to take organizations like the French Socialist Party seriously.

This localist communitarianism involves the idea that the strictness of economic laws tends to lessen as they move further away from large-scale application, so anti-communitarian claims like the lack of an adequate price mechanism and lack of adequate information tend to become less of a problem for local communities because the nature of economic communication changes as the distance between actors closes. It also involves the idea put forth by such philosophers as David Hume that human beings are naturally sociable creatures, and a communitarian system at the local level would be able to use this sociability to its advantage. In other words, I care about my neighbor because I know him. However, I don’t see why I should care anymore about a guy who lives in Oregon than I do about one that lives in British Columbia – hence the reason that the national socialist attempt to enforce ideas of general welfare over large, spread out populations fails. The nation-state communitarian system completely ignores the nature of human sociability, and expects humans to care about the welfare of human beings with which they have no relationship other than living on the same side of an imaginary line.

I feel that far too often many libertarians and conservatives throw the baby out with the bath water when looking at countries like Norway and Sweden because they are “socialist,” when perhaps we should take a closer to see if there are positive lessons we can take from them along with our critiques of their systems. Whereas many modern liberals throw the term “open-minded” around without truly having said anything at all, advocates of small government have the opportunity to truly be open-minded when examining the positives and negatives of modern socialist states.

Elliot Engstrom is a senior French major at Wake Forest University, and aside from his schoolwork blogs for Young Americans for Liberty and writes at his own Web site, Rethinking the State.