Amitai Etzioni, a leader of the so-called communitarian movement, has a thoughtful essay over at The New Republic on connections between consumerism and the economic crisis.
A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the psychology of citizens is a culture in which people will do most anything to acquire the means to consume—working slavish hours, behaving rapaciously in their business pursuits, and even bending the rules in order to maximize their earnings. They will also buy homes beyond their means and think nothing of running up credit-card debt. It therefore seems safe to say that consumerism is, as much as anything else, responsible for the current economic mess. But it is not enough to establish that which people ought not to do, to end the obsession with making and consuming evermore than the next person. Consumerism will not just magically disappear from its central place in our culture. It needs to be supplanted by something.
Etzioni diagnoses the problem correctly — a rampant consumerism, untempered by virtues such as thrift, should be a cause for concern. He even gets at the right path for solutions, admitting at first that “regulation” alone will not change culture. But ultimately Etzioni’s cures may only serve to perpetuate the disease. He concludes, seemingly having rejected any qualms about “regulation,” that we need more restrictions on working hours, caps on executive pay, and taxation of luxury items. These solutions will presumably be implemented through national legislation, a path that stifles the creativity of local initiatives and fails to acknowledge that the good is manifested differently in America’s endless variations in local circumstances.
Self-proclaimed communitarians like Etzioni don’t recognize that widespread civic engagement will not be the result of the abstract notion of a mass civic dialogue—what he calls “moral megalogues”—but instead will emerge through grassroots efforts. Citizens must indeed “reconsider what a good life entails,” but these conversations should begin in families, churches, and other local institutions. At this level, words are likely to turn quickly from abstract speculations to concrete actions: literal barn-raisings, as Tocqueville would have it. These bottom-up initiatives are what a true communitarian would advocate as “something” to supplant consumerism. More legislation from Washington will only perpetuate the notion that we are all atomized individuals who should look primarily to the national “community” in considering what constitutes a good life. A true spirit of community, the sort that can overcome consumerism, will only come about though a recognition of that old adage: charity begins at home.