Freed from the burden of choice
Writing in the mid-1990s, Alan Ehrenhalt reflects on the relationship between authority and community
“Most of us in America believe a few simple propositions that seem so clear and self-evident they scarcely need to be said.
“Choice is a good thing in life, and the more of it we have, the happier we are. Authority is inherently suspect; nobody should have the right to tell others what to think or how to behave. Sin isn’t personal, it’s social; individual human beings are creatures of the society they live in.
“Those ideas could stand as the manifesto of an entire generation in America, the generation born in the baby-boom years and now in its thirties and forties. They are powerful ideas. They all have the ring of truth. But in the past quarter-century, taken to excess, they have caused a great deal of trouble.
“The worship of choice has brought us a world of restless dissatisfaction, in which nothing we choose seems good enough to be permanent and we are unable to resist the endless pursuit of new selections — in work, in marriage, in front of the television set. The suspicion of authority has meant the erosion of standards of conduct and civility, visible most clearly in schools where teachers who dare to discipline pupils risk a profane response. The repudiation of sin has given us a collection of wrongdoers who insist that they are not responsible for their actions because they have been dealt bad cards in life. When we declare that there are no sinners, we are a step away from deciding that there is no such thing as right and wrong.
“We have grown fond of saying that there is no free lunch, but we forget that it applies to moral as well as economic terms. Stable relationships, civil classrooms, safe streets — the ingredients of what we call community — come at a price. The price is limits on the choices we can make as individuals, rules and authorities who can enforce them, and a willingness to accept the fact that there are bad people in the world and that sin exists in even the best of us. The price is not low, but the life it makes possible is no small achievement. . . .
“In the past generation, we have moved whole areas of life, large and small, out of the realm of permanence and authority and into the realm of change and choice. . . .
“Most of us continue to celebrate the explosion of choice and personal freedom in our time. There are few among us who would be willing to say it is a bad bargain, or who mourn for the rigidities and constrictions of American life in the 1950s.
“A remarkable number of us, however, do seem to mourn for something about that time. We talk nostalgically of the loyalties and lasting relationships that characterized those days: of the old neighborhoods with mom-and-pop-storekeepers who knew us by name; of not having to lock the house at night because no one would think of entering it; of knowing that there would be a neighbor home, whatever the time of day or night, to help us out or take us in if we happened to be in trouble.
“There is a longing, among millions of Americans now reaching middle age, for a sense of community that they believe existed during their childhoods and does not exist now. That is why there is a modern movement called communitarianism that has attracted many adherents and much attention. . . .
“The very word community has found a place, however fuzzy and imprecise, all over the ideological spectrum of the present decade. On the far left it is a code word for a more egalitarian society in which the oppressed of all colors are included and made the beneficiaries of a more generous social welfare system that commits far more than the current amount to education, public health, and the eradication of poverty. On the far right it signifies an emphasis on individual self-discipline that would replace the welfare state with a private rebirth of personal responsibility. In the middle it seems to reflect a much simpler yearning for safety, stability, and a network of reliable relationships. Despite these differing perceptions, though, the general idea of community has been all over the pages of popular journalism and political discourse in the first half of the 1990s.
“Authority is something else again. It evokes no similar feelings of nostalgia. Few would dispute that it has eroded over the last generation. . . .
“Authority and community have in fact unraveled together, but few mourn the passing of authority. To most Americans in the baby-boom generation, it will always be a word with sinister connotations, calling forth a rush of uncomfortable memories about the schools, churches, and families in which they grew up. Rebellion against those memories constituted the defining event of their generational lives. Wherever on the political spectrum this generation has landed, it has brought its suspicion of authority with it. ‘Authority,’ says P. J. O’Rourke, speaking for his baby-boom cohort loud and clear, ‘has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race.’
“The suspicion of authority and the enshrinement of personal choice are everywhere in the American society of the 1990s. . . .
“There has . . . been a discussion about authority among political philosophers in the past two decades, and its tone tells us something. It has been a debate in which scholars who profess to find at least some value in the concept have struggled to defend themselves against libertarian critics who question whether there is any such thing as legitimate authority at all, even for duly constituted democratic governments. ‘All authority is equally illegitimate,’ the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff wrote in a landmark 1970 book, In Defense of Anarchy. ‘The primary obligation of man,’ Wolff argued, ‘is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled.’ It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the record of debate on this subject since 1970 has consisted largely of responses to Wolff, most of them rather tentative and halfhearted. . . .
“If there were an intellectual movement of authoritarians to match the communitarians, they would be the modern equivalent of a subversive group. The elites of the country, left and right alike, would regard them as highly dangerous. The America of the 1990s may be a welter of confused values, but on one point we speak with unmistakable clarity: we have become emancipated from social authority as we used to know it.
“We don’t want the 1950s back. What we want is to edit them. We want to keep the safe streets, the friendly grocers, and the milk and cookies, while blotting out the political bosses, the tyrannical headmasters, the inflexible rules, and the lectures on 100 percent Americanism and the sinfulness of dissent. But there is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved. Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a pipe dream in the end. . . .
“To worship choice and community together is to misunderstand what community is all about. Community means not subjecting every action in life to the burden of choice, but rather accepting the familiar and reaping the psychological benefits of having one less calculation to make in the course of the day.”
— from Alan Ehrenhalt, The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s (Basic Books, 1995).