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The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community.

The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community. Philip Selznick. University of California, $40. If the concept of a dense, erudite, 538-page treatise on social theory that is timely isn't a hopeless contradiction in terms, then Philip Selznick's The Moral Commonwealth is timely. I write this when there is still a chance that Bill Clinton will not win the presidential election, though it looks pretty close to a sure thing. By what must be coincidence, The Moral Commonwealth traffics in virtually all the themes of the Clinton campaign, ending with a glorification of the term "covenant" that recalls Clinton's nomination acceptance speech in New York.

So it's impossible to resist subjecting Selznick's discussion of Dewey, Kant, Hume, Locke, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Weber, Freud, et al. to a "Washington read" by mining it for potential clues about the new administration. Of course, this is unfair. Selznick surely couldn't care less about the really pressing issues, like who gets the office in the southwest comer of the West Wing; he's trying to synthesize a political philosophy for the long term, not plot legislative strategy.

Still, he is openly working in a vein of moderate-liberal political thought that extends back about 15 years and includes the writing of figures like Amitai Etzioni and Robert Bellah. This philosophical movement has interacted quite energetically with a moderate-liberal political movement that started at about the same time, of which Clinton has always been a leader. It would seem that all parties concerned would wish that the lengthy labors of the politicians and the philosophers come to fruition simultaneously.

The great obsession of the political moderates has been the Democratic party's loss of its majority status in presidential elections, beginning with the 1968 election. The role of groups like the Democratic Leadership Council has been figuring out how to deruse various Republican-zapping techniques and win back the white middle-class voter. The philosophical moderates are obsessed with a different but complementary issue--the excessive individualism of contemporary American culture. One engine of individualism is capitalism, but another is a certain kind of political liberalism, the kind that emphasizes the protection of an ever-expanding array of legal rights as the highest purpose of government. It isn't necessarily the case, then, that the restoration of the national Democratic party (if that's what we're seeing) will mean the restoration of the kind of communitarian values that Selznick prizes.

The Moral Commonwealth does not present a hard, gem-like line of argument; rather, it covers an enormous amount of ground in the form of a long series of linked essays. This adds to its strange feeling of compatibility with the Clinton campaign. Many of the consistent themes and phrases that resonate in this book also resonated in Clinton's message: "responsibility," "obligation," "empowerment." Of course, the question about Clinton has always been whether he actually has a coherent, cohesive view of governance or just a long series of interesting but unrelated opinions. (It's a question that strikes close to home, because it's often been asked about this magazine as well.)

Selznick, if read as a kind of philosopher-surrogate for Clinton, doesn't completely lay the matter to rest. He is consistently wise and thoughtful. It is always obvious what he believes in (community) and what he doesn't (relativism). But he suffers somewhat from the eternal curse of the moderates: a tendency to call for a balanced approach.

To cite just one of a hundred possible examples, Selznick wants government "to adopt postbureaucratic modes of organization" but also believes (rightly) that "it would be a mistake to pursue a fantasy of government without bureaucracy." Political philosophies like libertarianism and communism, which call for the dial to be twisted all the way to one side, are much more intellectually compelling. (One of the pleasures of Mickey Kaus' The End of Equality is that it presents a centrist program using extremist rhetoric.) It would be quite easy for a sitting politician to adopt Selznick's exquisitely modulated views and then, sincerely believing he was being faithful to them, deal with every issue simply by splitting the difference. But that couldn't happen now-could it?

--Nicholas Lemann
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Author:Lemann, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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