Printer Friendly

An interface of interest.

Last fall Henry Ernstthal, CAE, pictured at left, came to ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT filled with enthusiasm. He wanted to introduce us to his new friend and colleague Amitai Etzioni, right. Ernstthal is a longtime friend of ASAE and currently executive director of the master of association management degree program at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Etzioni is currently university professor at the same institution.

Etzioni has many claims to fame. Among them: He is the author of 14 books on public policy, economics, and politics; founder of the not-for-profit Center for Policy Research, Washington, D.C.; honored contributor to the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration; and founder of the Washington Circle, which sponsors open forums on topics of importance to the Washington, D.C., community.

Most recently, Etzioni created a quarterly journal called The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities - a publication for the thoughtful exploration of where community and individual interests intersect.

So why would association executives, we asked, be interested in these issues? Aren't they busy enough already with their own association agendas? Etzioni put it this way:

"I would venture that if you name an association, I will find where the issues with which they are concerned dovetail with the issues we are writing about.

These executives are on the interface between the community at large and special needs and special interests. They are exactly where we are. It's a balancing act. They may not agree with us as to where the balance is, but they cannot disagree that they are dealing daily with a balancing question."

We concur with Henry: Etzioni is a knowledgeable source of ideas and support. You may not agree with him, but we think you'll find his insight, commitment, and concern stimulating.

Teaching ethics

HENRY ERNSTTHAL: Could you give me an example of the kind of issue an association executive would bring to your journal in the form of an article or some other format?

AMITAI ETZIONI: We are interested in the question of moral codes. Some of us feel, including myself, that codes of ethics are a formality. Do they hinder, do they help, are they just window dressing, or can they capture an ethical commitment? What procedures should one have? How much latitude does an executive need to carry out the job? We would say it's really a delicate process - on the one hand, representing, and on the other hand, informing and educating the members and in the process changing their positions. How's that best done? Where is the limit?

We are very interested in how you teach ethics to the young generation. How do you make them care about their country? You need to remember that everybody wears at least two or three hats. Executives in an association are also members of a community, a church, a family, a country, and we need to interface with those.

ERNSTTHAL: One thing we notice in the association community is that as the baby boom generation comes into leadership roles, their expectations and values seem considerably different. What do you perceive that difference to be?

ETZIONI: I don't have any evidence that they are different. There are some data showing that people are a little more selfish. But ... as they get older and wiser, they come to see the world in a more benign way. Otherwise there is hell to be paid. And at the moment that is exactly what it is. Basically the society is coming apart at the seams. So they get what they are not paying for.

Unifying foundations

ERNSTTHAL: There is lots of rhetoric in the management literature about the management of diversity. [According to the literature,] we ought to be focusing on respect and understanding of separate value systems instead of the traditional model of bringing everybody in to achieve a common set of cultural goals. The primary effort had been toward assimilation, and now the pressures are to keep all of these things separate. How do you feel about that?

ETZIONI: Well, I'm all in favor of diversity, but I coined a phrase that satisfies me: We need pluralism within unity. You have to see the society as a multilayer cake - a cake you cut into many slices, but if you cut all the way down, then the whole thing crumbles. So we have to keep certain unifying foundations that will celebrate and welcome diversity.

ERNSTTHAL: What, then, are the bottom layers of the cake that you shouldn't cut into.;

ETZIONI: Commitment to the common, not replacing but balancing self-interest. Otherwise there is no balancing for shared needs. A commitment to serve the country, a commitment to pay taxes which are due, to not make a hobby out of cheating. That's no small matter because we have half the nation wanting more government services and fewer taxes and wanting certain cultural commitments such as the English language.

I'm all in favor of making room for other cultural traditions as long as it is understood that they have a shared value. I enjoy jazz; I enjoy classical music. But we need to share a love of music. We should read philosophy and literature from a variety of sources, but we should not allow fanaticism of any kind to replace our uniqueness of being tolerant with one another.

Sustaining the community

ERNSTTHAL: What do you see as the role of the individual and his or her responsibility to self and to the community, and how does this relate to associations, their role, and the role of the individual in associations?

ETZIONI: The person who probably put it best was de Toqueville. His observation is that one of the great features of Americans is that they have between the government (which is hated but with which we can't do without) and the individual (who is in danger of being isolated and cut off) the fabric of community and volunteer associations. Together these are the meat and the bones, muscle, and brain of society.

We talk about the individual and the government or the individual versus the government. The fact is, what nourishes the individual and what keeps the government at bay is this intermediary tissue, which is composed of family, community, and voluntary associations. Now morally that means for a society to survive, for civility to be possible, for morality to be sustained, we need to bring up people, bring up the young generation, and remind the old one that selfishness does not allow for a viable existence. The ultimate purpose of these intermediary bodies is to sustain the community element, which provides the balance with the selfish element.

Finding a balance

ERNSTTHAL: But trade associations in particular and some professional societies have been tagged with the title of "special interest groups." Or in the Independent Sector's taxonomy of not-for-profits, "mutual benefit organizations," pointing out that their focus, rightly or wrongly, is to increase the advantages of their members as a group in a selfish way as opposed to individual selfishness. Do you have a comment on that?

ETZIONI: Directors, executive directors, boards, and leaders of these associations moderate the interests of their members rather than serve them at a cost to the common interests. So I expect a thousand conversations to take the following rough structure - that the membership says, "Go and get us another tax deduction, another subsidy, another blah, blah, blah," and the executive director says, "Now let me explain why we can't quite do it that way." Executive directors act as intermediaries, whether they know it or not, between the body politic and the legitimate self-interest of the members.

ERNSTTHAL: The argument is made that those who do that too much become ex-leaders or ex-executive directors. How responsible is staff in its role as moderator or mediator, and how does staff balance that against its own survival interests?

ETZIONI: We are not talking about a life of sacrifice and self-denial. We are talking about sensitizing your membership to the moral and social facts of life. Take, for instance, the opposite idea. If executive directors are gung ho on a position and tell their members to go whole hog, pretty soon they get excommunicated. People consider them rabid. Members of the House and Senate do not listen to them, and they acquire a reputation as being kooks or irresponsible. The idea here is to find a balance.

Dead set against deductions

ERNSTTHAL: Do you think it is appropriate public policy to give trade associations a tax exemption?

ETZIONI: Oh, Henry I'm sorry you asked because I would not give a tax exemption to anybody.

ERNSTTHAL: Why? Let's explore that.

ETZIONI: Well, a tax exemption has the following qualities. First of all, it gives a subsidy to the rich because the poor don't have taxes from which to deduct anything. So deductions are basically subsidies for the rich. I don't think that you should subsidize the rich from public funds. So if you want to give to charity, by all means give to charity, but don't expect Uncle Sam to pay you back 60, 40, or 20 percent. If you believe that something is worthwhile, then pay for it outright and if not, don't. From the moral viewpoint, from the citizen viewpoint, from the government viewpoint, I am dead set against most deductions. We would have a much simpler, lower tax code if we would do away with most deductions.

ERNSTTHAL: Saying you don't agree with most tax deductions seems to indicate that you would agree with some. For example?

ETZIONI: I probably think that exemptions for children might be called for. The family is so endangered that I would bend my principles because of a higher value. And that's what you always do in ethical issues. You resolve between different values.

Abolish the PACs

ERNSTTHAL: Tell me how you feel about political action committees and organized support for candidates for elected office?

ETZIONI: I would prefer to abolish all PACs on the grounds that they allow money to speak instead of one person, one vote. Whoever raises more money carries the day. That is not what the Constitution is all about. It is not what democracy is all about. But given that PACs are probably going to be here awhile, I'd like to make one small change. I'd like a person who donates money to designate who is going to be the beneficiary.

Correcting the representative system

ERNSTTHAL: Are referendums and initiatives an appropriate method for making decisions about public policy? If they are, then one would assume you could spend nonstop in support of or in opposition to those ideas as opposed to individual candidates.

ETZIONI: These two things, Henry, are connected. People turn to initiatives when the representative mechanism has been taken over by campaign contributions and by narrowly honed special interests.

In frustration, people have turned to all kinds of tools that are basically not democratic, such as initiatives. They seem to express, out of frustration, that they can't get the system to work to their deeper beliefs and needs.

Correcting the representative system would, I think, relieve a lot of pressure going out to initiatives. Initiatives are not democratic. They are plebecites. They are the kind of thing Napoleon favored as a substitute for representative government.

An angry electorate

ERNSTTHAL: The decline in the number of voters - what can be done about it?

ETZIONI: The decline of voters is just one of many signs. In any survey we take, the scores show people are very frustrated - thinking all politicians are crooked - and they are probably right.

ERNSTTHAL: Has the frustration and anger become any worse over time?

ETZIONI: If you compare it to the 1890s, it is much better. If you compare it to 1917, the end of the progressive era, I'm not sure. If you compare it to 1925, I'm not so sure because that's when legislation was passed prohibiting corporations from being politically active. Compared to the suitcases Nixon's people brought in from Mexico, [this] is an improvement.

If you compare it to the new wave of PACs in the early 1970s, then things are much worse. So it depends on your point of comparison. By and large the American people feel that they are no longer represented. Ninety-eight percent of our representatives in Congress are incumbents. The public feels, rightly or wrongly - I think largely rightly - their needs and preferences are often not represented. So they turn to a variety of extra-institutional ways to express themselves. They don't find way - even after initiatives - and they are very bitter.

Single-interest groups

ERNSTTHAL: How should PACs operate?

ETZIONI: You mean which way should they hang themselves, slowly or quickly? As far as I'm concerned, they shouldn't operate at all. Since you asked, I distinguish between two kinds of PACs. There are those which represent large segments of the public, like the Chamber of Commerce or the banking community or the farmers or the Lybians or the consumers; they are still twisting the system because dollars speak. But at least they represent a large variety of needs of their members, and therefore there is room for give and take. If they cannot meet need number one, then there is need number two.

But some PACs represent extremely narrow interests, and usually there is only one thing they want - for instance, people who represent office machines have very special tax deductions for their machines - nothing else. These kinds of PACs become fanatics - in a technical sense, not in an ideological sense - because there isn't anything they want to trade off for. Even if you satisfy them, you satisfy an extremely narrow slice of society and an extremely narrow interest of that slice. There are 300,000 groups of that kind in one way or another. And even though they often twist state legislators, not necessarily national legislators, together they raid the treasury in any way they know how.

ERNSTTHAL: How does a minority with a narrow focus protect its interest?

ETZIONI: A minority is not a single interest. Minorities have a large variety of needs. Single-issue groups are problematic because they become so narrow that they only want their highway asphalted, and that's all they care about. A single-interest group in a narrow sense of the term does not have the democratic process.

The right balance of lights

ERNSTTHAL: How do you deal with [narrow interest groups'] existence other than to say they are not being helpful?

ETZIONI: That's where we come in. We sponsor The Responsive Community .... We try to shore up the feeling in individuals, communities, and leaders that you play with one hand tied behind your back; you don't go whole hog. So, yes, you do worry about your interests, but you also worry about the boat we au are in. So you sometimes say, okay, I understand, I'm satisfied with that much. I'm not going to go beyond this.

At each point in time that we have secured certain rights for individuals, we have put certain demands on them. We all the time balance these things.

The Constitution, most of us agree, is a living thing. It's not a scripture of what Moses brought from the mountains that can't be touched. At least we reinterpret what it means. [Take, for example,] unencumbered travel any place you want, even if it means using my neighborhood for an open drug market so that I can't use my streets and my children have to sleep on the floor because bullets could fly through the window - is that the fight balance of rights?

Or do I say that I'm not going to take away fights to travel [but] I want to delay you 30 seconds, maybe 15, and I'm going to ask for your driver's license. I'm not going to search your car, I'm not going to open your trunk, I'm not going to make it self-incriminating. [But] as a result I can retrieve the neighborhood or the community from the drug dealers. There is clearly a balance here. The cost imposed on you is a 30-second delay, and I gain a drug-free community.

I would accept a deal like that. Most Americans would. Thirty states approved sobriety checkpoints, which are exactly the same thing. In effect some of my colleagues argue that it is really a question of regaining your right. Your right of freedom from trouble means that you will be free from drunk drivers. So sobriety checkpoints don't diminish your life; they secure it. And the courts are very clear about this. The courts say that if ... the intrusion is minimal and if it is previously announced, [then it's okay].

Editing the constitution

ETZIONI: That's what we are fighting for. We don't want to take it on a case-by-case basis. We want to create a philosophy. Take for instance the question of AIDS .... Over the last 20 years, before AIDs, the legal position slowly moved away from public health concerns to the notion that whatever consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom is their business. And then came AIDS. It is not only a private concern. We all pay for it, and it endangers everybody. So we would like you to do certain things and take certain precautions and at least notify people once you discover you have AIDS so that it won't spread to still more people. I think that if you look at it as editing the constitution, we're talking about one more edit.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:community at large and associations have common interests; an interview with Amitai Etzioni
Author:Ernstthal, Henry
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Previous Article:Market-driven success.
Next Article:The Prometheus Paradox.

Related Articles
Morality, Rationality, and Efficiency: New Perspectives on Socio-Economics.
The Spirit of Community.
The Limits of Privacy.
World government advocates come out of the closet.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters