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Interview by Michael Cromartie


Why We Need Less Privacy

Amitai Etzioni advocates limits on privacy for the common good.

Amitai Etzioni is director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies and University Professor at George Washington University. A sociologist by training and the author of a number of highly regarded academic works, he is best known as the founder of the communitarian movement, in which capacity he has had a significant impact on public policy in the 1990s. He is the editor of a journal, The Responsive Community, dedicated to communitarian studies; his most recent book is The Limits of Privacy (Basic Books). Michael Cromartie interviewed Etzioni in Washington, D.C., in March of this year.

Can you define communitarianism for us?
I started my social science training in Jerusalem under Martin Buber. Buber had written not only I and Thou but also Paths in Utopia, which is a very communitarian book. I spent a year with him in a private school where I saw a lot of him and read a lot as well. That left a very deep mark on me. While in the United States he often would quote the communitarians of the 1890s. While the Frenchman Emile Durkheim is considered the father of sociology, it is the German, Ferdinand Tonnies, who created the most important distinction in the discipline, between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). This distinction still dominates the social science community. Tonnies contrasted the small village community with the more impersonal atmosphere of the city. In the village, people know each other intimately, and as a result, the village fosters virtuous behavior. But it also leaves little room for individuality. In the city, people are relatively anonymous and therefore free to do what they please. But they are also no longer under the community's watchful eye. That very well captures the sociological side of communitarian thinking. Our argument has been that people need to cherish individual rights while at the same time taking the common good into account. That is communitarianism in a nutshell.

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