Commentary Magazine

The American Condition, by Richard N. Goodwin

The Rhetoric of Community

The American Condition.
by Richard N. Goodwin.
Double-day. 407 pp. $10.00.

The first purpose of philosophy is to clarify; the purpose of rhetoric is to arouse. In this murky but mellifluous book, Richard Goodwin, who once wrote speeches for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, has aspired to philosophy but produced only rhetoric, and even the rhetoric, though high-minded and serious, is more puzzling than persuasive.

The argument of the book is not easily restated because it is developed at a level of abstraction and with a persistent obscurity that render any effort at summary perilous. Indeed, there is not in a strict sense an argument being made at all: words are not defined, evidence is not adduced, logical connections are not established, contrary cases are not explained. What we read instead is the result of an effort to create and sustain a mood. That effort makes heavy use of such words as “alienation,” “community,” “shared values,” and “oppression.” Those readers in whom such phrases evoke persuasive images and resonant echoes will find themselves brought into the state of radical discontent it is the author’s desire to produce. Those for whom such terms require careful explanation will be bored or irritated.

The major themes seem to be these: Americans have suffered a great but unnoticed diminution of freedom because they have lost the capacity to fulfill their humanity to the “outer limits fixed by the material conditions and capacity of the time.” The gap between our true human fulfillment and our present condition is a measure of our oppression. The chief cause of that oppression has been the controlling power of the large economic bureaucracies that shape our wants, regulate our lives, and in other ways deprive us of our capacity for autonomous action. That lack of autonomy is alienation, and the unowned, uncontrolled bureaucratic institutions of society are the source of that alienation. True freedom requires—indeed, is defined as—the capacity of the individual to master his own destiny, but that in turn can only be accomplished within a community of shared purposes. The individual must establish his own goals, not have them supplied by the ruling bureaucracies, but his goals must be, and in a proper society will be, consistent with the goals of his fellows.



The central issue is the meaning and nature of freedom. Goodwin rejects the “individualistic” view of freedom as the absence of external constraint. We have been misled, he argues, by the belief that we should aspire to freedom from arbitrary commands or political rule. The individualistic ethos expressed in, for example, the Bill of Rights, may have insured that we are free to speak our minds or to be secure from arbitrary arrest, but it has also, and more importantly, countenanced the growth of a market economy, of alienated labor, and of bureaucratic institutions that deprive us of any meaningful thoughts to express or of any meaningful work to perform. Our unfreedom is not that of the dungeon, but of the labyrinth.

By this view, Goodwin associates himself, albeit not very precisely, with a theory of man in society that draws on Plato, Rousseau, and Hegel and places himself in opposition (though I doubt he is aware how fully) to the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and the Federalist papers. Yet he does not deal with the many arguments that have been made over the last century or so for using the term “freedom” to mean the absence of external constraint rather than self-fulfillment or conformity to shared group values. (To him and to the reader, I commend Maurice Cranston’s excellent brief book, Freedom.) The chief difficulty with using freedom to mean self-fulfillment is that, on a matter of grave importance to men and government, this definition supplies no way of deciding who is free and who is not, or even whether a society has attained freedom or has suppressed it. So long as insuring freedom is an obligation of government, and so long as freedom means the absence of collective constraint, government can be tested by and held accountable to a relatively clear standard. But if freedom means “fulfillment” in a communal setting, then government cannot be tested at all because it must permit each community to impose whatever goals it wishes on its members or, if the national government itself imposes those goals, no one will be at liberty to complain.

Now the price of freedom, defined as the absence of constraint, is the pursuit of self-interest. James Madison understood this and made of it the animating principle of the American Constitution. Tocqueville, who sympathized with America’s decision, wrote at length of what this country would lose by having chosen liberty and equality of opportunity over community and some conception of the common good: nobility, gentility, honorable devotion to the common weal, and the capacity of great enterprises entailing large sacrifices. Walter Berns has described (COMMENTARY, October 1973) our continuing ambivalence toward the choice we made in 1789: we wish both the absence of constraint and a sense of community, both government by elected representatives and government through direct participation, both a prosperous society bred of ambition and a tranquil one born of a devotion to nature and comradeship.

Was the price too high? Goodwin does not argue the point, he merely asserts his view that it was, buttressing his opinion with casual references to pollution, manipulated demand, and growing economic concentration. Ignoring for the moment the almost complete lack of evidence for any of his assertions about the failures of the Madisonian principle, what is striking is his own failure to consider the implications of a communal theory of society; he thus allows the reader to forget what we have gained by a libertarian system.

The price of strong communal bonds is greater human conformity, and in a secular age that means conformity, not to an enlarged moral code based on divine revelation, but to both the generous and petty instincts of our fellows. Community supplies security, but at the price of inequality: opportunity and mobility exist in the larger society (the cosmos polis, the world city), not in the intimate association. When a government threatens our liberty, there is an appeal; when a community does, there is none. When a government chooses its purposes, men are free to debate and influence that choice; when a community makes manifest its purposes, there is rarely deliberation or even choice.

Goodwin never reveals the shared purposes within which each of us is supposed to realize his own fulfillment. He speaks repeatedly of an “American idea,” but never defines it. If individual wants and community preferences conflict, how are they to be reconciled? Goodwin does not answer except to observe that neither Plato nor Nietzsche thought the problem existed. If we are part of a “bond of unity,” an “organic community,” our preferences and our neighbor’s will automatically be reconciled. This faith in an invisible hand would have left even Adam Smith gasping.

But already I am giving too much credit to the author’s ideas, for in fact they are never put forth in plain language that would permit serious discussion. Rarely does Goodwin refer to ordinary human experience, much less to empirical inquiries into that experience. Whenever community or alienation or oppression is mentioned, it is an abstraction of a pseudo-Hegelian sort. It is a pity Goodwin does not write in German, for then he could capitalize all his nouns and thereby endow them with even greater mystical significance.

It is all slightly unreal. Who is this alienated, oppressed person who lacks freedom because he lacks community and autonomy? It may be Sartre, or Henry Adams, but it is not my sister, or the family who lives across the street, or the friends I see and work with. Is it anybody?

There is a problem of community, but not the one to which Goodwin alludes. Communal ties are very strong in many neighborhoods and towns; the problem is not their absence, but perceived threats to them. Those threats do not come from General Motors or from the telephone company, but from vandals, people of different races and colors, highway builders, and property-tax assessors. As I write, the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston—a strong and vigorous community if there ever was one—has been cancelled because the Irish leadership of that community wishes to protest the prospect of having their children bused into black schools next fall. If we protect South Boston, are we permitting the Irish to “fulfill their humanity” or are we exacerbating the “alienation” of the blacks? How do we decide?

One might suppose that in his discussion of bureaucracy and the economic forces of society, Goodwin would come down to earth. Except for a few brief, and amusing, asides, he does not. We are told, among other things, that big corporations can do anything they want, that antitrust actions have failed, that profits are no longer an incentive to action or a guide to decisions, that the absence of price differences for similar commodities proves that price competition no longer takes place, that toy commercials on television can create more psychic injury than exposure to violence, that inflation was created to increase corporate earnings, and that education merely serves the existing economic process. One can search the book in vain for a scrap of evidence to support any of these assertions or for any recognition that others have thought seriously about such matters and, more frequently than not, concluded that the opposite is the case.



Fashioning rhetoric is not an unworthy enterprise but it must always be tested by the value of the condition it seeks to bring into being. Goodwin describes no such condition, offering only the most guarded clues as to what a better society might be. As best as one can make out, he favors public control over investment capital, public participation in corporate management by a strategy comparable to the old National Recovery Act, elimination of the wage system, and decentralization of the means of production. It is pointless to take up these proposals for serious discussion because they are offered casually and briefly, in two pages at the end of the book, and explicitly not intended for debate.

But it is tantalizing to speculate about what the author could possibly mean. Does he think that the NRA, by giving official sanction and thus greater force to private efforts at cartelization, would render any of us happier, make any goods cheaper, or reduce rather than increase waste? Ford introduced the Edsel and learned it had blundered; if the NRA had been in existence, Ford would still be making the Edsel, and the government would have seen to it that the car’s share of the market was protected. Could he possibly be suggesting that if government controlled the investment decisions, we would build no polluting factories or produce no shoddy goods? As in Italy?

What is even more tantalizing is the quite subordinate status assigned by Goodwin to governmental bureaucracies, as opposed to economic ones, as targets of criticism. He is critical, to be sure, often aptly so, but government to him is merely the political expression of economic conditions, and thus not seriously deserving of separate analysis. Big government is not a problem independent of the economic forces that animate it. A strange view from a man whose rhetoric when he served the Kennedy and Johnson administrations—“The Great Society,” “The War on Poverty,” “The Alliance for Progress”—contributed in no small measure to the enlargement of government activity and the debasement of public confidence in that government.

Or perhaps not so strange. In Goodwin we have an example of the radicalized Kennedyite, frustrated by the inability of government, on command, to produce greatness, end poverty, or make our allies progress. One might have concluded from that experience that the problems are more difficult and the government less effective than first supposed. Or one could decide, as Goodwin did, that the entire fabric of society is rotten, and for economic reasons, and thus that the only correct posture is one of “defiance, outrage, and conflict.”



Outrage is often a constructive motive, but it can never be a solution. It is only a mood, and usually one that clouds one’s vision. And so this book. Its tone suggests that it was written at two o’clock in the morning when the darkest hours of the night produce the deepest intellectual reveries but not the clearest insight; when phrases, snatches of ideas, and hastily-scribbled quotations take on an enlarged meaning as they are pondered through a false sense of heightened awareness and a sweet existential anguish. Many of us have written down our ideas during these hours but we usually throw them away the next day when they are seen to be as vaporous as the night airs that produced them. Richard Goodwin kept his, and published them.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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