Communitarians sometimes criticise liberals for supporting ‘atomistic individualism’. In a Cato paper, Tom Palmer gave examples:
[Classical liberals] “ignore robust social scientific evidence about the ill effects of isolation,” … I am quoting from the 1995 presidential address of Professor Amitai Etzioni to the American Sociological Association …
More politely, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) [has] excoriated libertarians for allegedly ignoring the value of community. Defending his proposal for more federal programs to “rebuild” community, Coats wrote that his bill is “self-consciously conservative, not purely libertarian. It recognizes, not only individual rights, but the contribution of groups rebuilding the social and moral infrastructure of their neighborhoods.”
Yet in current politics, it is ‘progressives’ who put individual rights above the contribution of groups – especially if those groups are not politically approved by the left of politics. Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls this week gave the strongest signal yet that single-sex private clubs would become illegal, unless they received a specific exemption from the Victorian human rights commission:
“Ideally, all private clubs should demonstrate they are set up in a manner which is consistent with the equal opportunity … (so) clubs like the Athenaeum should have to demonstrate that they are set up in a manner which promotes equality.”
On this view, it is not enough that there are significant opportunities in society. Every formal institution within that society has to ‘promote equality’. And any organisation of people based on some characteristic the flipside of which makes people with any of wide variety of characterstics ineligible for membership is not permitted unless approved by the state. It is in effect a draconian attack on freedom of association and civil society.
Tim Wilson and Chris Berg have both argued in Melbourne papers over the last few days that it is difficult to see what good can come of this. The private clubs that it is principally aimed at are in long-term decline, and in the case of the Athenaeum having its own debate about admitting women. And the collateral damage will be that any private organisation based on shared religious or political beliefs, of men or women wanting to spend some time with their own sex, of their own age or sexual orientation, exists at the pleasure of the state.
Only informal networks would be safe from ‘human rights’ commissioners imposing the state’s view of how society should operate.
This is a very bad time for civil society. Political NGOs are facing much greater bureaucratic harassment. The sight-unseen national curriculum will diminish the distinctiveness of private schools. The social capital movement of the 1990s seems like a very long time ago.