OVER a late-afternoon tea in a street-front cafe here, Amitai Etzioni spins out an anecdote that captures, for him, the central challenge facing America in the future. ``There was a building inspector in San Francisco who used a helicopter to increase his efficiency in doing his job,'' he says, recalling a news clip he had seen. ``His job was to see that people were not augmenting buildings without prior approval of the city. By flying over the buildings he could do 10 buildings or a hundred buildings instead of walking up the stairs one at a time.''
The homeowners, recalls Mr. Etzioni, were outraged. The reason? They said it was ``unfair to use a helicopter against -- against! -- the citizens. And the courts, and public opinion, lined up completely behind that outcry, and they had his helicopter grounded.
``I've collected many other examples,'' he says with a smile, ``which all have the same flavor.''
The ``flavor'' Etzioni is talking about has to do with the excesses of a ``me-istic'' society -- a society so caught up in its own individuality that it has neglected the sense of community.
Asked to address himself to the major issue facing the world in the 21st century, Dr. Etzioni goes directly to ``what I call the I-and-we issue.''
Unlike many contemporary thinkers who take hard looks at the future, Etzioni is encouraged by what he sees.
``We've been for 20 years very me-istic, very, very strong on the individual, very neglectful of the we-ness. And we're having a comeback - not of collectivism, but of a better balance between the I and the we. And I'm celebrating it.'' `You want an I-and-we strain'
A WELL-FUNCTIONING society, says Etzioni, has a need for both positions. ``You don't want either polar position. You want what is called an I-and-we strain. You want a continuous, unending conflict where on the one hand the community keeps saying, `There's too much individualism: Listen to me, don't abort, don't smoke, gayness is bad,' and on the other hand people saying, `No, I have a need,' and feeling inside themselves a tug-of-war.''
That kind of tug-of-war has been going on in America since ``the founding days,'' he says, adding that ``we have it today, and we're going to have it in the 21st century.''
What, then, are the major issues that the next century must address? Etzioni identifies several: Changes in governmental institutions.
Topping Etzioni's list is what he sees as some much-needed structural change in Congress, especially concerning the use of PAC (political action committee) money. His solution: public funding of congressional campaigns (following the British model), and a pay increase coupled with a prohibition on outside income. With such measures, he asserts, ``you would clean up politics there and then.''
Beyond that, however, Etzioni sees a need for ``a major movement'' dedicated to tackling structural reforms in the legal, social, and political arenas. ``We need some messiah of the rules of the game,'' he says, ``who will strike a movement without having any leftist tinges.''
Without a truly middle-of-the-road movement for reform, he notes, ``you won't have the moral underpinning which you need for institutional change.'' Demographic shifts.
``By the year 2000,'' he says, ``old will be considered 85 years or older, not 65 or older.'' Retirement at 65, he says, is ``a completely obsolescent concept.'' He foresees a continued downward adjustment in social security benefits as this recognition takes hold. Energy supplies.
``There's a limit to the amount of oil,'' says Etzioni simply. It's true that ``we found a lot more than expected, and the market [is doing] its wonderful thing. In the end, though, we're burning it up like mad, and nobody's adding a single barrel to the pool down there. So one of these days we'll have to deal with that issue again.''
Every time he sees another highway under construction, he says, ``I ask myself, `Has anybody sat down to ask [whether] in 40 or 50 years are we really going to be swimming in oil still?''' Debt.
Here Etzioni offers a mini-history lesson. ``From 1820 to 1920,'' he says, ``we plowed a lot back into the economy.'' But after the Depression and World War II, ``we had one generation that basically spent more than we produced -- running down what three generations saved.
``So then we went to everybody else in the world, especially the Japanese, and they loaned us several hundred billions so we could go on with this Coke commercial, with this party, with this hedonism, without tightening our belt. We're very close to the end of it, because people just won't loan us that much more.
``We've run down our inheritance. We've borrowed from everybody all we can borrow. Who's going to give us the next 200 billion?'' Leadership.
Etzioni is particularly interested in the question of leadership - or, more precisely, the lack of it.
``The concept of leadership,'' he explains, ``is 50 percent followership.
``Most people think about leadership as this: You come up with a new idea that nobody has heard of, and you're going to implement it,'' he says. ``[President Reagan] tried that twice: He tried it on the church-state issue, and he tried it on social security.''
The result, says Etzioni, was that the President ``did not lead, because there was no followership.''
``The reason we don't have great leaders at the moment,'' says Etzioni, ``is that the followership is not ready.''
Why not? Because ``followership'' grows out of a sense of commitment to the community - just the kind of ``we-ism'' that has been missing in recent decades.
Issue by issue, Etzioni returns to his ``I-we'' distinction to explain several of the major concerns facing his nation as the 21st century approaches.
``People are all gung ho on defense,'' says Etzioni. ``But when it comes to the notion of serving their country, there's a very thin support. There is no wide sense that the average middle-class American - especially white, especially male - has to serve his or her country.''
On the issue of taxes, he says, there is ``a great cynicism, not a widespread feeling that the system is fair.'' When the Internal Revenue Service comes up for discussion in Congress, he says, there are always those who argue that the laws do not provide ``a fair match between Internal Revenue and the citizens who violate the tax law -- as if this is some kind of a running match.'' Cut deficits, but `give me'
AS for federal programs, Etzioni refers to a conference of manufacturers he recently addressed.
He recalls that the other speakers, each from a different industry, ``attacked the government for its large deficits and for all the impositions it puts on the country and [the way it] intervenes in the economy.'' But ``somewhere down in the speech,'' he noticed, each speaker ``came in and argued, `Well, my energy industry cannot develop unless the government gives us special credits,' or, `We exporters need an export-import bank.'''
``None of them found any conflict,'' he says. ``They didn't even realize what they were doing -- repeating all the laissez-faire clich'es, and then saying, `Give-me.'''
Etzioni is not plumping for increased state control as a way to counter excessive individualism. But neither is he pleased with the tendency toward libertarian, laissez-faire attitudes in recent decades.
His goal: to strike a moderate position, restoring the balance where the competing strains of individualism and community life hold each other in check.
How will that help shape the future? Etzioni uses this I-we concept to make sense of both personal and political issues.
In the former area, he cites the increased interest in the family and the return to religion as the most important indicators. He sees a widespread shift away from the sexual revolution of the me-generation - since, he says, increasing numbers of people are discovering that merely ``biological relationships are not very satisfying'' and are seeking instead ``the beauty of mutuality, of the lasting relationship.''
He also sees hopeful signs of ``we-ness'' in the career choices young people are making. ``In the me-istic era,'' he says, ``the way to build your career was to worry about yourself and nothing else. You wouldn't listen to someone talk about social needs, collective needs, the future of the nation.''
``That's changing now,'' he says. Careers that mean something
`TODAY there is increasing interest among youngsters, not in [such organizations as] the Peace Corps, but in finding careers [in which] somehow you can combine `making it' with something meaningful.''
And what about the political arena? Here, Etzioni is less sanguine.
In politics, he notes, ``we still have rampant me-ism, only [it is on] the group level. Rather than each individual coming and saying, `Give me,' each special-interest group comes and says `Give me' - and there's no willingness to balance.'' To renew moral commitment
`IT'S not a question of whether we all stop worrying about our special interests and worry only about the nation,'' he says, noting that such a shift would not only be undesirable but ``inconceivable.''
But the ``opposite situation'' - where no one is concerned about the nation - is equally undesirable. Yet that is the situation which ``we're very close to'' now.
The ``me-istic'' tendency that became so noticeable in the 1960s and '70s did not appear out of nowhere. To Etzioni, its roots are understandable - and must be grasped if present social trends are to be comprehended.
On one side he sees the pressures toward ``we-ness.'' Reflecting on the historical evolution of societies, he notes that ``a community tries to suck in and absorb the individual, whether it's the church or the monarchy or the totalitarian state, and not leave room for individualism.''
On the other side, however, arises what he calls ``anti-we-ness,'' which he defines as a ``major strain'' in American society.
``The theme of many of our western movies,'' he says, ``is that authority is crooked. So you give the citizen the same power - the same gun, or whatever - as the authority, because he basically suspects the authority, the we-ness, the community.''
While such deep-dyed individuality is an essential part of the American character, he says that the nation has tilted dangerously far from what he calls a ``moral commitment'' to the community at large.
At bottom, Etzioni sees the general need for a renewal of this commitment.
``In the end, you cannot police people.'' Instead, ``you have to make certain things unthinkable.''
What does he mean by ``unthinkable''?
Suppose, he says, that you're a middle-class citizen short of money. ``None of us, I think, will consider sending our children to panhandle and raise the money - you just don't think about it. You don't sit down and say, `Now, should I?'''
``Now, we need more things to go into that box,'' he says, ``[like] selling highly carcinogenic agents, or dumping toxic things into the water mains.''
He already sees the ``beginning of a social trend'' in these directions.
``The boot is set,'' he says. ``All we need is the sock.''
Sociologist seeking the center
Ask American sociologist Amitai Etzioni what sort of thinker he admires, and he points to ``the very few people who take an intermediary position.
``That's what I find so interesting. In life, everything is obviously somewhere in between.''
The German-born author has, however, had his share of extremes. After fleeing with his parents to Palestine in 1936 to escape Nazi anti-Semitism, he joined the underground troops in the struggle for Israeli independence from the British. He later fought Arab troops during Israel's War of Independence.
After earning bachelor's and master's degrees at Hebrew University, he immigrated to the United States in 1957, entering the University of California at Berkeley, and emerging in only 18 months with a PhD in sociology.
In 1980, after 20 years on the faculty at Columbia University, he became university professor at George Washington University, where he heads the Center for Policy Research.
Author of more than a dozen books - including ``An Immodest Agenda'' (1982) and ``Capital Corruption'' (1984) - he is a frequent contributor of op-ed articles to newspapers and testifier at congressional hearings, and has served as a White House adviser.
Etzioni has been dubbed ``the everything expert.'' His wide-ranging interests - spanning subjects as diverse as organizational theory, nuclear disarmament, genetic technology, and the reindustrialization of America - have won him wide respect for his ability to put individual issues into broad perspective.
Next: Shuichi Kato, Japanese writer and social critic, April 9.