After World War II, the United States did more to rebuild and enrich the rest of the world than the Marshall Plan for Europe and the rebuilding of Japan during its occupation. As private citizens, Americans gave away untold wealth for the benefit of others around the world, and helped to transform the lives of millions for the better. Even now, we give more through private charitable aid to people in other countries than our government gives in foreign aid. Unfortunately, evidence is that this type of giving by Americans reached its zenith in 2014 and has been falling ever since. Why? What’s changed?
The 1889 Institute’s mission is to develop policies that encourage flourishing through limited government, a robust civil society, and free enterprise. While we talk a lot about limited government and free enterprise, we often neglect robust civil society, which is not about bringing up our children to be civil and to therefore have a society where civility predominates. While civility is important, it is not an institutional structure in society. Civil society is an institutional structure, just like limited government and free enterprise are institutional structures. In fact the three are mutually necessary and mutually reinforcing. You can’t have any unless you have all three, and all three are currently under attack. Unfortunately, we have taken robust civil society for granted for generations, to the point where we hardly recognize it. So, we should start by defining it.
Civil society refers to private collective action, as through churches, social groups, charities, and other associations. One way to think of civil society is it’s how people work together to solve problems without giving government bureaucrats more power over our daily lives. Unfortunately, these days the institutional dividing line between government and civil society is very blurry. For example, unions are very active in seeking government interventions in turning labor markets to their favor. Many professional organizations crave the government-protection racket that is occupational licensing. Supposedly charitable NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are often heavily funded by government grants.
Wherever the line between civil society and government is blurred, civil society is being weakened. A robust civil society is not about the leaders of private organizations forcing us all to care about what they care about by having their way with taxpayer dollars, or writing laws that favor their ends. A truly robust civil society is about individuals coming together voluntarily. That means one set of individuals can be concerned with feeding the malnourished. Another can be about the job of cleaning polluted water. Another can work to better educate children, in general or in a particular subject area.
A robust civil society means people can organize themselves to tackle a variety of problems in a variety of ways, using a variety of individuals’ specific talents without overwhelming the management skills of a government bureaucracy trying to do more than is humanly possible. Problems might be identified that only government intervention can effectively solve, but impacting government has not been the primary purpose of civil society, historically.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French civil servant who wrote Democracy in America following a nine-month visit to the U.S. in the 1830s, wrote about Americans’ tendency to form all kinds of associations for all kinds of purposes, including the purely philanthropic, for social aggrandizement, as well as to influence government. He described a civil society in America that was uniquely extensive and healthy where, “In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.”
Unfortunately, there are those who would give up the advantages Tocqueville described by discouraging true charity. Arthur Brooks, in his book Who Really Cares? describes the leftist philosophy that giving to charity is a bad idea because it discourages growth of government, which leftists favor. Civil society has been under assault for a long time, but the attacks on it are, in some ways, more subtle than leftists favoring taxes over charity. Note how Tocqueville refers to the “example and words” of those who formed associations in his time. The only way examples and words matter is if people see, hear of, or read about them. But, we have the bosses of social media in control of what amounts to the town square regularly censoring what people have to say, and with an obvious leftist bent in their choices.
What’s more, many of our most important civil organizations are under attack. Those same bosses, social media and broadcast television, have gone out of their way to discredit and disparage those organizations and anyone who would dare to be a member. While it’s true that some organizations have been used to cover evil deeds, the media’s glee in reporting every time a new suit is filed against the Catholic church goes beyond the mere desire for justice. Every story is a chance to bury civil society, and raise up an unlimited government. The Boy Scouts used to represent everything a boy would aspire to. Now they are painted as goodie-two-shoes too naive to possibly be cool. Their mission to civilize and train boys has all but been erased, to the point that the organization is a mere shadow of its former self, the likely aim of the leftists that have relentlessly attacked it for decades.
This is where civility comes in, the sort of minimal civility that lets people have their say, even when what they say is insulting or offensive, the sort of civility the ACLU used to fight for, the kind of civility that says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s the kind of civility that doesn’t shrink from expressing the plain truth about repugnant ideas and opinions, but keeps faith that citizens enlightened with all points of view, taught respect, and otherwise decently educated, will act wisely on the whole. It’s also the kind of civility that ensures those who do use sticks and stones (as in Portland, Minneapolis, and the U.S. Capitol, to name a few) are ALL held to account when they hurt people and destroy property.
It’s difficult to have a robust civil society without civility, and this fact makes it all the more apparent that leftists are uninterested in citizens with independent cares and concerns having the ability, much less the right, to think for themselves and participate in a dynamic, healthy, and diverse (i.e., robust) civil society. Portland and Seattle serve as poignant examples, where leftists occupied and destroyed property that was not theirs, but rarely suffered the consequences of harming others’ livelihoods. Contrast this with the U.S. Capitol invaders, who have been systematically hunted down (and should be).
A robust civil society arose organically in the U.S. as a result of people living freely. It isn’t something that can ever be finished, because there are always those who see their own purposes as more important than the freedom of others. Civil society requires constant vigilance and a willingness to fight those who would tear it down. We all have an obligation to be informed citizens despite our busy lives. We should fight for the right to communicate our opinions while having the maturity to consider others’. We are, after all, the current custodians of a great nation with a legacy of freedom that, though imperfect, laid a foundation for the most robust civil society on the planet. The fact that we have to fight to keep that legacy should be viewed less as a burden than a privilege.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.