Preview: In this issue of Imprimis, based on a lecture delivered at the 20th annual Ludwig von Mises Lecture Series in April 1993, Hillsdale College President George Roche contrasts the brutal reality of communism with its idealistic promises and false claims about human nature. In so doing, he makes the moral case for the free market and examines how all members of society prosper when individuals are left to make their own decisions. He concludes, “Free men know what tyrants never learn, that the ultimate economic resource is the mind and energy of a free person.”
What Is Good Citizenship?
Philanthropy is an essential part of a much larger and more encompassing activity, namely, American citizenship. Now, when I mention “citizenship,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably not philanthropy or private voluntary activity of any kind, but more than likely political activity of some sort—particularly voting.
The essence of citizenship—or at least so it seems from the hectoring swarms of voter education and turn-out drives that descend upon us every election year—is to vote faithfully and thoughtfully, after acquainting ourselves with all the policy prescriptions of the various candidates for office. To be a good citizen, in other words, demands that we wade through those mind-numbing charts of policy positions regularly published each election year, which dutifully set Candidate X’s 17-point plan for reducing the deficit side-by-side with Candidate Y’s 21-point plan for doing the same.
Citizenship thus understood is necessarily an episodic, infrequent, to say nothing of onerous duty. Its chief purpose seems to be to turn over to supposedly qualified experts the “real” business of public life—namely, designing and launching public programs of all sorts, which will bestow upon the victims of poverty or AIDS or discrimination or some other insidious force the tender mercies of bureaucrats, policy experts, social therapists and others who claim to be uniquely able to cope with such problems by virtue of professional training. Once a citizen has voted, he is supposed to get out of the way and let the experts take over. Small wonder, then, that Americans today feel profoundly alienated from the realm of public life and that citizenship understood as voting holds so little appeal.
Genuine citizenship involves active participation in that vast realm of human affairs known as civil society. This is a far more expansive field for human endeavor than the political sphere, for civil society encompasses all the institutions through which we express our interests and values, outside of and distinct from government. Thus civil society includes our activities in the marketplace, including acquiring private property, holding a job, and earning a living. It includes what we do as loving members of our families; as students or concerned parents within our schools; as worshipful attendees at our churches; and as faithful members of neighborhood associations, clubs, and voluntary associations of all sorts. This broader understanding of citizenship also encompasses the full range of philanthropic activity, including committing energy and resources to helping others.
Teaching the Lessons, Singing the Songs
Clearly, citizenly activity within civil society occurs not episodically or infrequently, as with voting, but regularly and constantly, in countless small ways that are so much a part of the texture of our everyday lives that we are almost unaware of them. Every time we attend church, go to a PTA meeting, help a charity drive, or perform faithfully and well a task at work, we are being decent citizens. In further contrast to voting, which supposedly engages chiefly our abstract reasoning and objective judgment about candidates and policies, citizenship in this larger sense engages the full human being. That is, the institutions of civil society appeal to and sustain our spirit and heart, as much as our mind.
Heart and spirit are nurtured by the songs and fairy tales of home, the lessons of Sunday Bible class, the instruction at school, the gentle advice and perhaps criticism of a neighbor, a mentor, or a friend—all of which enrich us, all of which create bonds and obligations, all of which demand that we, in turn, teach the lessons and sing the songs to others.
Through these countless, subtle, daily interactions, our civil institutions give form and substance to the everyday qualities and values without which life itself would be impossible—honesty, perseverance, self-restraint, personal responsibility, service to others—by rewarding them when they appear, punishing when they don’t, and by mercifully and willingly sustaining those who may fall behind, in spite of good-faith efforts to live by civil society’s rules. Sound civil institutions insure that those cherished values are passed on to the next generation, by surrounding the maturing child and young person with constant, quiet messages of reaffirmation and reinforcement.
Through our vast, complex web of civil institutions, in short, we grow and develop into complete human beings—learning to suppress our often chaotic and destructive impulses; to express our connectedness and mutual obligation to each other; to reach beyond ourselves to higher aspirations, reflecting nobler impulses. Those institutions sustain us, but we in turn must sustain them, for without unremitting, steadfast citizenly involvement, they are doomed to wither and die.
The Collapse of Civil Society
That America was blessed with a robust, vigorous civil society was once understood to be vital to its health and success. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is the classic expression of wonder and admiration at the incredible energy generated by the vast array of civic institutions spread across the face of our young nation. Everywhere he looked in 19th century America, he noted that our citizens had formed associations, committees, and clubs to tackle one or another of the problems facing them in this undeveloped wilderness. Through such citizenly activity, Tocqueville believed, Americans expressed and sustained their civil freedom, accomplished an enormous range of tasks, and, most important, developed fully as rooted, connected human beings.
Tocqueville’s admiration for the liberty-sustaining, life-affirming energy of civil society, is, of course, by no means shared by our intellectual and cultural elites today. Instead of citizenship as a vigorous, multi-faceted participation in civil society, we are urged to constrict our view of citizenship to the lonely, sporadic act of the isolated voter. What to Tocqueville appears as a vast, pluralistic upwelling of groups expressing boundless civic energy appears to our elites to be a wasteful, chaotic, misguided jumble of amateurish groups meddling unwelcomed in social policy. What to him appears as vigorous, coherent, value-affirming civic associations appears to them as oppressive, stultifying, retrograde, rights-violating social tyrannies.
To our intellectual and cultural elites, the virtue of the constricted, “citizen-as-voter” notion is clear. It quietly and neatly removes public business from the messy world of active citizens and civic institutions, placing it instead into the neat, rational, smoothly humming world of the centralized, professionalized bureaucracies, wherein the elites themselves prevail. Indeed, it might be said without exaggeration that their central project is nothing less than the abolition of civil society. The story is told most eloquently by sociologist Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community. Modernity, Nisbet argues, assails civil society both from below and from above. From below, the authority of family, church, neighborhood, and school is quietly eroded by the proliferation of individual rights of all sorts, especially the right of self-expression—that is, expression of self with utter disregard, or contempt, for civil society. From above, civil institutions are pressured to surrender authority and function to the professional elites of the centralized, bureaucratic state. Caught in a pincers movement between individual rights and the central state, Nisbet noted, the intermediate associations of civil society struggle and languish.
What has been the result of the modem assault on civil society? Look at the vast array of social ills bearing down upon us: the explosion of illegitimate births and single parenthood, the spread of sexually transmitted disease, the dramatic increase of violent crime in the streets, the rise of drug abuse, the decline of public education, the spread of irresponsible behavior in every realm of personal and professional conduct. What is the common thread? Very simply, the collapse of civil society—the decay of its institutions and values, and the loss of control they once exerted over human behavior.
But instead of trying to rejuvenate civil society, our elites instead call for more government programs—more bureaucratic experts and professionals to minister to the hurts allegedly inflicted on hapless victims by industrialism, racism, sexism, and so on—in the course taking away yet more authority from citizens and civil institutions. This leads to the vicious cycle described years ago by Nathan Glazer in his essay, “The Limits of Social Policy.” As Glazer noted, the expansion of government social policy doesn’t solve problems, it only makes them worse. Government intervention undermines and weakens the authority of the very civil institutions that had kept undesirable behavior within reasonable limits in the first place. As government programs push into a problem area, civil institutions weaken further, and the problem is compounded—as is the demand from our elites for more government programs. This sad, ironic cycle—the prime example of the doctrine of “unintended consequences”—is perhaps the central paradox of our time.
Taking Control of Our Lives Again
I believe, however, that we are nearing the end of this futile cycle. As Irving Kristol reminded us in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, people are increasingly disenchanted with the manifest impotence of government—its utter inability to perform even the most rudimentary duties assigned to it, such as securing our unmolested passage down our own streets. He points to the strong revival of religious sentiment in America as evidence that we at long last are beginning to appreciate once again the vital role played by civil society’s religious institutions and values in maintaining a decent, orderly society.
Other encouraging signs are to be found in recent election returns and surveys of public opinion. Reflect for a moment on the signals there: a massive, palpable discontent with all major governing institutions; the success of term limits and tax-and-spending limits in referenda across the nation; above all, the immense popularity of calls to return government directly to the people. The message, I believe, is clear: Americans are sick and tired of being treated as if they are incompetent to run their own affairs. They are sick and tired of being treated as helpless, pathetic victims of social forces that are seemingly beyond their understanding or control. They are sick and tired of being treated as passive clients by arrogant, paternalistic social scientists, therapists, professionals, and bureaucrats who claim exclusive right to minister to the hurts inflicted by hostile social forces. They are sick and tired of supporting the bloated, corrupt, centralized bureaucracies into which our social therapists are organized to insure that power and accountability flow to them, rather than to the citizens of the United States.
Americans are clearly willing and eager to take control of their daily lives again—to make critical life choices for themselves, based on their own common sense and folk wisdom—to assume once again the status of proud, independent, self-governing citizens intended for them by the Founders and denied them by today’s social service providers and bureaucracies. In short, Americans are ready for what might be called “a new citizenship,” which will liberate and empower them.
This impulse toward a new citizenship is, of course, nothing more—or less—than a return to the older, far more encompassing notion of citizenship that figured so prominently in Tocqueville’s teaching. If properly channeled and directed, this impulse may in fact lead directly to the resuscitation of civil society—a regeneration of that vast network of vibrant, liberty-sustaining, life-affirming institutions that once covered the face of this nation.
What sorts of measures will be required, if we are to accomplish this revitalization of civil society?
First, we must be prepared once again to regard ourselves as genuinely self-governing citizens, willing and able to reassume control of our daily lives and to make critical choices for ourselves. We must not allow others to dismiss us as helpless victims or passive clients.
Second, we must seek to restore the intellectual and cultural legitimacy of citizenly common sense as a way of understanding and solving problems. This suggests an effort to re-establish the dignity of traditional folk wisdom and everyday morality, with renewed emphasis on teaching and nurturing personal character—the customary guideposts of everyday life. This will mean taking on intellectually the radical skepticism about such “unscientific” approaches propagated by professional pseudo-scientists eager to preserve their intellectual hegemony.
Third, we must reinvigorate and reempower traditional, local institutions—families, schools, churches, neighborhoods—that provide training in and room for the exercise of genuine citizenship, that pass on folk wisdom and everyday morality to the next generation, and that cultivate and reinforce personal character. This will require efforts to reform such local institutions, for often today’s churches, schools, and related “mediating structures” have themselves succumbed to the view that Americans are mere clients or consumers of therapeutic social services.
Fourth, we must encourage the dramatic decentralization of power and accountability away from the bureaucratic “nanny state” in Washington, back to the states, localities, and revitalized “mediating structures.” We should also strive to reinvest moral authority in such structures, rather than in corrupt intellectual and cultural elites in education, the media, and popular culture who regard traditional mediating structures as benighted purveyors of reactionary prejudices.
Finally, we must challenge on all fronts the political hegemony of the “helping” and “caring” professionals and bureaucrats who have penetrated so many aspects of our daily lives, and who profit so handsomely from the nanny state. We must dramatize their status as entrenched, corrupt special interests, more concerned about advancing narrow ideological agendas and protecting political prerogatives than about serving the public. This will require not only traditional approaches like policy research, but more innovative approaches as well—for instance, media and writing projects that capture the vivid, compelling human stories of those who suffer at the hands of paternalistic, arrogant bureaucrats and professionals, and the equally compelling human stories of those who have launched successful grassroots citizen empowerment projects.
What are the chances of successfully revitalizing civil society through this kind of active citizenship? It is easy to be pessimistic. After all, the entire weight of modernity seems to be behind the destruction of independent civil society. Nevertheless, I am hopeful. Tocqueville himself, after all, was not unacquainted with the destructive effects that modernity would have on civil institutions. Indeed, his purpose in writing Democracy in America was precisely to warn mankind about the impending storm of modernity and to tell us that the old, established institutions of civil society were in danger.
In America, however, he witnessed the remarkable spectacle of hitherto unrelated individuals—complete strangers—coming together to form wholly new forms of civil institutions, in the very teeth of the modem storm. He understood and appreciated the fact that the impulse toward voluntary association and the yearning for genuine citizenship within civil society are not so easy to destroy.
World events of the past decade only confirm Tocqueville’s optimism. No movement ever undertook the eradication of civil society with more zeal or determination than Marxism, that totalitarian perversion of modernity. And yet beneath the seemingly smoothly humming state bureaucracies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, there sprouted once again the seeds of civil society—churches, civic associations, unions, dissident groups, free presses. Even as the resolve of the free world halted Marxism’s outward thrust, so from within, Marxism began to decay and crumble, as the nascent institutions of civil society flourished and spread. The liberation of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union soon made it apparent that modernity’s “final offensive” against civil society had failed utterly.
Let us take heart both from these events and from Tocqueville’s hopeful teachings, as we undertake here in the United States the revitalization of civil society through the new citizenship. There can be no more urgent task, and there can be no higher philanthropic project, either for you as concerned citizens and volunteers or for me as a foundation professional, than the resuscitation of the civic sphere, which alone makes genuine philanthropy and genuine citizenship possible.