American distinctive: Private organizations and civil society

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Leadership Tulsa executive director Wendy Thomas, writing on Facebook back in late May 2013:

Hannibal B. Johnson and I got to visit with a delegation of non profit directors and consultants from Belarus yesterday sponsored by the Tulsa Global Alliance. One of them posed and interesting question. He said they knew a lot about American life from our American films and TV but pointed out how infrequently those films depict or charity/non profit organizations and wondered why that was, especially since it seems to be such a large part of our national identity. Never thought about it before. Any ideas?

Thinking about it now, a couple of months later, I'm inclined to blame the disconnect between Hollywood and the rest of America. Massive amounts of money not only insulate you from the consequences of your bad behavior but also from the need to depend on voluntary communities to help you get through life. You don't need family, you don't need mutual support, mutual submission, or voluntary cooperation, because you can buy what you need and want without the need to negotiate. Naturally, then, Hollywood would be blind to the way churches, extended families, fraternal organizations, mutual-aid societies, and other non-profits enrich the lives they touch. Hollywood would believe that the problems they solve with money can only be solved by money, and naturally they would see the state providing that money. To the extent they think about community and family and voluntary associations, they would likely see those mediating institutions as suppressive of individuality, demanding conformity to group norms as a condition of assistance.

Thomas also wrote:

Our national spirit is especially evident this week in light of the tragedy in Moore. The other thing that always strikes me about our charitable spirit is that it is not limited to people of great wealth. In fact, I believe I have read that people with more modest incomes give a greater amount as a percentage of the income. Volunteer Tulsa also would have stats about volunteerism.

Author Hannibal Johnson replied to Thomas's post:

I really enjoyed meeting the delegation from Belarus. I found them to be professionally astute and intellectually curious. They also helped me better appreciate the civil society infrastructure we too often take for granted. They talked about working in an environment with few resources and a lack of government support (indeed, often, affirmative government opposition). The kind of government support (tax exemptions for nonprofits and tax-deductibility of contribution to nonprofits) and private sector backing that seems so natural here is all but absent in Belarus. That makes what these folks are doing all the more impressive.

Sometimes it takes a stranger to point out what's all around us. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed the same thing about America circa 1830.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in 1831:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

From an American Enterprise Institute report on de Tocqueville and the development of civil society in China:

An important function of civic and political organizations is to educate individuals about being citizens in a free society. Such groups may also form alliances with like-minded organizations in order to lobby the government or coordinate their advocacy messages. Shared interests among civic groups are a natural precursor to the development of political associations. But civic associations--reservoirs of social capital though they may be--cannot promote liberalism or sustain political freedom on their own.

Furthermore, social capital does not become political capital as readily as some groups may hope. To understand the dynamic between civic and political associations, it is helpful to consider two different types of regimes. The first is real totalitarian despotism, in which every organization is a tool of state. The second is the corporatist authoritarian model, in which many common interest activities or advocacy groups are allowed to exist until they become problematic--either by challenging the system of government or making a claim to justice. For example, the Chinese government, as a corporate authoritarian regime, may tolerate an environmental group that is calling attention to a particular ecological plight. The state's patience would likely run out, however, if the same group were to challenge a specific CCP environmental policy.

The notion that civil society activity portends liberal political progress is problematic, if Tocqueville is right. Even for those groups that operate with relative autonomy, it seems that the process of self-governance only provides a lesson in good-neighborliness, rather than promoting the tendencies necessary for liberalism. Indeed, it is reasonable to presume that a stable corporatist authoritarian state could sustain a vibrant, yet contained civil society--one in which individuals and organizations are active but lack the compulsion to develop political agendas.

Then again, some civic groups are inherently troublesome to despotic regimes. It is not an accident that religious groups have been intimately involved in political revolutions throughout history. Religious groups feature an inherent call to justice, posing an automatic challenge to repressive systems. Universities, as generators of new ideas are also perennial threats to authoritarian regimes. The same can be said of newspapers, which can spin small ideas into bigger issues, and ethnic minorities, through whom one idea can be promulgated among a broader group of people. To understand the future role of civil society in China, it will be important to examine the nature of prominent civic associations and identify the terms on which they engage with the regime. Are they simply seeking the redress of minor grievances? Are they providing a benign service or forum that the state cannot? Or are they calling attention to systemic flaws in the state's model of governance?

In his Ancien Regime, Tocqueville's native France provides the basis for a study of civil society, as he seeks to understand the forces which had, prior to the revolution, managed to stifle all attempts at civic association. In poring over state documents from the pre-Revolutionary era, Tocqueville comes to understand the vast bureaucratic schemes which had prevented civic engagement and political activity. He further finds that the Revolution had adopted the same despotic features of the Old Order, again undermining the incentive for French citizens to create and engage in such civic life.

Writing on June 18, 2013, in the Wall Street Journal, Niall Ferguson worried that the American distinctive of civil society and self-organization is dying, replaced by a growing dependence on government, that America is moving away from the qualities de Tocqueville admired and toward the conditions of which de Tocqueville warned:

Tocqueville would not recognize America today. Indeed, so completely has associational life collapsed, and so enormously has the state grown, that he would be forced to conclude that, at some point between 1833 and 2013, France must have conquered the United States.

The decline of American associational life was memorably documented in Robert Puttnam's seminal 1995 essay "Bowling Alone," which documented the exodus of Americans from bowling leagues, Rotary clubs and the like. Since then, the downward trend in "social capital" has only continued. According to the 2006 World Values Survey, active membership even of religious associations has declined from just over half the population to little more than a third (37%). The proportion of Americans who are active members of cultural associations is down to 14% from 24%; for professional associations the figure is now just 12%, compared with more than a fifth in 1995. And, no, Facebook is not a substitute.

Instead of joining together to get things done, Americans have increasingly become dependent on Washington. On foreign policy, it may still be true that Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus. But when it comes to domestic policy, we all now come from the same place: Planet Government....

Genius that he was, Tocqueville saw this transformation of America coming. Toward the end of "Democracy in America" he warned against the government becoming "an immense tutelary power . . . absolute, detailed, regular . . . cover[ing] [society's] surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way."

Tocqueville also foresaw exactly how this regulatory state would suffocate the spirit of free enterprise: "It rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces [the] nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."

If that makes you bleat with frustration, there's still hope.

Hat tip to The Political Hat, who writes:

America's strength lies in its civic virtue, in particular the ability of the people to take upon themselves the duty and privilege of maintaining economic and social order, and to cherish and protect our values and heritage. It is this free interaction of free individuals to voluntarily associate their combined power, that gives us the freedom and capacity to meet the our needs and the needs of others, and to create a society that does not require the pseudo-benevolent hand of Leviathan....

Indeed, we are quickly turning into the France that de Tocqueville contrasted America to. Instead of initiative, creativeness, and virtue, we are subject to the whims of government. Rather then some type of lens through which the "volonté générale" is focused, the government has become "a system of relief operating from such a distance... bound to be capricious, sometimes misdirected, and always quite inadequate."

The civic basis of our society is thus rent asunder, such that the government assumes all the functions that were previously reserved for free men, thus diminishing those free men into dependent nouveau serfs. We do not loose these freedoms necessarily because we are explicitly forced into serfdom, but because "when the head becomes too swollen, the body develops apoplexy."

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1 Comments

Roy said:

Upon reading the first sentences of your post, I wondered if you'd mention De Tocqueville. "...count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States." Indeed. But, as you correctly reasoned, that response to civic need may not continue with anywhere the vigor De Tocqueville observed. Associations (paralleling the very clear, repeated biblical mandate that charity should flow from voluntary caring for others, a mandate God himself will enforce, thank you very much for your offered assistance, but no thanks, gov't) does not work well in buying political power.

I'd heard of Democracy in America from the time I was in my early 20's. Did not read it until decades later. My loss. Along with another great Frenchman, Frederick Bastiat, ought be expected reading with a passing a generalized, simple test on contents required for hi school graduation. Those two prove Solomon right: nothing new under the sun. What we see others trying to pawn off today, what the Belarus delegation knew experiencially, has two plus centuries ago been found wanting.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 16, 2013 8:16 AM.

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