Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Does Small Government Mean Big Civil Society?

I ran across an interesting, late 90's era document from the Cato Insitute entitled "Restoring Civil Society."  What fascinated me about it is the notion that big government and vibrant civil society are somewhat mutually exclusive.  It reads like a 90's era Newt style manifesto; it makes some provocative points.  Here is an excerpt from the full document:

The Condition of Civil Society

Restoring civil society is a moral imperative. There is no more important issue on the political agenda today. The picture, however, is not an entirely bleak one, for the retreat of civil society in the face of advancing political society has been uneven. In some areas, civil society has even advanced, as political society has been restrained and pushed back; notable examples are the partial but progressive deregulation in recent decades of telecommunications, which has opened up so many opportunities for people to communicate and form new communities, and of financial services, which has allowed individuals and families greater control over their own investments. Despite all the advances of political society in recent decades, America still has a vigorous and robust civil society that provides employment for nearly 130 million persons, generates $7.5 trillion in annual production, and brings forth technological innovation on a daily basis. And charity and mutual aid are also growing in civil society; Americans gave $125 billion to private charities last year, and mutual aid organizations from Alcoholics Anonymous to the Promise Keepers to shelters for battered women offer mutual support to help individuals become stronger and more virtuous and to resist the temptations of irresponsible or self-destructive behavior.

The overall thrust of the document is that "political society" or government sponsored efforts to deal with social problems and inequalities are bad, grass roots movements to do the same are good.  I wonder if it is really just a sophisticated and disguised argument against redistributive policies.


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It is not "just a sophisticated and disguised argument against redistributive policies." It is interesting to me that you would frame it in those terms. While the concept of civil society acting instead of government intervention may have distributional consequences, the fact is that it seeks to address the same social ills as redistributive policies, but in a manner which is compatible with human nature and beneficial to society. My understanding is that it is rooted in the concepts of "subsidiarity" and "solidarity," largely drawn from the Catholic social teaching, and also from free market/libertarian economic thought.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 20, 2008 7:06:50 PM

Hello (again) Patrick. Perhaps my cynical nature is showing. I hardly believe, though, that redistribution of wealth is part of our "human nature" and would occur in anything close to sufficient quantities without some form of government coercion. Civil society would not suddenly spring up in sufficient amounts if government social welfare policies would just get out of the way. The recognition of that fact is precisely why we have a tax system -- to coerce redistribution of wealth for the public good -- redistribution that is most certainly contrary to human nature, else why have a tax system. So you need not ponder my choice of words. They are quite intentional and you have correctly, albeit implicitly, understood their meaning.

Posted by: Darryll Jones | Feb 21, 2008 8:10:20 AM

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