Chapter 7

Civil Society

 In the libertarian view, the role of government is to protect people's rights. That is all, but that is quite enough of a task, and a government that does a good job of it deserves our respect and congratulation. The protection of rights, however, is only a minimal condition for the pursuit of happiness. As Locke and Hume argued, we establish government so that we may be secure in our lives, liberties, and property as we go about the business of surviving and flourishing.

We can barely survive, and hardly flourish, without interacting with other people. We want to associate with others to achieve instrumental ends--producing more food, exchanging goods, developing new technology--but also because we feel a deep human need for connectedness, for love and friendship and community. The associations we form with others make up what we call civil society. Those associations can take an amazing variety of forms--families, churches, schools, clubs, fraternal societies, condominium associations, neighborhood groups, and the myriad forms of commercial society, such as partnerships, corporations, labor unions, and trade associations. All of these associations serve human needs in different ways. Civil society may be broadly defined as all the natural and voluntary associations in society. Some analysts distinguish between commercial and nonprofit organizations, arguing that businesses are part of the market, not of civil society; but I follow the tradition that the real distinction is between associations that are coercive--the state--and those that are natural or voluntary--everything else. Whether a particular association is established to make a profit or to achieve some other purpose, the key characteristic is that our participation in it is voluntarily chosen. It should be noted that the associations within civil society are created to achieve a particular purpose, but civil society as a whole has no purpose; it is the undesigned, spontaneously emerging result of all those purposive associations.

Some people don't really like civil society. Karl Marx, for instance. Commenting on political freedom in an early essay, "On the Jewish Question," Marx wrote, "the so-called rights of man . . . are nothing but the rights of the member of civil society, i.e., egoistic man, man separated from other men and the community." He argued that "man as he is in civil society" is "an individual withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and separated from the community." Recall that Thomas Paine distinguished society from government, civil society from political society. Marx revives that distinction, but with a twist: He wants political society to squeeze out civil society. When people are truly free, he says, they will see themselves as citizens of the whole political community, not "decomposed" into different, non-universal roles as a trader, a laborer, a Jew, a Protestant. Each person will be "a communal being" united with all other citizens, and the state will no longer be seen as an instrument to protect rights so that individuals can pursue their selfish ends but as the entity through which everyone would achieve "the human essence [which] is the true collectivity of man." It was never made clear just how this liberation would arrive, and the actual experience of Marxist regimes was hardly liberating, but the hostility to civil society is clear enough.

Marxism is a bad word these days (as it should be), but Marx's powerful hold on so many people for so long indicates that he was on to something when he wrote about people feeling alienated and atomized. People do want to feel at least some connection to other people. In traditional, pre-capitalist communities they didn't have much choice about it; in a village, people you had known all your life were all around you. Like it or not, you couldn't avoid having a sense of community. As liberalism and the Industrial Revolution brought freedom, affluence, and mobility to more people, more and more of them chose to leave the villages of their birth, often even the countries of their birth, and go off to make a better life elsewhere. The decision to leave indicated that people expected to find a better life--and the continuing mobility and emigration, generation after generation, in modern society, would seem to indicate that people do find better opportunities in new places. But even a person who is glad he left the village or the old country may feel a loss of that tight sense of community, just as one's departure from the family to become an adult may generate a profound sense of loss even as one enjoys autonomy and independence. That's the longing to which Marxism seemed for many people to provide an answer.

Ironically, Marxism promised freedom and community but delivered tyranny and atomization. The tyranny of the Marxist countries is well known, but it may not be so well understood that Marxism created a society far more atomized than anything in the capitalist world. The Marxist rulers in the Soviet empire in the first place believed theoretically that men under conditions of "true freedom" would have no need for organizations catering to their individual interests, and in the second place understood practically that independent associations would threaten the power of the state--so they not only eliminated private economic activity, they sought to stamp out churches, independent schools, political organizations, neighborhood associations, and everything else down to the garden clubs. After all, the theory went, such non-universal organizations contributed to atomization. What happened, of course, was that people deprived of any form of community and connectedness between the family and the all-powerful state became atomistic individuals with a vengeance. As the philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner wrote, "The system created isolated, amoral, cynical individualists-without-opportunity, skilled at double-talk and trimming." The normal ways in which people were tied to their neighbors, their fellow parishioners, the people with whom they did business, were destroyed, leaving people suspicious and distrustful of one another, seeing no reason to cooperate with others or even to treat them with respect.

The even greater irony, perhaps, was that Marxism eventually produced a renewed appreciation for civil society. As the corruption of the Brezhnev years faded into the liberalization under Gorbachev, people began to look for an alternative to socialism, and they found it in civil society, the concept of pluralism and freedom of association. The billionaire investor George Soros, eager to liberate the land of his birth (Hungary) and its neighbors, began by making large contributions not to bring about political revolution but to rebuild civil society. He sought to subsidize everything from chess clubs to independent newspapers, to get people once again working together in non-state institutions. The burgeoning of civil society was not the only factor in the restoration of freedom to Central and Eastern Europe, but a stronger civil society will help to protect the new freedom, as well as supplying all the other benefits that people can only achieve in association.

Even people who aren't Marxists share some of Marx's concerns about community and atomization. Communitarian philosophers, who believe individuals must necessarily be seen as part of a community, worry that people in the West, especially in the United States, overemphasize claims to individual rights at the expense of the community. Their view of our relationship to others could be represented as a series of concentric circles: an individual is part of a family, a neighborhood, a city, a metropolitan area, a state, a nation. The implication of these arguments is that we sometimes forget to focus on all the circles and that we should somehow be encouraged to do so.

But are the circles merely concentric? A better way to understand community in the modern world is as a series of intersecting circles, with myriad complex connections among them. Each of us has many ways of relating to other people--precisely what Marx complained of and libertarians celebrate. One person may be a wife, mother, daughter, sister, cousin; an employee of one business, an owner of another, a stockholder in others; a renter and a landlord; an officer in a condominium association; active in the Little League and the Boy Scouts; a member of the Presbyterian Church; a precinct worker for the Democratic party; a member of a professional association; a member of a bridge club, a Jane Austen fan club, a feminist consciousness-raising group, a neighborhood crimewatch, and more. (True, this particular person probably feels pretty frazzled, but at least in principle one can have an indefinite number of associations and connections.) Most of these associations serve a particular purpose--to make money, to reduce crime, to help one's children--but they also give people connections with other people. No one of them, however, exhausts one's personality and defines one completely. (One can approximate such exhaustive definition by joining an all-embracing religious community, say, a Roman Catholic order of contemplative nuns, but such choices are voluntary and--because one can't alienate one's right to make choices--reversible.)

In this libertarian conception we connect to different people in different ways on the basis of free and voluntary consent. Ernest Gellner says that modern civil society requires "modular man." Instead of a man who is entirely the product of and absorbed by a particular culture, modular man "can combine into specific-purpose, ad hoc, limited associations, without binding himself by some blood ritual." He can form links with others "which are effective even though they are flexible, specific, instrumental."

As individuals combine in myriad ways, community emerges; not the close community of the village, or the messianic community promised by Marxism, national socialism, and all-fulfilling religions, but a community of free individuals in voluntarily chosen associations. Individuals do not emerge from community; community emerges from individuals. It emerges not because anyone plans it, certainly not because the state creates it, but because it must. To fulfill their needs and desires, individuals must combine with others. Society is an association of individuals governed by legal rules, or perhaps an association of associations--but not one large community, or one family, in Mario Cuomo's and Pat Buchanan's utterly misguided conception. The rules of the family or small group are not, cannot be, the rules of the extended society.

The distinction between individual and community can be misleading. Some critics say that community involves a surrender of one's individuality. But membership in a group need not diminish one's individuality; it can amplify it, by freeing people from the limits they face as lone individuals and increasing their opportunities to achieve their own goals. Such a view of community requires that membership be chosen, not compulsory.


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