The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Civil Society

The concept of civil society is a central one for most contemporary political theorists and social analysts. As such, it is of great importance for all political ideologies, including libertarianism. Essentially, the term civil society refers to the sphere of uncoerced collective action, as opposed to individual action, on the one hand, and government, on the other hand. In other words, it is the term used to describe the total range of voluntary social institutions that derive from the free association and cooperation of individuals in pursuit of a common interest, as opposed to the institutions of government, which ultimately rest on force. Thus, it includes clubs, unions and associations, firms, and a whole range of informal and ad hoc social institutions that are produced by repeated social interaction among individuals. The category of civil society is thus contrasted to that of government or the state, with the former deriving from voluntary choice and cooperation and the latter ultimately from coercion (however, this fact may be justified as necessary or desirable). It also has been contrasted, in much social theory since the 1890s, with the idea of a mass society that is a social order composed of unconnected individuals who lead essentially private and personal lives without participating or engaging in shared activities or cooperative endeavors.

The status of some institutions is ambiguous or may vary according to historical circumstances. Thus, churches are considered a part of civil society in places such as the United States, which have a strict separation of church and state, but would not fall under that rubric in most historical regimes where there was an established church that was intimately entwined with government and to which people were compelled to belong. Political parties are part of civil society in a pluralistic democracy, but not in an actual or de facto one-party state such as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or Mexico for much of the 20th century because of the intimate connection between the party and the institutions of the state.

More problematic and difficult is the status and location of the family and larger kin groups such as the tribe or clan. For some, these groups count as part of civil society. However, many of the important theorists of the concept exclude them and make civil society something that fills the gap between the larger community of the state and the smaller level community of the family or household (e.g., Hegel adopted this position). This view also reflects the concrete reality that families and kin groups are not voluntary organizations in the way that clubs or associations are: As the well-known saying has it, you can choose your friends, but not your relatives. The idea of the family being part of civil society derives from the fact that marriage in some societies is the outcome of a voluntary choice, but this voluntarism is never the case for children and is often not true for spouses, both historically and in many contemporary cases.

As was the case with the notion of public opinion, the concept of civil society was formulated and developed in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. It was first articulated by the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the most important of whom were Henry Home, Lord Kames, and Adam Ferguson. Ferguson in particular worked out the outlines of the notion in his Essay on the History of Civil Society, published in 1767. As the title suggests, he saw civil society as having a history and, therefore, as being produced by a process of development in which society became more commercial and “polished,” a development that was accompanied by greater complexity and variation in the connections and associations among individuals. Subsequently, the idea was elaborated and developed by Hegel, most prominently in his Philosophy of Right, in which he clearly distinguished the institutions of civil society from those of both the family and political realms. He also made the progressive development of civil society and its constituent institutions a central aspect of his dialectical model of historical development or unfolding. Subsequent German theorists coined the term Zivilgesselschaft, by which the concept became generally known in 19th-century Europe. Several other 19th-century thinkers made important contributions to the topic. Alexis de Tocqueville saw the existence and growing complexity of “intermediate institutions” between the individual and the state as one of the essential features of modernity. In Democracy in America, he argued that the strength of these institutions was a distinctive feature of the United States in particular and the Anglo-Saxon world in general, in contrast to his native France. Like Ferguson and Tocqueville, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that the increasing density and variety of voluntary connections among individuals was a crucial aspect of modernity. However, he also introduced the idea of a mass society of atomized and deracinated individuals as another possible outcome of modern industrial society. Sir Henry Sumner Maine was responsible for the notion that an important part of the development of civil society was the gradual movement from a condition where most social relations were governed by status to one marked by contractual agreements, both formal and informal.

In the early 20th century, the idea of civil society was important for pluralists such as John Neville Figgis and the young Harold Laski, who employed it to criticize the orthodox doctrine of political sovereignty. However, during the first half of the 20th century, the notion was not as widely employed as was the case during the previous 100 years. With the advent of the cold war, however, it underwent a revival among both political scientists and sociologists. At this time, the concept of totalitarianism became increasingly important in social analysis, especially as an aspect of the critique of regimes such as those of Nazi Germany and communist Russia and China. It was argued that one of the distinctive features of such regimes was the lack of independent, voluntarist institutions and the total domination of every aspect of life by the party state. The idea of civil society was thus elaborated to explain what was absent in totalitarian regimes. Further, following Tocqueville and others, civil society was explicitly linked to both democratic politics and personal liberty. The last 50 years or so have witnessed a great deal of research and writing on the subject by a number of authors. Among the most important are Gabriel Almond, Sidney Verba, Robert Putnam, Elinor Ostrom, and Hans-Jürgen Habermas. The concept is a central one for the school of communitarian thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, and Will Kymlicka.

This renewed interest among social theorists of all ideological views points to the fact that the concept is not peculiar to, or even strongly associated with, libertarians. Nevertheless, the notion is central to much libertarian thought. It provides one of the ideas that links libertarian thought to broader questions in social and political analysis, an area in which libertarians have drawn on and made use of arguments and ideas developed by nonlibertarians such as Ostrom, Habermas, and Putnam. At the same time, they have been critical of some of the analyses made by such theorists, in particular the positions adopted by communitarian writers such as Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel.

Libertarians, for the most part, accept the notion of civil society as described here and conceive it as beneficial and desirable. From their point of view, autonomous individuals pursuing their own ends or life projects do so not as isolated atomistic individuals—as the caricature of libertarianism would have it—but as social beings who can flourish and realize their full potential only through a net of relations with other people. What is important from the libertarian perspective is that the mutually beneficial relationships between individuals through which this flourishing takes place is voluntary and consensual, rather than coerced. These should not be the product of power- or status- based relations. The institutions of civil society are vital for human flourishing and are the product of the free action of individuals peacefully pursuing their goals while living peacefully with everyone else. As such, they are the embodiment of the spontaneous order of social cooperation produced by Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty,” or the great society as Hayek termed it. Such voluntary cooperation also is the means by which shared or collective goals are realized without resorting to compulsion or the coercion of dissenters or those who do not share the goal in question. This notion is particularly relevant in the case of social welfare, where libertarians have consistently favored resolving and addressing social problems through the medium of civil society via free cooperation and voluntary institutions such as mutual aid associations, rather than by government action. This view of civil society is not in conflict with that of theorists such as Habermas, but is distinct because it emphasizes voluntary cooperation and the way this cooperation creates institutions and practices, rather than the conversational or interactive aspect of the process, which Habermas stresses.

Moreover, for most libertarians, civil society as so understood is not only the product of liberty, of free choice, but also a defense of it. The institutions of civil society, they argue, provide a buffer against power and act as a protective cushion between the individual and the ruling groups in society, the state and state-linked institutions. Isolated individuals do not have the capacity to resist or withstand the power of the state, whereas the collective institutions of civil society make resistance to that power much easier. Libertarian intellectuals such as Albert Jay Nock noted that this pointed up the contrast between social and political power. Thus, not only are civil society and social power a protection against political power and force, but the growth of government and political power constitutes threats to civil society and peaceful social cooperation. For libertarians, a mass society of isolated atomized individuals, first diagnosed by Durkheim, was the product of the growth of government and the extension of political power inasmuch as these inevitably undermine and crowd out the private and voluntary means of realizing individual and collective goals. Massive government produces a situation where no collective yet voluntary institutions can exist, but only individuals on the one side and government on the other, with individual men and women in a position of childlike dependence and subservience. Thus, the threat posed to civil society by overweening political power becomes one of the principal arguments against that very power.

The experience of the last 100 years has led libertarians to reject the optimistic historical perspective of their 18thand early 19th-century forbears, with civil society steadily becoming richer and more variegated. Rather, they tend to see an oscillating process in which the balance between civil society and government shifts one way and then another, often with a movement in one direction in one area of life matched by a shift in the opposite direction elsewhere. Thus, there are divergent responses from libertarians to the arguments of contemporary authors such as Robert Putnam. He has argued, in Bowling Alone, that there has been a decline in the institutions of civil society in recent years, with a consequent reduction in what he terms social capital. Some libertarians, while in the main agreeing with his diagnosis, also blame the growth of government as the underlying cause. Others reject his analysis and argue that there has not been a decline in the richness and density of civil society of the kind Putnam identifies, but rather a transformation in its content and in the kind of personal relations of which it is comprised. This division among libertarians is partly a product of the difference between an optimistic and a pessimistic view of the present and in part due to differences over how to evaluate the new kinds of “virtual” community and civil society created by modern communications technologies.

Finally, while supporting and using the idea of civil society, libertarians are resistant to the kinds of arguments about it made by communitarians. Authors such as Charles Taylor have argued for a socially constituted self that is created by the institutions and practices of civil society and that, in reality, individual choices are and should be radically constrained by those collective institutions and conventions. Libertarians reject this notion both as a description and as a program largely on the grounds of methodological and ethical individualism. For them it is still the individual who is the primary component of social action and his or her choices and interactions that produce civil society. Normatively, they reject the notion that there is or should be a collective purpose or project embodied in the institutions of civil society in which individuals participate. Rather, civil society serves the interests of individuals and helps them to realize their personal life projects in a way that involves cooperation with others rather than conflict.


Further Readings

Eberly, Don E., ed. The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Edwards, Michael. Civil Society. London: Polity, 2004.

Ehrenberg, John. Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Ferguson, Adam. Essay on the History of Civil Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hall, John A. Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison. London: Polity, 1995.

Hodgkinson, Virginia, and Michael W. Foley, eds. The Civil Society Reader: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Boston: Tufts University Press, 2003.

Kaviraj, Sudipta, and Sunil Khilnani, eds. Civil Society: History and Possibilities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Keane, John. Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

———. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. London: Penguin, 2003.

Originally published .