David Boaz: In the past couple of decades, there’s been a lot more talk about civil society than there had been before that. A lot of people use the term civil society to mean everything that’s neither the government nor business, the commercial sector. I use a different, and I think, older definition, which is it’s all the voluntary connections among people, everything that is not the coercive State. So it includes business as well as churches, clubs, neighborhoods, communities, the people on your street, all of the connections among people that are not coercive, which would be the State.
We need to cooperate with other people in order to live flourishing human lives. We talk about individualism. Libertarians believe in individualism. But we don’t believe in what academics call atomistic individualism. We want people to flourish. And most of us need to work with other people to flourish. Now there may be a few people who can go out the mountain men of the 19th century, a few people as a TV show call the Last Alaskans or something, the last few people living in the national wildlife refuge. Maybe a few people feel they can flourish that way. Most of us don’t feel that way. We want to have lovers and families and neighbors and coworkers and all of those kinds of connections. So we need to cooperate. We want to cooperate with other people in order to live fully human lives. We understand that cooperation is essential to human flourishing. In fact, we like cooperation so much, we want social institutions that make it possible, and that is the institutions built on the idea of don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises. So we have police to ensure that we don’t go around raping and murdering and assaulting and robbing. And we have rules against theft and robbery and embezzlement and fraud. And we have contracts that ensure that people will keep their promises. And those very simple rules allow us then to cooperate. Whether that means setting up a chess club or setting up a lemonade stand or building computer networks that span the globe, all those kinds of things are the cooperation that are part of civil society.
Marxists and other critics sometimes accuse libertarians of social atomism. They say, “You don’t want cooperation. You don’t want community. You want each person to be an atomized individual.” I just think basically that’s ridiculous. I don’t know any libertarian who wants that. And it’s pretty clear that markets and civil society do not create social atomism.
In a pre‐capitalist community, you kind of know your place. If your father was a duke, you’re going to be a duke. If your father was an earl, you’re going to be an earl. In some societies, though not the Catholic Church, if your father was a priest, you’re going to be a priest. If your father was a serf, you’re a serf and your son is going to be a serf. And there’s some value to that. It’s comforting. You know your place in the world. There’s a value to knowing your place in the world. For one thing, it may discourage social anxiety, status anxiety. We’re all worried about our place in the world. Hey, if your place in the world is predetermined, then you don’t have to worry about that.
When you grow up in a family, you know your place in that family. And when you leave the family, that’s probably a good thing. You’re going to go out into the wider world and make your own way. But those of you who have recently gone to college, you may have felt some pangs when you left home, that you’re leaving something you know, something that’s comfortable. So it’s understandable that immediately, you might feel atomized when you arrive at college. You don’t know anybody. You don’t know the social rules. You knew the rules back home.
Marxists say libertarianism, capitalism leads to atomization. I think the evidence is pretty clear. Capitalism has led to the most diverse and complex forms of cooperation and community ever seen on earth. What did Marxism deliver instead? Marxism promised freedom and community, but it delivered tyranny and atomization. It delivered tyranny because when you give one politburo power over all the resources in society, you inevitably give them all power. They can decide who lives and who dies. If you don’t get resources from those people, you will die. There’s no alternative. There’s no other store. There’s no other bank you can borrow from. And then they delivered atomization because this creates a war of all against all. Anything somebody else has has been taken from the common pot, and it means it was taken from you. That’s not true in a free market society. Free market society is a positive sum gain. There’s always more being produced. In a state‐dominated society, if it’s fully state‐dominated the way Marxism delivered, then there’s probably not much in the pot, and anything that goes to somebody else’s children is not going to your children, and that creates atomization. You come to regard every other person as a potential enemy. You want to get atomization? Try that. Flourishing as humans requires cooperation. And the institutions of liberalism, of libertarianism, make that possible.
Some people say that we don’t have enough community in the United States, and there’s more community in socialist systems. Socialism promises perfectionism. It says that we don’t all have to disagree on the way to live a good life. There’s one good life, and new socialist man will live that, and we’ll all live the same way, and we’ll all share and share alike, and that will bring us into community. But the reality is sharing and sharing alike doesn’t create that.
I heard a lecture recently by an older professor who when he was young, he said he felt unwelcome growing up Jewish in Great Britain. This must’ve been the 1950s. So he went to Israel to live on a kibbutz. And share and share alike, we’re all going to be in this together. We’re all going to produce together. He said one of the first things that shocked him was the kitchen was locked. If it’s all common property, why is the kitchen locked? Well, he came to understand if the common property is unlocked, people will go in and take some, and that won’t work. Then there won’t be enough left. Whereas if the kitchen is open but there’s a price on everything in it, then people weigh how much do they really need, how much is it worth. And they’ll buy more when they need it. So socialism does not deliver the perfectionism and community that it promises. It delivers everybody looking at everybody else as somebody who’s trying to break into the kitchen.
Socialism also eliminates business and civil society. Robert Heilbroner was an excellent writer, a good economist, a prominent American writer, still read, I think, in American universities. And he wrote one of the most honest articles about socialism I’ve ever read where he said, “Under socialism, true socialism, every dissenting voice is like political dissent in a totalitarian society. It can’t be allowed.” So we have to understand, to have socialism, we’re going to have to give up our million liberties, i.e. those defined by John Stuart Mill. When he died, I eulogized him as an honest socialist, the man who told the truth. He understood what socialism would really be about. You eliminate all business. You eliminate civil society because all these different clubs and things detract from the larger community. You end up with the individual and the State, and no mediating institutions. That’s not a good situation, gives you the war of all against all because every individual is just helpless against the State and is regarding all of his neighbors as trying to cheat him.
Communitarians talk a lot about civil society, but I think they miss the main understanding of it. They complain that there’s too much individualism and too many rights in modern society. So they recognize moral pluralism, and they’re trying to remedy the fact of moral pluralism by putting the power of government behind a particular conception. They’re saying, “Our communitarian vision is the way people ought to live together, and so we’ll use government to ensure that people live together in this way.” Sometimes they see life as concentric circles. You have your family, and then you have your extended family, and you have your neighborhood, and you have your community and your city and your nation. That’s the wrong way to look at it. We all live in a bunch of overlapping circles, intersecting circles. You may be a member of one church, but not all your friends are members of that church. You may be interested in sports, but not all your brothers are interested in sports. So you share different things in common with lots of different people. You’re not just a little cog inside a series of circles. You’re participating with people in a much more complex diagram. That gives you a community of free individuals in voluntarily chosen associations. And in that sense, libertarians would say individuals do not emerge from community. We don’t start with the community and then sort of create individuals. Community emerges from individuals. Some people come intern at the Cato Institute. Other people want to go on Habitat for Humanity trips. Other people spend the summer training for a sports team. Other people go into business. In all these different ways, people make choices and they create many different communities. They’re all part of a geographical community, but you don’t have to be part of any one. And civil society encompasses all of that. As long as it’s not coercive, the churches, the clubs, the charities, the neighborhoods, the businesses, they’re all part of civil society.
Question: In some groups in civil society, we’re simply born in. We did not choose. But are they still not important towards our choice? Like for instance, our families, we don’t really get to choose as children whether we should follow our parents or not, and even the type of family that we would get in certain societies. But would they not still count towards how we would see choice, even though we haven’t really picked them?
David Boaz: That’s an interesting question. And actually, I said civil society is all the associations in society that are not coercive. Arguably, we should say all the associations that are not coercive or natural. And the natural association would be the family. So yes, you are born into the family. At some point, when you’re 18, 21, whatever, you make a continuing choice to be part of your family. But yes, the family you’re born into isn’t really a choice. And choice is sort of on a spectrum. Did everybody choose their religion? A whole lot of people joined the church their parents are members of. However, they do have the option to choose. They have the option to walk away. Neighborhoods, I mean you’re born into a neighborhood as well, and so you’re sort of part of that society. But at some point, you have the choice to stay in that neighborhood or move. But I think family might be in a different category because of that.