Civil society is all the rage these days. The term refers to the complex network of voluntary organizations in society—churches, schools, clubs, associations, businesses, labor unions, and so on. It’s being reestablished in the formerly Marxist countries, and it’s the subject of renewed attention in the West. Scholars are holding conferences and editing journals, and institutes for the study or advancement of civil society are popping up from Virginia to Vancouver to New Delhi.
But talk is cheap. These days everyone pays homage to civil society while advocating policies that undermine it at every turn. One of the clearest examples of that undermining is programs that destroy self‐help, mutual aid, and private charity. Despite the recent emphasis on welfare reform, bureaucrats across the country are still trying to drag people onto the welfare rolls, whether they want to be there or not.
Georgia has hired outreach workers to go to supermarkets and shopping malls, put flyers on pizza delivery boxes, and go into homes to recruit families into the state‐funded health care program. The federally funded Women, Infants, and Children program in New Mexico is offering “Free Food, Free Gifts” to people who bring in new clients. The New York Times reports that in the aftermath of welfare reform federal officials are “particularly concerned with the situation in New York City, where newly revamped welfare offices, now called job centers, were delaying food stamp applications and often directing applicants to private food pantries instead.”
This sort of welfare‐state imperialism takes responsibilities from individuals and communities and leaves civil society ever weaker. If government is supposed to feed the poor, then local charities aren’t needed. If a central bureaucracy downtown manages the schools, then parents’ organizations are less important. If government agencies manage the community center, teach children about sex, and care for the elderly, then families and neighborhood associations feel less needed.
Some public officials have no objection to civil society—they aren’t trying to destroy anything—they just like to write into law their every passing thought, with no consideration of the effect of their laws on the larger society: Rep. Maurice Hinchey’s bill to restrict ATM surcharges, which would surely make it less likely that we would find ATMs where and when we need them. Or Rep. Robert Wexler’s demand for an investigation of the unconscionable price of matzoh, which mysteriously seems to rise—with demand—around Passover. Or the Clinton administration’s decision to improve 86,000 public schools around the country. How? Well, as the National Journal put it, when White House staffers were trying to come up with a plan, “out popped an idea: Wield the billions of federal dollars as an instrument of statutory extortion. Either local schools do what Washington wants, or they can kiss their federal dollars goodbye.” Say goodbye to decentralization, local control, neighborhood schools, community involvement—all the elements of civil society.
Maybe the more devious enemies of civil society are those who claim to be its friends, like Reps. John Kasich and J. C. Watts and former education secretary William Bennett, all of whom have proclaimed the need for stronger families, neighborhoods, and local communities and have proposed new federal laws to subsidize families and nonprofit groups and get them further hooked on federal dollars—all in the name of independence and autonomy.
Benefits for same‐sex domestic partners are a good example of civil society trying to work out new social arrangements—and politicians intruding on that voluntary progress. As more and more gay couples seek recognition of their relationships and access to the same benefits that heterosexual married couples receive, more and more corporations are creating domestic‐partner programs. The city of San Francisco tried to hasten the process by requiring any business or association that does business with the city—ranging from United Airlines to Catholic Charities—to offer the same benefits to unmarried gay or straight couples that it does to married couples. Meanwhile, states such as Maryland and Georgia have laws forbidding insurance companies to offer marriage discounts to gay couples. Both sides want to use government to force a single solution on civil society instead of letting millions of families and businesses work out solutions at their own pace.
How do we get back to the healthy civil society that Tocqueville observed? First, reaffirm the constitutional mandate of the Tenth Amendment. That means the federal government should withdraw from areas in which it has no powers under the Constitution. Second, reestablish the “necessary and proper” clause, which requires that all federal legislation be both necessary to carrying out a constitutional function and proper for a limited government in a free society. Third, cut federal taxes, by a lot, so that people have more money to spend both on their own families and on charitable efforts. An important side effect of a substantial tax cut might be more families discovering they can live on one income and can choose to have one parent stay home to care for children. Fourth, under the principle of subsidiarity, return all the functions of civil society to the lowest level at which they can be adequately performed—the individual, the family, the church or synagogue, the neighborhood, the school, the community, if necessary the state government. Those changes would stop the creation of all the “needs” we see in today’s state‐ridden society, and Americans would once again, as Tocqueville noted, create a cornucopia of voluntary associations to solve the remaining problems.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.