SECOND THOUGHTS ON CIVIL SOCIETY
12:00 AM, Sep 9, 1996 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
I would think that it is not just contrariness on my part that makes me wince, these days, on hearing talk of civil society. Liberals and conservatives, communitarians and libertarians, Democrats and Republicans, academics and politicians appeal to civil society as the remedy for our dire condition. They agree upon little else but this, that mediating structures, voluntary associations, families, communities, churches, and workplaces are the corrective to an inordinate individualism and an overweening state.
The ubiquity of the phrase is enough to make it suspect. What can it mean if people of such diverse views can invoke it so enthusiastically? I am as critical as anyone (perhaps more than most) of an individualism that is self- absorbed and self-indulgent, obsessively concerned with the rights, liberties, and choices of the "autonomous" person. And I am no less critical of a state that has usurped the authority of those institutions in civil society which once mitigated that excessive individualism. But I am also wary of civil society used as a rhetorical panacea, as if the mere invocation of the term is a solution to all problems -- an easy, painless solution, a happy compromise between two extremes.
Civil society is indeed in a sorry condition. The welfare state is a classic case of the appropriation by government of the functions traditionally performed by families and localities. Neighbors feel no obligation to help one another when they can call upon the government for assistance. Private and religious charities are often little more than conduits of the state for the distribution of public funds (and are obliged to distribute those funds in accord with the requirements fixed by government bureaucrats).
But it is not only the weakness of civil society that is at fault. Some of the institutions of civil society -- private schools and universities, unions and non-profit foundations, civic and cultural organizations -- are stronger and more influential than ever. And they have been complicitous in fostering the very evils that civil society is supposed to mitigate. The individualistic ideology of rights and the statist ideology of big government are reflected in the causes that these institutions have promoted: feminism, multiculturalism, affirmative action, political correctness.
Proponents of civil society try to rescue the concept by specifying that the mediating structures they are talking about are not these large, bureaucratic, quasi- public institutions, but small, voluntary, face-to-face groups. But these too are sometimes part of the problem rather than the solution. The family, the most basic and intimate unit of civil society, is hardly a paragon of virtue. For a long time social workers, committed to the family as the natural, proper habitat for the child, made every effort to keep abused children with their abusive parents. Only recently, confronted with cases of the most flagrant cruelty, have some of them been persuaded to remove those children from their "dysfunctional families," as the euphemism has it.
Nor is the face-to-face principle reliable in other instances. It is instructive to recall that a great impetus to the ideology of absolute individual rights and freedom of choice came from small, neighborly, face-to-face groups in the early 1970s -- the consciousness-raising sessions that heralded the feminist movement. Today, we have other face-to-face groups -- neighborhood gangs, for example -- that by this definition qualify as members of civil society but are hardly what the proponents of civil society have in mind.
What is required, then, is not only a restoration of civil society but the far more difficult task of reformation-moral reformation. Even to articulate the problem is difficult, because the language of morality has become suspect. One of the reasons the idea of civil society is so attractive is that it is couched in the language of sociology, which speaks of society in structural and functional terms. In ordinary times, that language is sufficient for purposes of analysis and reform, because underlying those structures and functions is a moral consensus that is taken for granted, values that may not be articulated but that are the bedrock of society. It is only when that consensus is shattered that we are driven to reexamine those values to try to understand why our mediating structures have failed.
The sociological mode is also congenial because it conforms to the relativistic temper of our time. Structures and functions are malleable; they may take one form or another depending upon time, place, and circumstance. Sociologists have assured us that the so-called "breakdown" (in quotation marks) of the family is nothing more than the replacement of the "nuclear," "bourgeois" family by new forms performing the same function: single-parent families, or families consisting of stepparents, grandparents, "cohabitors," or (the latest variant on this theory) "pure relationships" of friends who assume the role and function of kin.
This capacious view of the family has been shaken recently by a substantial body of empirical evidence demonstrating that not all families are structurally and functionally equivalent, that some forms (the fatherless family, most notably) are more inclined than others to be "dysfunctional," contributing to the "social pathology" of crime, violence, illegitimacy, illiteracy, welfare dependency, and the like. Even now, however, we shy away from the language of morality. We speak of the "dysfunctional" family, as if the problem is only functional, or of "social" pathology, as if society is at fault for these ills, or "alternative lifestyles," as if they are true alternatives and mere styles.
It is because we cannot face up to the moral nature of the problem that we look for solutions that are at best irrelevant and sometimes counterproductive. Take the efforts being made to force deadbeat fathers to meet their child-support payments. On the face of it, such measures seem eminently fair and sensible. Surely, the father should assume financial responsibility for his children and help the hard-pressed mother stay off the relief rolls. But money itself is not the problem; the real problem is the absence of the father. And that problem may actually be aggravated if these measures succeed, for the absent father will feel that he has met his obligations by making those payments, and the single mother, assured of a regular income, will feel free to enter into the most casual relationships and have children without any commitment of marriage. The cash- nexus, as Marxists used to say, is not a viable basis for society -- certainly not a viable basis for the family.
Or compare the best intentioned divorced father today with the typical immigrant father a generation or two ago (or some immigrant fathers today). The divorced father may make a sincere effort to give "quality time" to his children, spend the occasional weekend with them, take them to a ballgame, and attend their school plays. The immigrant father, on the other hand, leaving for work early in the morning and returning late in the evening, had no time to play with his children or share in their activities, and in any case could not have done so because of the cultural gap. Yet he was the better father, one suspects, because he was a permanent, reliable, secure presence in the household -- a moral presence whose commitment to his family was unqualified and unproblematic.
When we speak of the breakdown of the family, it is a moral breakdown we are talking about. And when we speak of the restoration of civil society it is a moral restoration we should seek. That restoration may actually take us outside the realm of civil society, for the mediating structures of civil society are themselves dependent on the well-being of the individuals who participate in them and of the state that protects and legitimizes them.
It is the individual, after all, who is called upon to be a good mother or father, a considerate neighbor and responsible citizen. The devolution, for example, of welfare to state and local governments is only superficially a structural reform. The objective is the reform of the recipients of welfare by fostering those virtues -- work, diligence, self- reliance, self-discipline -- that make for more responsible individuals and better members of civil society. Similarly, tax deductions for charitable contributions are meant not only to increase the amount of money donated to charity but also to encourage the virtue of charity, to bring out what the Victorian philosopher T. H. Green called the "best self" of the individual.
If the individual requires "remoralization," so does the state. It is often said that one cannot legislate morality. Yet we have done just that. Civil rights legislation has succeeded in illegitimizing racist conduct, morally as well as legally. Or a welfare system that subsidizes illegitimacy implicitly legitimizes it. Or a school that distributes condoms legitimizes promiscuity. Or a "no fault" divorce code, by de-stigmatizing divorce, legitimizes it. Or a court decision that disallows the posting of the Ten Commandments in a public school or prayer on a public occasion illegitimizes the public expression of religious beliefs and sentiments.
For good or bad, the state is as much the repository and transmitter of values as are the institutions of civil society. Legislation, judicial decisions, administrative regulations, educational requirements, the tax codes are all instruments of legitimization -- or illegitimization. The appeal to civil society is a salutary corrective to big government, but should not be taken as an invitation to demean government itself. Especially at this time, when so many traditional institutions are being undermined, we should be wary of the subversion of our political institutions. Moreover, it is just now that we have need of all the resources available to us -- public and private, secular and religious, governmental and civic. Edmund Burke's "little platoons" has become the slogan of civil society. But Burke also paid tribute to the state as "a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection." We often have good reason to deplore that partnership, but we cannot deny it or ignore it.
By all means, then, let us restore and reform civil society. But let it be a tougher civil society than that envisaged by many who speak in its name. The recent debate on welfare, suggesting that private charities assume a greater responsibility for relief, may have contributed to a softer view of civil society by identifying it with the "caring" or "nurturing" virtues: compassion, tolerance, generosity, benevolence. But there is another set of virtues traditionally promoted by civil society, the "vigorous" virtues, as Shirley Letwin, the biographer of Lady Thatcher, calls them: adventurousness, energy, independence, courage.
The two are not incompatible. It was Margaret Thatcher, herself a vigorous proponent of those virtues, who revived the idea of "Victorian virtues" (or "Victorian values," as the term was corrupted by reporters), recalling a period when both orders of virtues coexisted happily. The great entrepreneurs of the Victorian age were also the great philanthropists. Self-help and helping others were two sides of the same coin. "We have to use charity," said the secretary of the Charity Organisation Society, "to create the powers of self-help." Samuel Smiles, author of the bestseller Self-Help, also wrote a book entitled Duty extolling that other Victorian virtue, responsibility to others.
If civil society is to promote the vigorous as well as the nurturing virtues, it has to be vigorous in pursuit of both. That vigor is notably lacking among many of its present advocates, who think that by calling for a restoration of civil society, they are absolved of making those hard choices that will actually restrain the excesses of individualism and statism. For some, civil society has become little more than a surrogate for the state, charged with doing everything the state is currently doing; it is the welfare state "with a human face." Others (sometimes the same people) assure us that civil society need not infringe on individual rights and the freedom of choice; it can curb pornography without resorting to anything like censorship, or criminality without any diminution of civil liberties (or what has come to be regarded as such), or the breakdown of the family without any restrictions on divorce or any prejudice against alternative lifestyles. It is also remarkable how often civil society is invoked without any reference to one of its most important institutions, the churches; having driven religion out of the public square, many proponents of civil society would also like to see it removed from that semi- public square known as civil society.
Above all, what is generally lacking in the discussion of civil society is any reference to morality and moral sanctions; instead we are more likely to be warned against any display of " moralism" and "judgmentalism." We are permitted to acclaim charity, compassion, and neighborliness as virtues, but not to "stigmatize" illegitimacy, promiscuity, or chronic dependency as vices. And they may not be stigmatized either by word or deed -- by language suggesting that they are discreditable, or policies that deem them unworthy of public support.
Yet this is precisely the function of civil society: to encourage moral behavior and discourage -- which is to say, stigmatize -- immoral behavior. The mechanisms of approbation and disapprobation are all the more necessary in a liberal society, for the more effective the social sanctions, the less need there is for the legal and penal sanctions of the state. If the advocates of civil society are serious in their desire to mediate between the individual and the state, they have to endow civil society with the authority to do so. They have to be as candid in censuring vice as they are in applauding virtue. They have to restore not only the institutions of civil society but the force of social and moral suasion. Only then will civil society be what Tocqueville took it to be: the essential constituent of a liberal and democratic society.
Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author, most recently, of The De-Moralization of Society (Alfred A. Knopf).