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Civil Society – An Island Of Grass In A Sea Of Weeds

May 27, 2009

Arnold Kling writes:

The traditional libertarian solution for corrupt government is Constitutional restrictions on government activity. Smaller government means smaller scope for corruption.

I am not sure I believe that the traditional libertarian solution works. I suspect that what really makes for limited government is the opportunity for exit. In the early 1800’s, it was possible for an American to pick up and move to a remote area where government had very little impact. That possibility tended to limit the power of the central government.

I think that the big challenge for libertarians is to create conditions that enable people to exit from overbearing government. Patri Friedman’s idea is seasteading. I am a skeptic on that one.

I completely agree with the general idea that we need more exit, and more competition.  And skepticism on seasteading is no problem at all, in my book.  As I wrote in the conclusion of my Beyond Folk Activism essay:

If a fraction of the passion, thought, and capital that are wasted in libertarian folk activism were instead directed into more realistic paths, we would have a far better chance at achieving liberty in our lifetime. We must override our instinct to proselytize, and instead consciously analyze routes to reform. Whether or not you agree with my analysis of specific strategies, my time will not have been wasted if I can get more libertarians to stop bashing their heads against the incentives of democracy, to stop complaining about how people are blind to the abuse of power while themselves being blind to the stability of power, and to think about how we can make systemic changes, outside entrenched power structures, that could realistically lead to a freer world.

In other words, if you think that voting for Ron Paul or Bob Barr is the answer, while I may share your vision of a better society, when it comes to strategy I’m afraid you are part of the problem.  If like Arnold you think that seasteading won’t work but are in favor of systemic changes to increase exit and competition, you are part of the solution.  He continues:

I think we need to boost the organizations of civil society that compete with government: private schools, private firms, charities, neighborhood associations, and groups that supply public goods using the “open source” model. The term “civil societarian” is one that I coined, at least according to Wikipedia, which is itself an example of an open-source public good.

A key to averting the loss of civil society is to overcome the progressive ideology championed by Chait. That ideology amounts to an all-out assault on civil society. Picture civil society as a nice lawn, and picture government as a weed. As the weed grows, the lawn gets wiped out. Civil Societarianism is the ideology that tries to grow the lawn. Progressivism is the ideology that tries to grow the weed.

This sounds great in theory, but in practice the weeds have been wiping out the lawn for at least 75 years, perhaps 150 depending on your definitions.  A fight against progressivism is a rear-guard action, which is why I advocate a full-out retreat so that we can shift ground to someplace with terrain more suited to civil society.  There may well be specific areas, such as education reform (vouchers & charter schools) where we can grow patches of lawn, but they are going to be islands in a sea of weeds for the foreseeable future.

The metaphor is starting to strain, because we don’t really have a two-dimensional landscape.  The institutions of civil society operate within a framework constrained by government, and unfortunately, government is growing enormously in scope.  While I dream of a backlash where the Republicans reject failed neoconservativsm and move towards libertarianism, I’m not optimistic.  I see the part of the lawn accessible to civil society as continuing to shrink.  And unfortunately, it’s hard to compete against a provider of public goods that charges zero cost to users of those goods.

Education is a great example.  It’s much harder to compete with public schooling via private schooling where all your customers double-pay.  Vouchers and charter schools work much better.  But the flip-side of their public funding is government control.  You have to pass these reforms through a resistant, progressive system that believes students are best served by schools with a uniform curriculum (diversity is only for skin color), operated for the benefit of the largest union in the USA (3.2M members).  And Obama’s budget is massively increasing federal funding – and thus federal control – of this area.

I can understand why someone who finds exit options unappealing would see civil society as the answer, but I just don’t think it can have much impact.  Still, better than giving up – or campaigning for Bob Barr.

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