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In Praise of Civil Societarianism

February 25, 2010

Arnold Kling coined the term, I’d like to return to it. The idea is that a necessary condition for freedom is a robust and diverse civil society. Not only do these voluntary non-market institutions satisfy our innate need for community, but, when strong enough, they provide a powerful check on centralizing and authoritarian tendencies in governance. They also serve to shape character, establish rites of passage, and provide aid and care to the worst off. Communitarian thinking is most useful when addressing the importance of these institutions to our well-being. The philosophy is at its worst when this is used to rationalize a pervasive, soul-crafting national government.

I highly recommend Robert Nisbet’s 1953  book The Quest for Community. It’s a conservative’s Road to Serfdom, so you can expect insightful social commentary and thought-provoking literary references, but little in the way economic history or explanation. Still, the book makes some compelling points. Nisbet explains the rise of totalitarian government as the outcome of two facts: the hollowing out of civil society and the inveterate human need for a group identity. When all the intermediary institutions between the individual and the state are razed, Nisbet says the individual finds refuge from the resulting alienation in the State. Patrick Deneen at the Front Porch Republic has a good summary of the thesis:

Nisbet saw the modern rise of Fascism and Communism as the predictable consequence of the early-modern liberal attack upon smaller associations and communities – shorn of those memberships, modern liberal man sought belonging through distant and abstract State entities.  In turn, those political entities offered a new form of belonging by adopting the evocations and imagery of those memberships that they had displaced, above all by offering a new form of quasi-religious belonging, now in the Church of the State itself.  Our “community” was now to be a membership of countless fellow humans who held in common an abstract allegiance to a political entity that would assuage all of our loneliness, alienation and isolation.

This is not too far from the last presidential campaign; each party serves as a community and candidates present themselves as a salve to assuage feelings of hopelessness.  In fifty years the trend has not abated.

I’m not as certain as Kling that a stronger civil society will act as an effective check on government power. Maybe at the city and state level. But the Feds dwarf everyone. That’s not to diminish the importance these institutions have for our well-being. Penn State football serves a very valuable social purpose. But the benefits of community will always seem picayune when compared to multiplying vices of national stagflation.


  1. kurt9 permalink
    February 26, 2010 5:27 pm

    My other problem with communitarianism is that it is often nothing more than justification for rent-seeking.

  2. Mike Gibson permalink*
    February 26, 2010 3:28 pm

    I did not mean to imply anything to the contrary.

    • kurt9 permalink
      February 26, 2010 5:26 pm

      Oh, I know you don’t. It does seem to be the nature of communitarian types to push for more than voluntary compliance.

      Communitarianism does not work for me simply because I don’t have that much in common with most people.

  3. kurt9 permalink
    February 26, 2010 2:35 am

    This is all fine and dandy. However, the key point is that all association, regardless of the size of the group, must be voluntary in order to be civil. Coercion has no place in civil society.

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