Reviving Civil Society

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York—www.fee.org.This essay has been adapted for CEIL by the author from his essay of the same title in the September 1996 issue of FEE’s journal, “The Freeman.”


“Taxes,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “are what we pay for civilized society.” But as economist Mark Skousen once argued, a much better case can be made that taxation is actually the price we pay for the lack of civilization. If people took better care of themselves, their families, and those in need around them, government would shrink and society would be stronger as a result.

Skousen put it well when he stated, “[E]very time we pass another law or regulation, every time we raise taxes, every time we go to war, we are admitting failure of individuals to govern themselves. When we persuade citizens to do the right thing, we can claim victory. But when we force people to do the right thing, we have failed.” The triumph of persuasion over force—people helping people because they want to and not because government tells them they must—is the sign of a civilized people and a civil society.

For all people interested in the advancement and enrichment of our culture, this is a crucial observation with far-reaching implications. Cultural progress should not be defined as taking more and more of what other people have earned and spending it on “good” things through a government bureaucracy. Genuine cultural progress occurs when individuals solve problems without resorting to politicians or the police and bureaucrats they employ.

When the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville visited a young, bustling America in the 1830s, he cited the vibrancy of civil society as one of this country’s greatest assets. He was amazed that Americans were constantly forming “associations” to advance the arts, build libraries and hospitals, and meet social needs of every kind. If something good needed doing, it rarely occurred to our ancestors to expect politicians and bureaucrats, who were distant in both space and spirit, to do it for them. “Amongst the laws which rule human nature,” wrote Tocqueville in Democracy in America, “there is none which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized, or to become more so, the art of associating together must grow and improve.”

It ought to be obvious today, with government in America and most Western countries consuming 40 to 60 percent of personal income, that lots of people don’t think, act, and vote the way their forebears did in Tocqueville’s day. So how can we restore and strengthen the attitudes and institutions that form the foundations of a vibrant, free and civil society?

Certainly, we can never do so by blindly embracing government programs that crowd out private initiatives or by impugning the motives of those who raise legitimate questions about those government programs. We cannot restore civil society if we have no confidence in ourselves and believe that government has a monopoly on compassion. We’ll never get there if we tax away 40 or 60 percent of people’s earnings and then, like children who never learned their arithmetic, complain that people can’t afford to meet certain needs.

We can advance civil society only when people get serious about replacing government programs with private initiative, when discussion gets beyond such infantile reasoning as, “If you want to cut government subsidies, you must be in favor of starving the elderly.” Civil society will blossom when we understand that “hiring” the expensive middleman of government is not the best way to “do good,” that it often breaks the connection between people in need and caring people who want to help. We’ll make progress when the “government is the answer” cure is recognized for what it is—false charity, a “cop-out,” a simplistic non-answer that doesn’t get the job done well, even though it makes its advocates smug with self-righteous satisfaction.

Restoring civil society won’t be easy. Bad habits and short-term thinking die hard. It is especially difficult to get the civil society message through the major news media’s filter unscathed. A recent editorial in a major Michigan newspaper is a good case in point. In arguing against suggested cuts in the state’s budget, the editorial equated the restoration of civil society with subjecting human life “to the largesse of the highest bidder in the marketplace.” What a shame that so many newspapers will routinely lament the superficiality of political campaigns and then employ bumper-sticker slogans when it comes to serious proposals to remove the bane of Big Government from our lives.

That editorial did not feed, clothe, or house a single needy person. It probably did very little to comfort the afflicted. It did not inspire a single act of voluntarism on behalf of a troubled family. It may, however, have lulled some readers into a deeper sleep of complacency. Government, after all, is taking care of things and that, the editorial implied, is as it should be.

Meanwhile, more thoughtful writers are noticing some encouraging trends. A remarkable article in a recent issue of U.S. News & World Report trumpeted the “revival of civic life.” Among the examples it cited was that of Frankford, Pennsylvania. Frankford had become a highly taxed, depressed, and government-dependent community desperate for answers. A spark of civil society was lit, and now people are solving problems themselves. “When a record 30 inches of snow was dumped on the city, . . . Frankford didn’t stand around moaning about the inefficiency of city workers. Residents rented snowplows and split the cost,” the article noted.

Perhaps if Tocqueville were to visit this little Pennsylvania town today, he would see a glimmer of the greatness he witnessed in the 1830s. He would be impressed with the spirit of the community and might even suggest that people everywhere should take note. The citizens, Tocqueville might remark, are not sitting back, bemoaning their plight, and editorializing about how the politicians should save them. “Once you get past the resentment of the government not doing it for you, you get it done yourself,” one local resident put it.

We can learn a whole lot more from the Frankfords of the world than from those who think charity means spending someone else’s money or just pontificating about social needs from behind a word processor. Restoring civil society requires that we “Just Say No” to shirking our personal responsibilities and expecting government to do for us what we can and should do on our own, within our personal lives, our families, and our local communities. It requires us to think creatively about stimulating private initiative, and then just doing it.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that doing it, not just talking about it or expecting others to do it for you, is one of the primary differences between adults and children. Maybe we all need to just grow up—and thereby grow out of the stultifying environment of the welfare state.

About the author

Lawrence W. Reed wrote 32 articles on this blog.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.

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Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Irvington, New York--www.fee.org. An economist and former college economics professor, Reed served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan before assuming his current position at FEE in September 2008. Full biography available on Wikipedia or at fee.org.