All Commentary
Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Can Civil Society Save Us?

American public discourse is characterized today by predictions of decline and fall that offer little hope to the rising generations. From economic, social, and political critics, there is ample commentary on America’s self-destructive path. 

Such prognoses have given birth to a mini-industry of Tocqueville studies, with partisans of all stripes hearkening back both to Tocqueville’s analysis of the strength of American democracy in our habit of association and to his awareness of a young nation’s underbelly, vulnerable to soft despotism.

“Like Tocqueville, I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens,” writes Niall Ferguson in his current bestseller, The Great Degeneration. So far, so good.

While I share the contemporary fascination with Tocqueville’s powers of description and prognostication, I am cautious about claiming that “civil society” holds the solution to our present decline. The current institutions and leaders of civil society to which so many are looking for answers have themselves been shaped by their partnership with the welfare state. Few are in a position to articulate, much less reclaim, their independence from the State. 

To reclaim the American dream through civil society, we must first save civil society from a corrupted paradigm. To do that, we must understand how American civil society veered off course. 

How did we wind up on the road to serfdom under soft despotism instead of on the road to freedom? The answer is complex. American historians have done a largely poor job of helping us uncover it. Until we better map our changing social landscape—and understand better how the present-day obsession with “social justice” has obstructed the natural course of liberty—we will be missing essential conceptual signposts needed to navigate the road ahead.

Two Books, Two Perspectives

Two recently published books illuminate the tensions between two paradigms of social welfare—and philanthropy’s role in promoting it—that contend for prevalence in American society.

In With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give, Ken Stern, a former executive at National Public Radio, documents current challenges among America’s charities and proposes the creation of a more “effective charitable marketplace.” For Stern, corruption and excessive executive compensation are challenges worthy of attention, but his primary focus is on his frustrations in trying to answer one question: “Do the charitable programs effectively solve the targeted social problems?” Given the difficulties in validating program effectiveness, Stern concludes that the best way to improve the results we get from our charitable contributions may be just to leave our charitable investments to “professionals,” much as we do with our financial investments. For Stern, the key value of philanthropy seems to be accountability, which means that to improve social welfare we need a new “evidence economy” supported by an improved “culture of evaluation and testing.”

On the other hand, Kevin D. Williamson, in The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure, suggests that we increasingly have the whole question of social values upside-down because we tend to think of social values as those things that we believe society “ought” to value rather than the things that people really value and work to attain. Williamson suggests that we should think of philanthropy as a sort of luxury good. For Williamson, philanthropists engage in giving as a means of “reshaping the world along certain personally preferred lines,” and they do so because they value this use of their resources more than the marginal value they would realize from making another dollar. 

Far from Stern’s portrayal of much of the charitable sector as a cul-de-sac of feel-good inefficiency and ineffectiveness, Williamson sees voluntary charitable associations as an important flow system of social innovation and knowledge coordination where people come together to work out how “to make projects economically feasible even in situations in which it is impossible or impractical to engage in a direct commercial interaction.”

Improving Social Welfare: Top Down and Bottom Up

When applied to the question of improving social welfare, the differences between Stern and Williamson come down to a fundamental difference of belief in what it means to promote social welfare. Is it a trickle-down affair, defined at the top through public policy and delivered as thousands of organizations across the country align their actions with these collective goals? Or is social welfare an emergent landscape continually being shaped from the grassroots up, generating the greatest good for the greatest number only as people are voluntarily engaged in creating, negotiating, exchanging, and otherwise “neighboring” one another?

Stern is disappointed by the tendency of modern charities to make big promises but deliver small outcomes. He is disappointed that the charitable sector has been unable to deliver on the goals of the welfare state and is left wishing that someone (probably government) would devise a better regulatory and accountability environment for charities.

Williamson agrees that we could all operate better in our social environment with more information, but he does not suggest that we move toward Stern’s “evidence economy,” in which people and organizations toe the line of top-down standards established by professional bureaucrats in government (or philanthropic) agencies. Instead, Williamson proposes that we need to replace our present “top-down” and “hierarchical” reputation networks with more robust, transparent, and grassroots-generated reputation networks that would presumably span both business and charitable endeavors. These networks would have the benefit of localized actors using local knowledge.

“What is needed,” writes Williamson, “is not a Standard and Poor’s for business ethics, but hundreds of Standard and Poor’s for all sorts of values,” and these would coexist in the rather free-wheeling world that is civil society. 

Civil society, bounded but not invaded by crippling legislative rules, is the space in which there should be a robust, noncoercive interplay of value preferences that continually but gradually reshapes our cultural economy. A core value of civil society is a respect for beliefs and norms that differ from our own and the forbearance from using political means to enforce norms that do not attract broad public consensus. As Williamson puts it, “It is one thing for consumers to refuse to patronize a business with repellent values, but another for elected officials to use governmental powers to punish people who hold contrary political views.”

Williamson and Stern both convey concern for institutional challenges in American life, but the conceptual maps they bring to understand these problems—and thus to propose constructive solutions—seem to dwell on opposite sides of the fault line in modern liberalism between “progressive” and “classical liberal” frameworks of understanding.

Philanthropy Beyond Progressivism

Beginning in the late 1800s, this liberal crackup is reflected today in the widening gap in sociopolitical discourse between neoprogressive partisans of social justice and classical liberal proponents of limited government and free markets.

For over half a century Americans have known the welfare state fosters dependency better than it moves people into full participation in the American dream. During this same time, classical liberals have been unable to offer conceptual or institutional alternatives that were sufficiently attractive and effective to encourage Americans to leave the welfare state behind.

Our discourse about philanthropy and philanthropy’s institutional practices has been so entangled with the neoprogressive paradigm of the last century that there is much work ahead for classical liberals to rethink the role of philanthropy in a free society. The corporate–State alliance forged in the Progressive era suggested that a free society could be a good society only when the bureaucratic welfare state stepped in to nudge social and economic policy in the right direction. Classical liberals have long known in our hearts that only in a society that is free and prosperous can true beneficence flourish. If civil society is to save us, we must reclaim the philanthropy that fuels its activities and shapes its expectations, norms, and practices.


  • Lenore Ealy is the executive director of The Philanthropic Enterprise, an interdisciplinary research institute exploring how philanthropy and voluntary social cooperation promote human flourishing. She is the founding editor of Conversations on Philanthropy:  Emerging Questions in Liberality and Social Thought and holds a Ph.D. in history from The Johns Hopkins University.