All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1995

The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits

Community Is the Most Important Antidote for What Ails Us


There is little doubt that the sinews of American society have weakened over the last 40 years. One need not treat the 1950s as a long-lost utopia to recognize that families are now more likely to break up and, indeed, not to form at all; that communities are crumbling as they fill with fractured families; and that even prosperous middle America seems ever-less cohesive.

What is the cause of this phenomenon, which has created a social catastrophe in many inner cities? Much of it results from misguided and perverse government policies, as John McKnight, now at Northwestern University, details. But he identifies a broader villain: professionalism. As he explains, “our problem is not ineffective service-providing institutions. In fact, our institutions are too powerful, authoritative, and strong. Our problem is weak communities, made ever more impotent by our strong service systems.”

His is a provocative, if somewhat misguided, thesis. In virtually every aspect of life—medicine, poverty, crime—McKnight contends that professionals are taking over. The result has been to “destroy the sense of community competence by capturing and commodifying the citizens’ capacity to solve problems and to care.” We have become a nation of clients.

McKnight directs much of his fire at the medical profession. He is mightily irritated with physicians for reasons that are not entirely clear. For instance, he seems to blame doctors for the fact that Americans like to engage in unhealthy activities and then want to be healed. In such cases doctors are merely responding to our irresponsibility.

Still, this desire that someone else counteract the effects of our own foolishness suggests a serious moral problem. The fault lies not with the servers, but with us, for believing that responsibility for solving our problems lies outside of ourselves.

This tendency to yield control is perhaps most evident in the field of social services, where The Careless Society is at its most persuasive. Here we see coercion at work, with the government using taxpayers’ money to foist “services” upon the most vulnerable members of our society. As McKnight reports, the resulting picture is not pretty:

When the services grow dense enough around people’s lives, a circular process develops. A different environment is created for these individuals. The result of a noncommunity environment is that those who experience it necessarily act in unusual and deviant ways. These new ways, called inappropriate behavior, are then cited by service professionals as proof of the need for separation in a forest of services and for more services.

The disabling effect of this circular process is devastating to the client and to our communities.

Not surprisingly, the rangers in this forest of services develop into a potent political lobby. As a result, complains McKnight, the bulk of “anti-poverty” spending goes to the largely middle-class servers, whose incentive is to create yet more programs. This tends to push out genuine citizen activists, who offer the intimate personal relationships which are what community is all about.

The loss caused by this sort of social service imperialism is enormous, but intangible. Even the poorest communities, when convinced that they control their own destinies, can achieve much. McKnight details the case of one Chicago neighborhood where local activists assessed the most common reasons for treatment at the local hospital, and then began addressing problems like dog bites. Rather than marching on city hall, they used local block clubs to create a system of bounties for stray dogs. The number of bites went down and, reports McKnight, “the people began to learn that their action, rather than the hospital’s, determines their health.”

How to encourage more of such activism? McKnight emphasizes deregulation. People and communities must be free to act, he writes, yet “in thinking about extending spheres of free action, one is constantly impressed by the barriers imposed by various forms of state regulation.” Although these restrictions are always defended as protecting the public, McKnight warns that “they are usually means to ensure professional monopolies, central authority, and preferred technologies.”

Eliminating barriers is not enough. The author also worries about jobs and economic growth, though his more interventionist economic proposals contradict the lessons that he advances about the failure of government central social planning. Moreover, he emphasizes the role of associations, which are “the result of people acting through consent.” Officials have to recognize the power of this voluntary sector, for it, observes McKnight: “provides a social tool in which consent is the primary motivation, interdependence creates wholistic environments, people of all capacities and fallibilities are incorporated, quick responses are possible, creativity is multiplied rather than channeled, individualized responses are characteristic, care is able to replace service, and citizenship is possible.” In short, community is the most important antidote for what ails us.

McKnight closes with an interesting reflection on Christianity, which has provided such an impulse for service. Would Christ approve of today’s institutionalization of service, asks McKnight? Not if Christ saw “help becoming control, care becoming commercialized, and cure becoming immobilizing.” Rather, McKnight argues, the highest expression of service is people helping people. Ultimately, he argues, we should seek not to be servants, but friends, which Christ proclaimed his disciples to be during the Last Supper. As McKnight so nicely concludes a powerful, though at times flawed, book: “In our time, professionalized servants are people who are limited by the unknowing friendlessness of their help. Friends, on the other hand, are people liberated by the possibilities of knowing how to help each other.”

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology (Transaction).