Civil Society

A communitarian perspective recognizes that the preservation of individual liberty depends on the active maintenance of the institutions of civil society where citizens learn respect for others as well as self-respect; where we acquire a lively sense of our personal and civic responsibilities, along with an appreciation of our own rights and the rights of others; where we develop the skills of self-government as well as the habit of governing ourselves, and learn to serve others– not just self. . . .

Generally, no social task should be assigned to an institution that is larger than necessary to do the job. What can be done by families, should not be assigned to an intermediate group–school etc. What can be done at the local level should not be passed on to the state or federal level, and so on. There are, of course, plenty of urgent tasks–environmental ones–that do require national and even international action. But to remove tasks to higher levels than is necessary weakens the constituent communities. This principle holds for duties of attending to the sick, troubled, delinquent, homeless and new immigrants; and for public safety, public health and protection of the environment–from a neighborhood crime-watch to CPR to sorting the garbage. The government should step in only to the extent that other social subsystems fail, rather than seek to replace them. . . .

Many social goals . . . require partnership between public and private groups. Though government should not seek to replace local communities, it may need to empower them by strategies of support, including revenue-sharing and technical assistance. There is a great need for study and experimentation with creative use of the structures of civil society, and public-private cooperation, especially where the delivery of health, educational and social services are concerned.

–The Responsive Communitarian Platform

Communitarians have sought to refocus attention on the vast and richly textured social space between the individual, on the one hand, and the state, on the other. The quality of our society depends not only on the nature of our Constitution and laws, or on the health of our economy, but also on the vitality of civil society, of the scores mediating institutions–neighborhoods, schools, churches, and voluntary associations–that define our immediate social environment. Political debate over the past fifty years has centered on the tug of war between government and the individual. Liberals have sought to nationalize and bureaucratize the care-taking functions of society, while libertarians in turn have sought to strip the government of power and resources. In the process, the crucial role of civil society in shaping the quality of life has often been neglected.

Recent years have seen a rediscovery across the political spectrum of the importance of civil society. The increasing interest in the delivery of social services by nonprofit and faith-based organizations, the growing recognition of the special capacities of churches and faith-based groups in addressing such problems as juvenile crime, the increasing exploration of partnership arrangements between government agencies and nongovernmental groups–all point toward a new and promising communitarian approach to solving our deepest social problems. One of the key developments of the 1990s has been the reactivation of the community as a powerful “third force” in shaping the destiny of our citizens.

Readings and Links

In “Community and the Corner Store”, Alan Ehrenhalt examines significant changes in commercial and cultural life in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He explores the benefits of 1990s economy, as well as the cultural sacrifices – “erosion of custom, of predictability, of patterns of conduct that [are] known…as community” – the new economic structure entails.

Perhaps the most far-reaching experiment with local government-civil society partnerships is that being led by Mayor Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis.  Read about Goldsmith’s widely efforts to ready a rust-belt city for the twenty-first century in The Twenty-First Century City : Resurrecting Urban America.

For Further Exploration

Abbott, Philip. Seeking Many Inventions: The Idea of Community in America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

Barber, Benjamin. A Place For Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Dilger, Robert Jay. Neighborhood Politics: Residential Community Associations in American Governance. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Dionne, E.J. Jr. Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998.

Foldvary, Fred. Public goods and Private Communities: The Market Provisions of Social Service. Brookfield, Vt.: Edward Elgar Publishing Company, 1994.

Gilman, Andrew. “Laundromats, Coffee Houses, and Ticket Lines: The Places of Community Life.” The Long Term View 2 (1998): 34-39.

McKenzie, Evan. Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government. New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press.

Moe, Richard, and Carter Wilkie. Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl. N.Y.: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1997.

National League of Cities. “Connecting Citizens and Their Government: Civility, Responsibility, and Local Democracy.” The 1996 Futures Report (1996). Washington, D.C.

National League of Cities. Issues and Options: Citizen Involvement 4 (1996). Washington, D.C.

National League of Cities. Issues and Options: Youth Participation & Community Building 4 (May 1996). Washington, D.C.

Prior, D., J. Stewart, and K. Walsh. Citizenship: Rights, Community, & Participation. London: Pitman Publishing, 1995.

Rabrenovic, Grodana. Community Builders: A Tale of Neighborhood Mobilization in Two Cities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Ramsay, Meredith. Community, Culture, and Economic Development: The Social roots of Local Action. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Walzer, Michael, ed. Toward a Global Civil Society. Providence: Berghahn Books, 1995.