Arnold Kling

Church and State

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In In this essay, I coin a term civil societarian.


The stereotypical libertarian might cite Ayn Rand and exalt the independent individual. Instead, a civil societarian would cite Alexis de Tocqueville, and his observation that "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations." These voluntary associations are what a civil societarian sees as the key to civilization.

...My secular, liberal friends clearly derive much of their identity and their rootedness from their political faith. I do not begrudge their having a political faith. I just wish they had chosen more wisely. Civil Societarianism is a better faith than a faith in the evil of George Bush, in the need to punish the rich, and in the virtue of any well-intended government program.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (9 to date)
AJ writes:

Well put. A society with the "ties that bind us" made of voluntary associations and agreements is a far superior, happier, honest, emotionally mature, wealthier, and moral community than one where the ties are hierchical obligations and benefits -- however benignly or liberally decided.

the progress of political/economic instutitions through time is one of experimenting, faultering, and finding those which organize activity and thinking with less coercion. The fact that this is so reveals something fundamental about human nature that our generation doesn't seem to want to look at (perhaps because in the past it was so tied up in one religion or another).

Nathan Smith writes:

As an ideological statement, bravo! (Though I'm glad you mentioned the pitfalls of the social service voucher and the charity tax credit for the poor, which seem to me to outweigh the potential upsides.)

I wonder how much you have thought about issues of social capital in relation to this theme. Your "civil societarianism" seems to be very much in the same vein as the work of Robert Putnam.

TGGP writes:

Nice reference to Alexis de Tocqueville, I think Burke should have gotten a mention as well.

Stanley Kurtz has some good articles here and here on why the civil society found among islamic countries is so different from that of the rest of the world.

Matt writes:

I dunno your definition of a liberal, probably the mis-definition given them by Bill Buckley.

Brad Delong is the typical liberal, he approaches problems fairly unbiased, is less inclined to take sides on government internvention, and is more inclined to make whatever government intervention we have work better.

But, back to charity vouchers. Why? You do not trust poor people with cash vouchers, in the form of greenbacks? If you do not trust the poor to make sensible decisions then you are not a libertarian or a societarian, you are a big government, nanny conservative.

I have always suspected you of latent socialism, that fear of freedom characterized by conservatives, who believe the poor cannot make sensible decisions, that they need some elite to manage their lives, some big government, moral, nanny government; the Bill Kristol communist government.

Ryan Fazio writes:

I think it's a good point that the institutions of society will prove stronger if people voluntarily associate themselves with them, rather than being compelled to do so by government. And it will be that way because in such a case the institutions can be shaped by those very people who can choose their associations. Remember though, the institutions will not remain stagnant once you cease to make them government controlled.

I still chose to side w/ Rand over de Tocqueville however. Society, especially the infinitely intertwined aspects of today's global society, does not see its origins in people wishing to make associations for the sake of it. When the first subsistence farmer went exchange his surplus of one good that of another he did not do so to appease his unbending need for human interaction, he did so to appease his human need for material wealth. Thusly it was selfish individualism--people acting upon their economic interests--that provided the impetus for human interaction and it is that same concept that perpetuates it still today.

Ryan
NewSchoolPolitics

Robert Speirs writes:

Nothing in Rand's writings casts aspersions on associations freely entered into. She even supports limited government action in the most necessary areas, such as crime control and national defense. Her criticisms of government imply that most of its functions can be carried out by voluntary associations. And she is definitely NOT a libertarian.

mkudla writes:

Are associations freely chosen? I am concerned about the indoctrination of young children into the superstitious beliefs and dogmas of religions of all persuasions. After being indoctrinated and filled with fear, guilt and all manner of negative emotions. Do people make a rational decision to join and support the irrational dogmas of these groups.

Plinius writes:

I totally agree with the concept of "civil society" as being the real victim of state oppression, more say than the "individual". Ridicule and bullyism have kept her constrained for far too long, with the effect that civ. soc. is now a nervous wreck, timid, with no self-esteem. Time has come to emancipate this great institution. I propose a policy of Affirmative Action, so that precedence be given to civil society solutions over government brazen actions. After all, civil society has a sixth sense for positive sum outcomes, rather than the simplistic negative sum methods of the State, her solution are more complex, more subtle, more gentle. Should we start a Civil Societerian critique of the whole Western Civilization?

Matt G. writes:

Faith is in the heart, religion is an institution created by those who wanted to control the uneducated with fear and superstitious ideals. Where do you draw the line when it comes to religion's importance in our current society? For as much as the government tries to tell you this nation was founded on religion, that is a lie. Our forefathers were Deist's that understood after events such as the Salem With Trials religion could no longer govern the decisions we make in society.

Despite all my stupid babel, the simple fact is that religion is the common man's crutch that provides him a reason to work hard and succeed in an effort to look favorable in the lord's eyes when he passes. However, we must separate church and state, for fear and the religous establishment only give those in power an oppurtunity to control this nation unfairly.

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