Issues analysis
Conservatism and civil society
Patrick Garry, RenewAmerica analyst
April 20, 2015

The Obama presidency has demonstrated a fundamental difference between modern liberalism and conservatism. As reflected by Obama's dramatic extension of government into new spheres of social and economic life, liberalism believes in government as the principal occupation and identity of America. Conservatism, on the other hand, believes in civil society as the defining mark. Consequently, conservatives worry about the effects of government overreach on the vitality of the institutions of civil society.

Conservatives worry that the federalization of healthcare will have corrosive effects on the doctor-patient relationship, and the religious freedoms of people who disagree with Obamacare's mandates on abortion and contraception. Conservatives worry that federal immigration policies will damage local communities by creating a growing underclass of poor, dependent illegal immigrants. Conservatives worry that Dodd-Frank only strengthens the big Wall Street banks while weakening the community banks. Conservatives worry that the increasing rules from federal agencies leave states and communities with less and less autonomy. Conservatives worry that federal policies ignore and even undermine the two-parent family. And so on and so forth.

The value of civil society

Liberalism advocates a self-centered individualism that erodes community ties and values. This individualism in turn facilitates a growing government, since the other social organizations or connections that can help individuals navigate the hurdles of life have been marginalized. It is as if liberalism believes individuals are defined solely as individuals, connected only through government. But Edmund Burke believed otherwise. He saw people as inherently social beings who acquire their identity through the social connections of civil society. According to Burke, civil society provides a channel through which the experiences of previous generations can pass onto and enlighten future generations.

To Burke, government was not something that superseded society – it was something that grew out of society. Thus, any government "reforms" had to be carefully enacted, lest they have damaging effects on the underlying social fabric. Moreover, because government "reforms" cannot be expected to achieve perfection, since neither individuals nor civil society are perfect, then perfect laws or perfect governments should never be pursued at the risk of damaging society.

But progressives not only ignore the negative impact that government has on the society that gave birth to it and supports it, they use government to actually remake society in the image of government. That is why President Obama never discusses what America is or has been, only how he is remaking it. He uses the Declaration of Independence to justify the progressive "moral cause" to create a new America, but never talks about the timeless truths contained in that document – truths like "self-evident," "Creator," "unalienable," "life," "liberty," "pursuit of happiness." It is as if the progressive mindset, as illustrated by President Obama, is that of a self-righteous rebellious youth who thinks only about how he can mandate what he wants the world to be, who takes pride In an outright rejection of anything to do with the past or social conventions, and who is na├»ve and egotistical enough to actually believe that his whims will produce a world better than what the timeless truths of history have produced.

Society is more than just a loose connection of autonomous individuals; there is an independent social glue that holds individuals together and defines their society. Civil society buffers the individual against the state, for without all the social connections and institutions, the individual would have to stand alone against abusive government power. Without civil society and its institutions, people would have only the bureaucracies of government to address all their social needs.

A vibrant civil society, free from an overbearing state, requires a balanced ecosystem of interdependent institutions: families, businesses, religious organizations, civic groups...and yes, government. Each has a vital role to play – so when these institutions falter, people suffer. Children grow up fatherless. Loneliness becomes rampant. Opportunities for education decline. The emotional development from social relationships is stalled. The struggling may receive government aid, but lack the relationships and direction necessary to transform their lives.

Conservatism recognizes the social bonds between citizens and neighbors – bonds based on affection and community, rather than law or national politics. These bonds generate voluntary obligations owed to each other, rather than rights that individuals can assert against the community. They empower citizens to come together voluntarily for their own common good, instead of simply being submerged in the empty individualism of mass democracy, or impersonal consumerism that is antithetical to the development of true social solidarity.

The role of social institutions in helping people live

The government may give people monetary checks, but it cannot teach them how to live. Only the cultural values and behavioral norms promulgated by the institutions of civil society can do that. Indeed, the power of private social institutions to help people in the ways they need help derives from the fact that those institutions are motivated by more than just the impersonal hand of money.

Poverty, for instance, is not only material, it is often moral and cultural. The truth about poverty is that its most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; its most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic. The poor often lack a sense of dignity and purpose, much more than they lack food or clothes or transportation. Living in an environment of chaos, harshness, and indecency, many poor people have no contact with human decency or even stability.

What they really struggle for is some cultural and moral context to their lives. They may get a job, but they still have no direction or purpose to their lives – nothing that can channel their future. Being poor in 2015 is not like being poor in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression. The material poverty was much worse then, but it did not have the generationally debilitating effect that poverty in 2015 is having. The poor in 1935 became the middle class in 1955. That is in large part because, in 1935, the larger culture supported the fundamental goals of life: to raise children to live dignified lives, to be law-abiding and hard-working, to be faithful to one's family, to uphold the ideals of decency. This cultural direction prevented the poor from falling into a pit of desperation and dependency out of which they or their children could not climb.

Many people living at the bottom of society today have iphones, computers, and flat-screen televisions – but their lives are in a chaotic downward spiral, untethered by a culture of responsibility and self-discipline that cannot be created simply by government spending programs. Poverty in 2015 has put people into a life that has no decency or dignity. That was not the case in 1935.

The most urgent need of poor and low-income individuals is to acquire the social capital that can empower them to improve their lives. This social capital includes such virtues as resilience, self-sufficiency, delayed gratification, ambition, and respect for authority. But these virtues can only be inculcated through the institutions of civil society, which are not only able to teach such values but are more nimble and responsive to individualized needs than is government. Only a civil society built around the practice of compassion can nurture a spirit of independence within the struggling members of society, rather than foster dependency that is too often the result of government entitlements. This is not to deny the validity of government safety nets, only to state the limits and dangers of them.

Families are the most important social institution in terms of creating social capital. A recent Equality of Opportunity Project study of economic mobility highlighted the importance of healthy families. As this report and many others before it have demonstrated, a child's living in a two-parent household is the single strongest indicator of the degree of upward income mobility that child will later experience.

Religious organizations are another institution of civil society that greatly influences the quality of life, especially for the poor. To religious institutions, which are motivated by the biblical injunctions of charity and compassion, the poor are not just clients or program beneficiaries – they are people of God. So the work of religious activists is motivated not by the job descriptions of government bureaucrats, but by a higher duty. While helping the poor may be just an option with government, it is a duty with religion.

Unfortunately, our social institutions are crumbling just when the poor and immigrant need them most. The decline of the two-parent family has left the poor particularly vulnerable. The erosion of public schools as the transmitter of shared social values has left them no longer able to teach the poor how to be upstanding and responsible citizens. The crowding out of religion from the public square has deprived the poor of committed activists who focus on the individualized needs of the poor.

In his new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam demonstrates how America's religious institutions have grown weakest in the poor and working class communities across the country. These institutions have traditionally given children a sense of meaning, belonging, and purpose that helps them steer away from all the avenues of trouble and toward a better future.

Civil society protects against an elite-driven cultural inequality

Over the past half-century, the common civic culture has unraveled. A new upper class has evolved possessing advanced education, often obtained at elite schools, and sharing lifestyles that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, a new lower class is now characterized not necessarily by poverty, but by a withdrawal from America's core cultural institutions. In Coming Apart, Charles Murray shows how these developments have led to a deepening cultural inequality between the elite and the rest of America.

With college-educated Americans, divorce is down, nonmarital childbearing is rare, and the vast majority of children are raised in stable, married homes. But the opposite is true of Americans without a college education, who have become increasingly cut off from the guidance of social institutions. As writers like Charles Murray and Robert Putnam point out, the erosion of social capital has become a serious problem for the lower classes. But as Christopher Lasch demonstrated in The Revolt of the Elites, this cultural inequality results from a decades-long and quite deliberate attack by the elite on the moral, social, and religious underpinnings of the middle and working classes.

In Labor's Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America, Andrew Cherlin discusses the widening marriage gap – the difference between marriage rates for working-class and upper-class adults. The rich may still live in traditional marriage settings, but they don't defend marriage as a foundational standard for the rest of society. Consequently, seeking to emulate and adopt upper-class norms regarding social values, the lower classes have built their lives around the much shakier quasi-institutions of cohabitation and single parenting. The elite now see marriage as a capstone, rather than a cornerstone, of life. It is the reward for material success, and to marry prior to financial security is considered irresponsible. Yet while this capstone ideal may work for the rich, it does not work for the poor, who feel such stable marriage is out of their reach. So they settle for casual relationships that further destabilize their lives and futures.

Even though the elite end up following many traditional marriage and social values, thus helping it maintain their wealth and stability – they nonetheless denigrate those values to the lower classes, much to the harm of the lower classes. As a way of discrediting traditional institutions, for instance, the elite media portray single parenthood in a noble and enviable way, with single mothers having great jobs and big homes and successful careers. But in reality, the number of single mothers living with serious financial struggles is staggering.

Mirroring the decline in marriage, there has also been a decline in non-college-educated people's church membership, as individualized spirituality has displaced the institutions and obligations that once structured working-class religious life. This new ideal of the "expressive self," while desired by the rich who can financially afford to go their own way, is destructive to the poor. This ideal favors autonomy over obedience and cooperation, and focuses on building personal identity rather than working within social roles and communities. But while obedience, hard work, and religious tradition were once valuable social capital needed to combat hardship, the expressive-self ideal has little patience for suffering and struggles, and hence little applicability to the poor.

The elite today may live by the cultural standards of the past, but they do not speak up for them to the rest of America. Instead, they quietly and selfishly pass on those standards to their children in gated communities.

Rather than actually proclaim and defend the common culture by which they and their children live, the elite try to speak the language of the oppressed – but they do not know the oppressed. They do not know what the oppressed really need or want. The elite only know what they themselves want, and what they apparently want is not to feel guilty about their privilege and status – so what they do is try to speak in the way they think the struggling of society would speak. What they do is speak the language of political correctness.

But political correctness has never benefited the poor. The elite use political correctness to curtail the development of natural resources, which in turn prevent unskilled and semi-skilled Americans from well-paying jobs in those industries. The elite try to restrict suburban developments, but this only makes middle- and lower-income housing more expensive. The elite glorify hi-tech companies like Apple and rail against the greed of companies like Walmart, even though Apple's profit margin is 24 percent, compared with Walmart's profit margin of just 3 percent.

The rich and well-educated in America, who are more likely to be outraged when they hear of two gay professionals who can't marry each other than when they encounter a homeless person pushing a shopping cart with all his worldly belongings, have undermined the values and institutions of civil society because they desire for themselves the personal freedoms of bohemian liberation. By and large, the rich do not desire more wealth as much as they desire moral relaxation and the self-complimenting image of themselves as nonconformists living a life of enlightenment and freedom above and beyond that of dull Middle America. But the elite's desire for a cultural bohemianism has left working-class America with a loss of social capital. Moreover, the elite's crusade to liberate individuals from traditional morality and the limitations it puts on personal choices about sex and personal expression has not produced a flowering of freedom; it has weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births, turned neighbors into strangers, heightened crime to the point of public spaces being filled with security cameras, and produced a fragmented and isolated citizenry.

The new liberalism has become centered on the elite, reflecting an obsession with personal autonomy while showing a strange indifference to the moral sensibilities of poor and common people. Progressivism has become an alliance between experts and victims, according to Harvey Mansfield. But as the experts assert their expertise more confidently and the victims accept their helplessness more compliantly, what gets squeezed out are all the mediating institutions that, according to Tocqueville, were essential to the success of democracy in middle- and working-class America.

The multiculturalism of the elite, while pretending to do justice to oppressed minorities, does great harm to the poor. Whereas multiculturalism emphasizes an adversarial culture of competing interests, the poor need an assimilation culture that connects them to the rest of society. Whereas multiculturalism envisions a society of separate identities, the poor need a common-interest society that motivates the better-off members to look after the lesser-off members. And whereas the therapeutic, nonjudgmental culture of moral relativism works well for the elite, by keeping the public domain flexible and forgiving to their otherwise unacceptable acts of "individual expression," that culture works terribly for the poor, who do not have the financial or social capital to cover-up their misbehavior.

Only civil society can foster the real meaning of freedom

The decline of civil society has impoverished our notion of freedom. Now we only think of what we are free from, not what we should do with our freedom, or what we are capable of doing with our freedom.

The goal of freedom should not simply be to liberate appetites and passions, because a person in the grip of appetite or passion cannot be a model of the free human being. True liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others, but also from enslavement to uncontrolled or irrational urges. This is a truth revealed thousands of years ago, on Mount Sinai to a nation of slaves freed from Pharaoh's domination. But it is a truth our self-esteem culture often makes us forget.

The classic notion of liberty requires not only that people be free to choose, but also that they be able to choose well. Wisdom and progress occur when we use freedom to do what we ought to do, thus aligning together the moral law, the civil law, and our own will. But to meet this real challenge of freedom, individual moral formation is needed. The government focus on individual autonomy – the liberation of the individual from outside coercion – is the shallow view of liberty. It is civil society that focuses on the lasting view of liberty, for only private social institutions can teach the civic virtue and responsibility that in turn can direct the use of freedom.

If freedom is to mean more than mere license, it must draw upon something much deeper than an array of individual legal rights against the community. It must connect with the time-honored ideals of human existence, which are nourished and transmitted through the institutions of civil society. And the ultimate virtue-forming institutions are religious, because they command us to a mixture of responsibility, sympathy, charity, obedience, and righteousness that align our wants with our duties.

Unfortunately, the cultural foundations of any generational transmittal of civic virtue and responsibility are eroding. Academic standards, religious values and institutions, family life, ethical norms, and even patriotism and adherence to the rule of law have lost their authority. In continual opposition to these norms and values, liberal progressives assert arguments in favor of ever-greater individual autonomy. To liberals, the authority of traditional institutions stands in the way of a progressive social transformation – a remaking of the social order oriented around the vision of autonomous individuals completely free of social restraints or guidance. But this transformation, by cutting individuals adrift from the historic supports of society, makes them ever more isolated – while simultaneously more dependent on an ever expanding government.

When all traditional social norms and institutions disappear, however, human freedom will not flourish. When marriage and family and neighborhoods and schools and religious organizations lose their role, government will end up filling the void – because people will still need the sense of cohesion and identity provided by all those disappearing social institutions. Consequently, government will have to pass all the more laws and create all the more programs to replace the social constraints and behavioral standards once determined by families and communities and schools and religions.

In the progressive mindset, which came to the fore in the 1970s, anything that interferes with individual expression interferes with one's happiness. This mindset is elite-driven, motivated by social elites who wish to assert their individual expression and autonomy free of the authority of traditional social values and institutions, and who wish to achieve an enhanced freedom lifestyle that separates them from the constraints of middle and working class social values. Consequently, since the 1970s, there has been constant pressure from the liberal elite to marginalize both religious and secular civic institutions that have historically exerted authority over both elite and non-elite in America. This marginalization is particularly unfortunate for the struggling members of society, who, unlike the elite, do not have their own sources of support and guidance – who do not have the luxury of elevating individual expression over all other concerns of life. And as a result of the elite attack on social institutions, which has caused a civic disengagement most pronounced among the poor and working class, the core institutions of work, marriage, and civil society have become less salient within those communities.

The problem of government alone

Government aid can sustain, but cannot empower or stimulate, an individual revival or rehabilitation. As history has shown, government aid does not change life behavior for the better – and so consequently cannot fundamentally address poverty.

Family, community, social relationships, and work have historically been crucial for meaningful living, and thus for true success. Yet as Charles Murray documents, these very institutions are increasingly endangered in low-income communities, which are in turn becoming increasingly separated from upper-class America.

When government tries to act alone and take over social functions, it drains other social institutions of some of their vitality. The mediating institutions of civil society, on the other hand, often protect and promote human happiness more effectively than big-government programs. The promise of government is to make people feel less vulnerable, but in reality government, acting with indifference to civil society often renders people less whole and capable of self-direction. And when an expanding government replaces all other mediating social institutions, it subverts the common moral culture, through which ordinary people can restrain the ability of the wealthier and more powerful to dictate the social and political agenda.

Helping people build better lives for themselves cannot be done by a distant and impersonal federal government. The complexity of social ills plaguing low-income communities requires direct, hands-on intervention by civic organizations that can help people escape the forces holding them back. Government dependency, on the other hand, just continues the breakdown of civil society and families. What the poor need is increased social capital, created through personal investment from trustworthy individuals who can mentor and instill different habits, and share information and opportunities, that can lift them out of poverty in a sustainable way.

Civil society can do things like instill self-discipline, restraint and frugality, a willingness to defer gratification, a responsibility to plan ahead, and the ability to form strong and lasting relationships. But as government takes on responsibilities that were once borne by families and communities, those families and communities grow commensurately weaker. Yet ironically, these institutions and communities become ever more necessary as government and the market economy expands. For instance, as the economy booms, the same business enterprises that demand hard work and discipline from their employees in turn stimulate a demand for indulgence when advertising their goods and services, thus necessitating the teaching of discipline and self-restraint from some other source. And this teaching of the cautions about capitalism is much more important to the poor than to the rich.

Additionally, in a healthy civil society with functional families, citizens are better able to resist government overreach. People who feel competent to run their own households, manage family finances, and raise children tend to push back when government pretends to know best how to conduct life. But as marriage and family become increasingly dysfunctional, government expands and claims responsibilities once discharged by those eroding aspects of civil society. This further erodes the democratic capacity of individuals to direct and control government. Indeed, the decline in marriage as a middle-class institution corresponds to the economic decline of the middle class and its erosion as a stable center of American politics.

Yet another irony is that government displacement of social institutions ultimately serves to jeopardize government. For instance, as the intimate ties of social institutions weaken, so too do the distant ties between individuals and the federal government weaken, thus undermining both the promise and influence of the welfare state.

By going it alone and undermining the private institutions of civil society, government sows the seeds of public cynicism toward it – because, as history has shown, government just cannot do it all. In a recent Gallup poll, more Americans (18 percent) named the government as the biggest problem in the U.S. than any other thing – more than the economy (11 percent), unemployment (10), or immigration (7). This high level of mistrust may result from government trying to do everything, and doing so much of it poorly. As Francis Fukuyama writes in his book Political Order and Political Decay, "if there has been a single problem facing contemporary democracies, it has been centered in their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth, and quality of basic public services like education, health, and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity."

Government can do certain things very well, but it is hobbled by an array of handicaps when it tries to expand beyond its proven expertise. These handicaps include the fact that many government programs eventually become badly outdated and lack accountability and transparency, and that an increasingly centralized and bureaucratic government is unable to manage complex social systems. Therefore, perhaps it is no surprise that confidence in government is so low during a time when government is being asked to do more than ever before, and doing so little of it competently.

The value of the family as a social institution

Overwhelming evidence points to the family as the vital foundational institution in society. By contrast, when the family breaks down, governments incur burdensome welfare costs, and the economy suffers from a decrease in reliable workers.

Children from single-parent families are four times more likely to live in poverty and are at much greater risk of teenage pregnancy, incarceration, obesity, and drug and alcohol abuse. In virtually every measurable sociological category, children from fatherless homes face much longer odds of living healthy and financially independent lives. A recent Brookings study found that 67 percent of adolescents with mothers married throughout their childhood graduated from high school with a GPA of 2.5 or better, and had no criminal record or pregnancy while a teen, compared to just 28 percent of those whose mother never married. As James Q. Wilson demonstrated in Two Nations, family structure, not income, is the best indicator for all kinds of youth problematic behaviors, from delinquency to school drop-out to out-of-wedlock pregnancy. And finally, there is a strong correlation in the research between two-parent families and upward mobility – stronger than for variables like racial segregation and economic inequality. For instance, a report released in November 2014 by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies shows in various ways how children raised in two-parent households, regardless of their income, are more likely to advance economically. They are less apt to drop out of school, more apt to get higher paying jobs, and have less chance of being unemployed.

The family in jeopardy

There is no area of life in which children who grow up in broken or never-formed two-parent families do as well on average as children who grow up with both parents. From incarceration rates to education to income to health, children raised in two-parent households are better off than children raised in any other setting. For centuries, families have been the only reliable training ground for civilizing human beings and for creating adults who are capable of assuming responsible citizenship and productively engaging in the economy.

The crises of the welfare state, wage stagnation, income inequality, and unemployment can all be traced in varying degrees to the breakdown of the family. A recent AEI report, For Richer, for Poorer, shows how the nation's half-century retreat from traditional marriage is clearly linked to growing economic inequality and stagnant family incomes. There is no substitute for intact, married families when it comes to boosting future economic opportunities for children. For some liberals, however, income inequality, economic mobility, and the welfare of children are second-order goods, prized below such things as identity politics and sexual autonomy.

As Daniel Moynihan wrote in 1965 about inner-city black poverty, the fundamental problem was that of family structure. But his findings were totally ignored by the architects of the Great Society policies that only exacerbated the problems. History, however, has proven Moynihan right. When his report was released, about 25 percent of black children and 5 percent of white children lived in a household headed by a single mother. Today, more than 70 percent of all black births are to unmarried women, and the white percentage rate has increased nearly seven-fold.

In 2012, the poverty rate for all blacks was more than 28 percent, but for married black couples it was 8 percent, and has been in the single digits for two decades. And less than 8 percent of children raised by married couples live in poverty, compared with 40 percent of children raised by single mothers. One of the most comprehensive studies ever done on juvenile delinquency – by William Comanor and Llad Phillips of the University of California, Santa Barbara – concluded that the most critical factor affecting the prospect that a male youth will encounter the criminal justice system is the presence of his father in the home.

Today, six times as many single-parent households live below the poverty line than do married families. Moreover, American families are continuing to go the wrong way. For the first time, more than half of U.S. teenage or twenty-something mothers giving birth were unmarried, a stunning turnaround from 1970, when 80 percent of 29-year-olds were married. And yet, despite all the evidence showing that traditional families thrive, liberal elites refuse to support that model for working and low-income families. President Obama in January 2015, for instance, proposed tax policies that favored families with two working parents over those with a stay-at-home parent. Obama's expanded Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit is only available for parents who use child care to do paid work outside the home, thus tilting the tax code against stay-at-home parents. Families who choose to have one parent stay at home would see no tax relief.


At a time when the stock market is at all-time highs, the most serious crisis facing America is not economic. The gravest crisis has to do with the state of America's civil society. The U.S. economy and military continue to be the strongest in the world, but our nation's social and cultural institutions are floundering. And yet, these institutions were what produced not only the world's longest-running and most stable democracy, but its most vibrant economy as well. Government is a necessary institution in a democratic society, but it cannot take the place of all the other social institutions. And when government in fact attempts to replace or diminish these institutions, the whole society falters, including government itself.

© Patrick Garry

RenewAmerica analyst Patrick Garry also writes a column for RenewAmerica.


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31