Issues analysis
Government can erode the civic institutions needed by the poor
Patrick Garry, RenewAmerica analyst
May 10, 2016

As reflected by the dramatic growth of government into new spheres of social and economic life during periods of "progressive" governance, progressives believe in government as the principal occupation and identity of America. Conservatism, on the other hand, believes in civil society (civil: relating to ordinary citizens or accepted norms of civilized behavior) as the defining mark, and worry about the effects of government overreach on the vitality of the institutions of civil society.

It is not just any society that American conservatism seeks to protect; it is that society which historically has proven to be a stable foundation for American life. As conservatism recognizes, democratic government arises out of democratic society. Government is neither the beginning nor the ending point – decent, responsible, "civil" society is. It is not government policies that define America; it is the social institutions and values giving rise to government that define America.

How civil society helps the individual

Conservatism does not see society as something repressive or antagonistic to individuals, but as something that can elevate individuals, civilize them, and lift them up to lives they would not otherwise be able to live. This elevating effect is particularly vital to those individuals most in need of being uplifted.

Civil society also cultivates the shared inheritance of cultural institutions and values from generation to generation – institutions and values that took centuries to develop. It protects the common dwelling place of individuals that both allows and directs individual freedom.

Civil society offers the only effective antidote to the extreme effects of statism and global capitalism. Run amok, capitalism can be a system in which individuals end up simply as isolated consumers in a brutally materialistic marketplace. But civil society reminds us that there are other realms of value in human life – family, truth, beauty, virtue, and dignity – that supersede the market.

Society makes possible all commonly shared life, including politics. Therefore, politics should never tear away the underlying foundations of society. Politics should not become a means by which a political elite gain the power to weaken or damage society.

The progressive attack on civil society

Progressivism, however, has mounted a long and steady assault on American society, seeking to replace traditional society with government. It pursues this replacement by denying the exceptionalism of American society. For when society loses its specialness, it loses any claim for loyalty and becomes only an undefined and unvalued collection of individuals. And when it is just a collection of individuals, then it is the powerful individuals who assume dominant control, which they do through a government that has expanded to fill the void left by an eroded society.

As Burke foresaw centuries ago, the distinction between right and left would come down to contrasting views of society – one side being grateful for the good in society and wanting to use it to address the bad, and the other side seeing only the bad and thus seeking to end that society and start over. G.K. Chesterton wrote that it is as important to appreciate what has worked in society and the longstanding institutions that have contributed to those previous successes – institutions valued by generations of people dealing with the same types of basic social issues that current generations face.

Modern progressivism, as it came of age in the 1960s, incorporates the negative view of American society, under which American identity centers on the historic wrongs committed by America. This identity then justifies expanding the power of government to transform a society that has been so historically evil and unenlightened.

In the progressive mindset, government is the only trustworthy and legitimate arena of American common life, and the only way to redeem a corrupt society. All that connects diverse groups in society is a rights-allocating government, with each group having nothing in common with other groups, other than a common struggle for government benefits. This both leads to and arises out of the multicultural view of society. Rebelling against the traditional model of assimilation, the multicultural view fosters a fragmented, adversarial society of competing groups.

America's success as an immigrant nation has resulted from a uniquely American process of assimilation. Not surprisingly, ever since the multicultural view has taken hold, along with its rejection of assimilation, America's immigration system has broken down. And in a larger sense, American society has lost its historic unity. Not even a common language can be unquestionably accepted. Not even traditional religious institutions and norms that have characterized the nation from its beginning can be acknowledged. This contrasts dramatically with the era of Theodore Roosevelt. Reflecting the assimilation ethos of the time, Roosevelt defended an open immigration door, but also insisted that new immigrants assimilate into a special and admirable American society.

Government can displace society

Political society, particularly at the national level, depends on all the lower social structures and relationships to give glue to the larger and more abstract national community. Human affection and loyalty can only be birthed in the more intimate settings of family and local community. And the stronger this affection and loyalty at the local level, the stronger will be the bonds at the national level. But this means that the progressive dismissal of family and local communities will itself undermine the attempt to build a stronger and more dominant national government.

The Left's social vision sees all common action as ultimately government action. This vision looks suspiciously at the nonpublic mediating institutions that fill the space between individuals and government – institutions seen as instruments of division, bias, and oppression. And yet, without these intermediary institutions, government lacks any real power, since it lacks any real social cohesion and unity behind it.

In the progressive approach, an ever-growing federal government increasingly replaces society, and the push for greater government power replaces the individual independence that was once the voluntary basis of social relationships and institutions. Consequently, not only does this government expansion erode society, it also disempowers individuals, who now become passive recipients of government rule and benefits. And it replaces the mutual interdependence of normal society with the impersonal, one-way, materialistic dependence of passive beneficiaries on the edicts and handouts of a distant government.

The unrealism of progressivism

Whereas the progressive mindset sees public policy as flowing from technical expertise imposed from the top down, the conservative approach relies on social institutions that gather wisdom and experience from the bottom up – from the "grassroots." But the progressive faith in the perfection of government-directed reforms ignores social history and reality. Admittedly imperfect social institutions are rejected in favor of a utopian state-perfectionism that exists only in the progressive mind. But since this "state perfection" is unattainable, pursuing it just means destroying society without any real justification.

Progressivism cannot see the exceptionalism of America because it is blinded by its vision of imagined perfection, of which any social reality must surely fall short. This vision is a legacy of Rousseau, who saw social norms as severe hindrances to a self-contradictory "perfectibility" only possible through the unhindered flowering of subjective human desires.

Conservatism conversely sees human beings as possessing both dignity and God-endowed natural rights, but also as inherently susceptible to sin and corruption, and hence always in need of self-discipline and moral guidance. This flawed human condition cannot suddenly be transformed into perfection by some utopian, government-imposed policy. However, a Rousseauian pursuit of perfectionism rejects all social institutions, like family and religion, that highlight the inherent limitations of the power of individual choice in the human experience.

The progressive obsession with utopian perfectionism inexorably leads to a destruction of society, which can never match those visions, and to an ever-growing government, which becomes the tool of implementing those visions. Even though government has never been able to achieve perfection, progressivism continues to call for more and more government, thinking that government failures are the result of not enough government.

A culture-of-the-self dismantles civic society

As a way of denying historic society in favor of some utopian vision, progressivism since the 1960s has advocated the ideal of the "expressive self." But this ideal, while desired by the rich who can financially afford to go their own way, is destructive to the poor. It favors autonomy over responsible 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 constitute 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.

This expressive self ideal, or culture-of-the-self, rejects age-old social traditions and institutions seen as imposing restraints on the uninhibited desires of the self. But to focus only on freeing the self from any and all outside constraints, no matter how timeless those constraints, is to take a very narrow view of human life – and a very costly one. Because, to free the individual from outside constraints, all the prevailing social customs and norms have to be wiped away.

Individualism can be valuable and inspiring, and individual freedom has always been a pillar of American law and society. But individualism was salutary as long as it occurred within a certain social and moral order – an order that had fostered the conditions and opportunities for individual freedom. When it loses touch with that social order, individualism loses its direction and becomes chaotic, untethered, and destructive.

The progressive undermining of religion hurts the vulnerable

Religion has been one of those social institutions most affected by a culture-of-the-self, and perhaps the one most targeted by progressive elites in their attempt to fundamentally transform society. Indeed, a culture-of-the-self can be an effective way to attack religion, because that attack can be couched in language that sounds as if the individual is being benefited. And religion must be attacked – they reason – since it is antithetical to a culture-of-the-self. Contrary to such a culture, religion requires the individual's submission to a nature that is beyond human manipulation; it requires the recognition of an individual's role as a creature of God.

Religion has influenced the customs, mores, and laws of society for centuries, so a weakening of religion has a profoundly weakening effect on society. Yet by eroding religion, the elites can escape from its authority and replace it with a powerful public sector over which they have control. As Tocqueville observed, the unique strength of American society, the force that kept the extremist tendencies of democracy in check, was the prevalence of religious belief. To Tocqueville, only religion can moderate democracy, because it appeals to an authority higher than democracy itself. But the Left only looks at religion from the perspective of how it might curb lifestyle freedom.

A culture-of-the-self does not just weaken religion; it weakens all the social bonds and virtues associated with citizenship, which after all are based on an awareness that individuals are involved in a larger common enterprise and are defined in part by their voluntary service to the nation. If people do not have this sense of connection and obligation, they are not going to make sacrifices in all the vital areas in which citizens need to make sacrifices – e.g., those sacrifices necessary to avert the looming fiscal catastrophe of the entitlement state. As the Founders believed, republican self-government depends on civic virtue (civic: relating to citizens and their community) – that is, the ability to set aside the desires of the self in favor of the common good as defined through civil society.

An erosion of social bonds and norms has also eroded the links between the generations. No American generation, for instance, has so unthinkingly burdened future generations with the debts of its own present spending as has the current one. Previous generations had more of a visceral sense of themselves as just a modest piece of a larger chain of life spanning the centuries.

A culture-of-the-self does not recognize that many political goals only become possible through certain social bonds and values. A strong political culture cannot exist if the foundations of citizenship have been weakened. Nor can a government be strong if the ties connecting people to the roots of that government have been severed. It is not surprising, then, that America's political system is experiencing gridlock during an era when social bonds have become so frayed.

A culture-of-the-self leads to big government

Through isolating individuals by breaking down social bonds, a culture-of-the-self provides a path toward ever bigger government, since government always steps into the void when the mediating social institutions weaken or disappear. In turn, an expanding government increasingly crowds out civil society and its institutions. So an effective way for elites to free themselves of the authority of social institutions like religion is simply to advocate for larger government. But again, without effective social bonds, this ever bigger government becomes ever more ineffective.

The loss of a common purpose and identity is particularly harmful to the poor and less powerful, who are not able to go it alone. With the loss of their social associations, which have been eroded by a government crowding those associations out of their social space, individuals are left to fend for themselves in the face of life's challenges and downturns, and in the face of a government convinced it knows what is best for each individual.

America's common culture, which prevailed during the first two centuries of the nation's existence, has been replaced by what the elites call a culture of tolerance, which is a pleasant-sounding term for essentially a culture of nothing. A society that does not aspire to anything more than a culture of tolerance is destined to become a society marked by a profound sense of alienation, which will most affect the poor and least powerful. The polite indifference among the inhabitants of a culture of tolerance or multiculturalism is too thin a social bond to overcome the inherent selfishness of people – and much too thin to inspire the kind of sacrifices, generosity and civic duties needed in a healthy society.

An adversarial versus assimilation culture

But where the multiculturalism of the elite emphasizes an adversarial culture of competing interests, the poor need an assimilation culture that connects them to the rest of society. Where 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.

Progressives claim that America's strength lies in its diversity, and that America's greatest challenge is in the toleration of that diversity. But this is not right. The reality of America is diversity, but its greatest strength always has been in its ability to unify and connect the diverse. This strength, however, can only be maintained by a culture of commonality, by a nation and society that mean more than just a toleration of all the differences between individuals – a nation and society that have some greater and separate meaning.

A culture of tolerance goes hand in hand with a culture-of-the-self. Under such a culture, there is no truth nor are there unifying standards, just the desires of the individual that must be tolerated. But the more a society is defined by the self, the more subjective it becomes, which in turn erodes the rule of law – and those most in need of the rule of law are those who have the least political and economic power.

Paradoxically, a culture-of-the-self makes the individual less capable of directing his or her own life. In a culture with no objective or prevailing norms, the individual becomes lost in a consumerist world that offers no real empowerment and no compelling reason for people to be concerned about anything beyond themselves. A culture-of-the-self erases anything beyond the individual, anything that would connect two different individuals into one common bond. But life without a moral guide or common purpose leads to anarchy, which again is far more destructive to the more vulnerable members of society than it is to the rich and powerful.

A loss of social authority

Complete moral freedom, and liberation from the influences and restraints of all cultural values, certainly sounds appealing. And because it sounds so universally appealing, it is an easy cause to promote. But in reality, a culture-of-the-self only works for the elite, because only the elite have the financial resources, political connections, and educational background to be able to go their own way and enjoy lifestyle liberation. The elite do not need to find jobs that require discipline and restraint and obedience. The elite do not need – or think they do not need – the integrity of the family to protect them from economic or cultural storms. The elite do not think they need the guidance of religion to lead them to happy, fulfilled lives. The goal of the elite is to be released from the inherited authorities of family, community, and religion, because those institutions impose values that restrict the elite's lifestyle freedom.

The lifestyle freedom of a culture-of-the-self has become ingrained in modern progressivism. This is why progressivism cannot appeal to strong moral ideals, since that moralism might threaten the new relativism and hence compromise the goal of lifestyle liberation. But this moral retreat does not affect only sexual, familial, or intimate relationships – it affects the entire terrain of morality.

Americans have traditionally harbored a range of moral concerns: caring for the poor and the sick, preserving civic virtue, loyalty to community, respect for authority, the sanctity of work, etc. But when progressivism abandons a moral vocabulary in favor of a culture-of-the-self narrative, it abandons all moral ideals. It also loses the power of moral suasion. So helping the poor and the sick cannot be a moral duty; it is just another function of a limitless government. But while the former can inspire a whole society, the latter is just one of thousands of different activities funded by an unknowable public finance system.

The absence in a culture-of-the-self of any moral strength can be particularly seen in how America is dealing with the fanaticism of radical Islam. Suffering from a deficit of moral authority, America turns its eyes from confronting Islam's failure to condemning its radical elements, lest we appear imperialistic and insensitive. Likewise, we refuse to enforce our democratically enacted border laws, lest we appear racist. We refuse to expect new immigrants to assimilate into America, lest we appear xenophobic. And we refuse to celebrate Western Civilization in our educational curriculum, lest we appear supremacist and intolerant. Consequently, we live on the defensive, asking our culture and society not for anything positive, but only for constant disassociation from all the sins of the past. Yet this constant focus on the bad side of America allows the Left to pursue its agenda of social transformation through government expansion.

A loss of freedom

A culture-of-the-self has eliminated a whole aspect of freedom. According to Isaiah Berlin, there are two types of freedom. Negative freedom is the absence of government constraints on liberty. Positive freedom, on the other hand, refers to the ability to use that negative freedom to pursue the highest ideals to which humans have strived for centuries. This is the real freedom – not just a freedom from restraint, but a non-state-imposed positive freedom to pursue virtue, truth, and dignity that can only be nurtured within the institutions of civil society.

The freedom offered by a culture-of-the-self feels like freedom only insofar as it liberates people from responsibility. But true freedom only exists with true responsibility. In the absence of a culture of moral obligation, freedom can easily be seen as simply the absence of any type of moral restraint or persuasion. The conservative view, however, envisions freedom as needing a vibrant private culture of moral guidance. As Edmund Burke demonstrated, individualism without community, rights without duties, and whims without virtue produce liberty only in the narrowest sense. Pope Francis argues that the great cultural crisis of modern times is the rise of a new Gnosticism, in which everything in the human condition is plastic, malleable, and subject to human whim. Nothing is given, and human beings are reduced, by self-delusion, legal definition, or judicial dictums to mere bundles of desires.

A moral poverty

The poverty that results from a loss of social and cultural bonds is a poverty that can be devastating, especially for the poor and vulnerable. Between 1979 and 2010, for instance, the average after-tax income for the poorest quintile of American households rose from $14,800 to $19,200; for the second poorest quintile, it rose from $29,900 to $39,100. Meanwhile, per-person antipoverty spending at the state and federal level increased sixfold between 1968 and 2008 – and that excludes Medicare, unemployment benefits, and Social Security. So the poor have become much better off, economically, in recent decades. But still, inequality persists and is getting worse, and the poor are falling further behind and having a harder time achieving a traditional middle-class life. 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.

Poverty is not only material, it is also moral and cultural. The hard truth about poverty is that its most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; its most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic. Being poor in 2016 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 2016 is having. The poor in 1935 became the middle class in 1955. That was due in part to the fact that in 1935, the larger culture supported the fundamental goals of life: 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 dependence out of which they or their children could not climb.

Many people living at the lower economic levels 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 2016 has put people into a life that has no decency or dignity. That was not the case in 1935.

An 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 self-discipline, delayed gratification, 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.

So as the changing nature of poverty has shown, government is inherently limited in its capability. There are many goals it cannot accomplish. And while its growth may not produce a positive result, that growth very well may produce a severely negative result. The larger and more pervasive government grows, the more it crowds out or restrains the diverse social fabric of invaluable cultural institutions.

© 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