Posts tagged with: civil society

This past Saturday, I attended the Alleviating Poverty Through Entrepreneurship (APTE) 2014 summit. APTE is a student group at OSU in Columbus, OH, and they put together a wonderful cast of ten speakers on the subject of the future of social entrepreneurship. With seven pages of notes (front and back), I unfortunately cannot cover every detail of the conference, but instead I will briefly focus on a theme that recurred throughout the afternoon: private, often for-profit, solutions to public service problems facing the poor.

APTE brought together an impressive lineup of speakers for two rounds of individual presenters, followed by a Twitter Q&A, with a panel discussion on the city of Detroit in between the two groups: (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Today at Ethika Politika, I offer an Independence Day reflection on the relation between political liberty, the associations of civil society, and the ascetic spirit necessary to maintain them:

Yet if these associations and their societal benefit are in decline, how can we prevent that “soft despotism” Tocqueville so vividly and presciently described? He writes,

I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species; as for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

While Tocqueville goes on to describe the “immense and tutelary power [i.e. the state] that alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyment and of looking after their fate,” it is worth noting that the atomization of society he describes is firstly a deterioration of culture by a common passion for “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The society he imagines, though it may know nothing of extreme want, also knows nothing of fasting and, by consequence, of true freedom in the sense described by Acton. It reflects the heart of a people that actually wants a government to “remove entirely from them the trouble to think and the difficulty of living.” And as Burke has said, external restraints of the state must multiply when inner restraints of the soul diminish. To the extent that we are on our way to Tocqueville’s dystopian democracy and civil society in the United States is in decline … we can assume, at least, an accompanying decline in the way of life that values self-restraint and virtue over “small and vulgar pleasures.”

The basic conviction is one I have expressed here before. Asceticism, understood as the self-limitation of oneself for the sake of self-discipline and virtue, is essential to self-government and therefore to a free society. In this article in particular, however, I focus especially on the possibility of a link between ascetic living and the rich associational life that Alexis de Tocqueville noted was so important a check upon the power of the state and the passions of a democratic people.

Read the full article, “Self-Limitation, Liberty, and Civil Society,” here.

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Friday, March 22, 2013

(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)

The lives and deaths of cities in America is certainly topical. Drive through Detroit if you don’t think so. On one hand, block after block of decimated homes create a landscape of, let’s be honest, death. On the other, people in the city forge ahead, turning empty city blocks into burgeoning urban gardens, seeking out entrepreneurial options in cheap real-estate and office leases. Do the lives and deaths of cities “just happen” or is there planning involved?

courtesy of Biography.com

courtesy of Biography.com

Jane Jacobs, wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, speaking out against what constituted much of urban planning. She said, in one interview, that urban planners were rather “hopeless”:

The chief planner of Philadelphia was showing me around. First we walked down a street that was just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and leaning out of the windows. I think he was taking me on this street to show me what he regarded as a bad part of the city, to contrast it with what he was going to show me next. I liked this street—people were using it and enjoying it and enjoying each other. Then we went over to the parallel street that had just undergone urban renewal. It was filled with very sterile housing projects. The planner was very proud of it, and he urged me to stand at a certain spot to see what a great vista it had. I thought the whole thing was extremely boring—there was nobody on the street. All the time we were there, which was too long for me, I saw only one little boy. He was kicking a tire in the gutter. The planner told me that they were progressing to the next street over, where we had come from, which he obviously regarded as disgraceful. I said that all the people were over there, that there were no people here, and what did he think of that? What he obviously would have liked was groups of people standing and admiring the vistas that he had created. You could see that nothing else mattered to him. So I realized that not only did he and the people he directed not know how to make an interesting or a humane street, but they didn’t even notice such things and didn’t care.

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If we assume that the institutions of civil society, like churches, recreation centers, fantasy football leagues, and book clubs are essential for a flourishing society, it becomes very important to determine how such institutions are developed, maintained, and promoted.

For thinkers as varied as Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Kuyper, and Pope Paul VI, the realm of civil society provides an indispensable area of connection and protection between the individual person and the political order. In Quadragesimo anno, Paul VI writes of the need for “the reform of institutions,” necessary in part because of “the evil of what we have termed ‘individualism’ that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State.”

It is at this point that Paul VI invokes the principle of subsidiarity, which is dependent upon and recognizes the rich variegation of human social life, which consists in human identity not only in terms of the individual citizen and the political order, but also in the human person as friend, co-worshiper, family member, co-worker, neighbor, and so on. One of the things most pressing for Paul VI was the idea that these institutions of civil society needed to be strengthened, not only for their own good but also for that of the political order itself and even more broadly for the common good: “for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”

How do we reinvigorate civil society once it has declined? How do we help build up what has atrophied? These are questions that are vital for moving beyond a false dichotomy of market and state or individual and state, not only conceptually but practically. As Matthew Kaemingk writes, “Their importance is often ignored by politicians, but sociologists tell us that a flourishing array of non-profits and free organizations consistently leads to measurable declines divorce, poverty, violence, obesity, depression, chronic illness, illiteracy, dependency, homelessness, and political apathy.” But if associations of civil society help lead to these outcomes, what helps lead to associations of civil society?

Melissa Steffan reports at Christianity Today this week on some research that bears on aspects of the necessary answers to these questions. Steffan writes, “Parents considering whether or not to send their children to private school can now weigh more than just tuition and curriculum. According to a new study from professors at Calvin College, the affiliation of a high school student’s school significantly impacts his or her sense of civic duty.”

She is referring to a new article from Jonathan Hill and Kevin den Dulk, “Religion, Volunteering, and Educational Setting: The Effect of Youth Schooling Type on Civic Engagement,” which appears in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
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Anthony Bradley looks at the inspiring life story of Thomas L. Jennings (1791–1856) who was granted a patent, the first for an African American, for developing a process that led to modern-day dry cleaning. “Do we not want new stories like this in the United States and around the world?” asks Bradley. “Do we not want people to be free to use their creativity to meet marketplace needs in their communities and freely use their wealth creation to contribute to civil society as they see fit?” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
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In a lengthy interview in the Daily Caller, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg picks up many of the themes in his terrific new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Here’s an excerpt:

Daily Caller: In what ways do you think the U.S. has become like Europe?

Samuel Gregg: If you think about the criteria I just identified, it’s obvious that parts of America — states like California, Illinois, and New York — have more-or-less become European. Likewise, the fact that most federal government expenditures are overwhelmingly on welfare programs replicates the situation prevailing throughout Western Europe. Then there is the unwillingness on the part of many Americans to accept that we cannot go on this way. It is one thing to have problems. But it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge them.

Daily Caller: What’s so bad about becoming like Europe? It’s not that bad of a place. It’s not like becoming like North Korea, right?

Samuel Gregg: I lived and studied in Europe for several years. So I can report that there is much to like! But even leaving aside many European nations’ apparent willingness to settle for long-term economic stagnation, I would argue that it’s becoming harder and harder to be a free person in Europe. By that, I don’t mean a re-emergence of the type of socialist regimes that controlled half of Europe for 50 years. Rather I have in mind two things. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Wednesday, February 20, 2013

According to Daly, Soviet government sought to dictate every aspect of life in the name of the common good, including the indexing of Soviet publications by libraries. He writes, “[I]f Soviet publications failed to end up in libraries, then, as Lenin railed, ‘we have to know precisely whom to imprison.’”

In the Winter-Fall 2012 issue of Modern Age (54, nos. 1-4), Jonathan Daly contributes a helpful exploration of what happens when desire for the common good goes bad. His article, “Bolshevik Power and Ideas of the Common Good,” focuses on the disastrously ill-conceived effort by the Russian revolutionaries to promote the common good through their self-proclaimed “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Daly contends, “The horrors of Bolshevik governance stemmed directly from their repudiation of the precious fruits of Western political thought.” It is a classic example of the tendency of some to promote cheap moralisms while ignoring the empirical realities of any given context, what then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger termed in 1985, “the antithesis of morality.” In addition to fostering mass suspicion, starvation, and ultimately a despotic police state in Russia, the Bolsheviks also have the blood of literally millions on their hands, Orthodox Christians as well many Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others—the rotten fruit of their noble quest for the common good. (more…)

National Review Online asked Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg to weigh in on President Barack Obama’s second term inaugural address.

Gregg points to “our president’s worldview that the government is the primary way in which we address our common problems and realize our responsibilities and obligations to each other as citizens and as human beings.” He wonders if it has occurred to Obama that “many such responsibilities and obligations might be realized outside the realm of politics … ”

Gregg goes on to suggest, for the presidential reading list, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Jacques Maritain’s writings on civil society in the United States.

Read “Why Barack Obama Needs to Read Alexis de Tocqueville” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.

While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (Encounter Books, January 2013).

In Britain, a new zeitgeist is capturing business people, academics and political players from both the Left and Right, says the BBC’s Matthew Taylor:

Catholic Social Teaching is a doctrine well-suited to today’s quest for more ethical businesses, a less overbearing state and a more vibrant and cohesive civil society.

Now, as in 1891, many fear we will not be able to adapt to profound change without dangerous social upheaval. It may not provide easy or even practical answers right now, though it does, at least, seem to be grappling with the right questions.

And for those of us tired of the ritual adversarialism and technocratic wrangling on show in Westminster, there is something rather inspiring about the response of a shrewd operator like Jon Cruddas.

When I ask him whether the ethical foundations of Catholic Social Teaching imply a different way of thinking about politics, he says: “Yes, I do and I see them in different parties. It’s going to be uncomfortable, difficult, but it means that we have to focus in on almost transcending the formal architecture of politics in the national good.”

Jordan Ballor and Hunter Baker recently argued that Catholic Social teaching could be a worthy model for engagement here in America too:
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Blog author: pdevous
posted by on Wednesday, November 7, 2012

It is clear that what President Barack Obama has achieved is historic: Being re-elected when not a single one of his major initiatives has enjoyed broad popular support.

What is also clear is that the moral and spiritual demographics of the United States have changed considerably.  If Gov. Mitt Romney, an honorable man of moderate political preferences and conservative personal convictions, cannot attract a winning coalition we are in deep trouble.  His loss illustrates the change that has occurred in the nation and the challenges it portends.  Politics is about addition and Gov. Romney surely tried to run an “additional” campaign and I can think of no Republican who was more likely to accomplish what was necessary for a center-right victory.

Last night’s election illustrates that Americans have become a people more dependent on the government. The country will continue to trend culturally and politically to the left. This means that conservative causes that take their impetus from the truths and moral rationality offered by the Judeo-Christian political  and philosophical tradition will continue to be marginalized, the Church’s liberty restricted, and the cultural, moral, political and spiritual leftism, hedonism,  and materialism, with its attendant anomie and nihilism, will continue the long march through all of our cultural and governmental institutions. (more…)