Acton Institute Powerblog

Civil society in a time of pandemic

As the coronavirus spreads, federal, state, and local governments are wrestling with how to handle the crisis. So are civil associations, churches, businesses, and families. The role of civil society is often neglected, but it could be the most important.

Governments are useful in times of crisis. They can address particular problems on a scale that no one else can. There’s also the danger that powers consolidated by governments during crises won’t be given up when the crisis ends.

I am a minimalist when it comes to state power. Yet in an emergency—such as war, natural disaster, or pandemic—government does have an important role. But even here, the state’s role should be limited and leave plenty of room for civil society to act under its own volition. One could even say that’s “the American way.”

Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on Americans’ distinct tendency to form associations. These associations have an important political, social, and economic impact. Groups have more power than lone individuals, so they have a better chance of limiting state power. Civil society also plays a key role in combating individualism. This creates stronger communities, builds friendships, and promotes solidarity. But it, too, has a political dimension. Tocqueville warned that individualism leads to centralization. States want to promote individualism to consolidate power. This is another reason why civil associations are essential in free, democratic societies.

The American sociologist Robert Nisbet noted that individualism, and the loneliness and alienation that result from it, have created a new “quest for community.” If this is not realized in a plurality of associations (and strong families), then the state steps in and tries to create a “monistic” community, which leads to uniformity and loss of political liberty.

In the last month, most of the focus has been on state and federal lockdowns, but we should not ignore all of the private, voluntary associations that have been active in fighting the pandemic, from providing goods and services to people in need, to voluntary closings before the official stay-at-home directives.

Many groups voluntarily canceled or postponed conferences. Private companies asked people to work from home; parishes stopped celebrating public Masses; many families canceled trips. This happened before the official lockdowns, all because people want to be socially responsible, self-isolate, and serve the common good. When businesses like Costco or Tractor Supply Company self-regulate and create special times for the elderly or those with health issues to shop, they show us that American civil society can function in a time of crisis.

There is a legitimate debate about the extent to which religious services and the sacraments should be made available to people. Many people have criticized their bishops and pastors for canceling Mass and religious services during the holiest days of the year. But I think this view misses several important elements. First, without denying the unique spiritual role of the Church, the Church is also a private, voluntary association within the political community and has a social role to promote the common good. Canceling large gatherings during a pandemic meets this need. As Fr. Thomas Joseph White notes in an essay at First Things: “The Catholic perspective on the common good and solidarity can and should naturally align with the act of public reason requiring temporary quarantine, not protest it in the name of a misbegotten exaggerated libertarianism.”

But there is also a deeper political and social meaning here. By canceling Masses (and other events) before officially required to by the state, this highlights the role of civil society and the ability of churches to take responsibility for themselves, without state power forcing them to do so. It was an act of political prudence and a deep affirmation of the principle of free association defended by St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum. It was also a manifestation of the legitimate authority of non-political associations in the face of increasing political centralization.

Nisbet worried about what he called the “twilight of authority,” where civil associations, churches, and families no longer had any authority and all that remained was the isolated individual and the state. It is important during this time that we don’t fall prey to this false dichotomy, but rather affirm and strengthen the role of civil associations.

“Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law”

COVID-19 is creating economic havoc, and the long-term negative impact is hard to predict.

However, there is a possible, positive outcome. If businesses, voluntary organizations, churches, and families make decisions to self-regulate within their circle of influence—if they find creative ways to help others and find new ways to integrate and solve problems—it is possible that the citizens of the United States could come out of this crisis with a deep confidence in our ability to self-govern. It would show Americans and the world that, despite serious problems, America’s civil fabric is actually thicker and richer than we thought. And this could have a profoundly positive impact on the economy.

No doubt some will be irresponsible. Others will abuse their liberty and refuse to cooperate. In some places, there may be looting. But hard cases make bad law and bad policy. Such behavior can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis rather than with the heavy hand of martial law.

“Liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization”

Lord Acton wrote that “liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” This also applies to our leaders. Our leaders need to be mature and disciplined in the use of power.

If we see that government exercises too heavy a hand, whether it is through implementing martial law or using technology to track its citizens more than it already does, we may open a Pandora’s box that will be worse and longer lasting than either the coronavirus or a major economic downturn.

There is already low trust in the institutions. Many believe that major institutions such as the government or the media are looking out for themselves. Some people in Silicon Valley are making the case that the state needs to get out of the way and let tech people handle the crisis. We should absolutely encourage innovation. But do we really want to trust a bunch of techo-utopians who mine our data to help us in a crisis? Do we want to trust Google, a business which has made deals with the Chinese communist regime to suppress information?

During the 2008 financial meltdown, Rahm Emmanuel famously said not to let a crisis go to waste. Governments almost always use crises to extend power. But this is a chance for America to think differently about the crisis. It is a chance to renew its civil society, strengthen our social fabric, revitalize localism, and show our political elites that we can indeed govern ourselves. It is a time to look at society in new ways and build new technologies that facilitate associations and community, not just promote individualism.

The government has a clear role in times of pandemic. But in the United States, it also has the important responsibility to allow civil associations, private individuals, and private companies to work out these things first. We, too, have a role: to participate in our associations, to build new ones, to come up with creative solutions to the lockdowns that strengthen community and fight individualism, and to confirm our souls in self-control, so the government doesn’t have to do it for us.

It is a time to look at society in new ways and build new technologies that facilitate associations and community, not just promote individualism or a bigger state.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute