Libertarians' Cheap Talk on Civil Society

Libertarians' Cheap Talk on Civil Society

As COVID-19 was throwing its first punches, many pointed to it as a clear example of the kind of crisis that could justify large-scale government intervention into regular social routines, and then in the economy. It was feared that minimizing government’s role in the crisis would result in millions of deaths, and perhaps even cause a kind of long-run economic suffering worse than what would be inflicted by lockdowns and other measures in the short-run. Those more eager to assign government a large role in the crises were happy to throw the idea that there could be “no libertarians in a pandemic” in the face of those who could traditionally be counted on to favor small government and private action as the optimal solution to social and economic problems. Many self-proclaimed libertarians took issue with anyone too giddy about their supposed got-ya moment, and argued that this flippant attitude was at least misinformed about libertarian beliefs, and at worst intellectually dishonest—although there may be disagreements about specific policies and tactics, libertarianism does not find itself in some sort of paradox if its proponents find themselves claiming the government has some role to play in a crisis.

Of course, excessive government involvement or overreach is always a concern for libertarians and small-government types, especially considering the obvious problems that come with eagerly handing more power to the state—it’s not exactly unheard of for temporary government powers and spending to become permanent. And, a government toying with the role of an all-encompassing social and economic regulator is prone to fatal conceits about their true levels of competency and capabilities, risking doing more harm than good. Because of this, although libertarians accept some role for government in a crisis, it must be a reasonably limited one. The idea is that “as much decision-making power as possible” should be delegated down to the lowest levels of government, and further yet, continually pushed down to private individuals and civil society to do the rest when possible. So, it wasn’t surprising at all to see many self-proclaimed libertarians hesitant with state-proposed solutions to containing the pandemic and its effects, while pointing to standard talking points about civil society as one of the sources of solutions to the crises and strains from  the pandemic and certain government measures.

However, what was surprising was finding many in libertarian circles with an unjustifiably high degree of faith in private structures, safety nets, and community support mechanisms potentially being one of the keys to widespread pandemic solutions. Unfortunately, what was on the table for most communities and those needing support—financially or otherwise—was not a practical choice between relying on the ready-and-waiting pillars of civil society on the one hand, and solutions and aid from governments on the other. If one were to honestly contrast ideals with reality, they would find both major error and slight hypocrisy in any claim that today’s civil society could bring all solutions and support to individuals and communities more efficiently and effectively than governments could. The sad fact is this: anyone making strong cases for private action and solutions through today’s civil society doesn’t have much of a civil society to point to. The kind of civil society that could take over many (if not most) aid and coordination roles from the government and needs to exist well before a crisis hits, and the current state of civic organization is nowhere near sufficient to do so for everyone. 

To be sure, the point of principle outlined above is sound. Serious consideration of non-government solutions and alternatives to human suffering, a crisis, or almost anything else, is the correct line of thinking for anyone that wants to see a future with a smaller state and more human freedom. Indeed, non-state methods are ideally the best ways for people to organize and create solutions for social and economic problems. However, for those who so eagerly throw around civil society as an answer to the strains caused by the pandemic (or side effects of government policy) in a country like the U.S. or Canada, the tough question of how still remains. Through what set of existing local structures, organizations, methods, and so on would this action flow from and adequately replace government efforts? How can one seriously claim government planning and action is not only undesired, but unneeded in light of today’s diminished civil society?

Take direct government transfers to individuals as one example. When these sorts of proposals were being discussed—they eventually did come to fruition in Canada and in the United States—one of the counterpoints to alleviating private pains with public spending was to leave it to private action via civil society. Some were quick to provide what they thought of as proof of the superiority of government action by pointing to several instances of GoFundMe or financial support groups on Facebook—real-world instances of people getting together to send funds or organize other forms of support for someone in distress or need. 

No doubt, these examples are heartwarming, and do give you some small indication of how wonderful private action can—and often does—work. And, it is certainly true that this kind of aid is, and always will be, part of the story of a strong civil society. No one should undermine or downplay the positive effects individuals can create by directly helping other individuals or groups in need with funds. However, at the same time no one should kid themselves into the idea that a robust civil society is simply about lifting our eyes off our own business every now and then for just enough time to throw money (or other kinds of support) at people—that’s ultimately just charity. And, without deeper connections between donors and recipients, this kind of private charity does not create the kind of reliable and reciprocal relationships that a healthy civil society does, and cannot match the scale or consistency of government benefits and state organization . If this kind of charity were the beginning or end of what anyone meant by civil society and private solutions, or one of their strongest arguments, that’s quite a lacklustre counterpoint to the degree of government aid and coordination that so often alleviates the effects of a widespread crises or concentrated suffering. 

Pointing to civil society or private action should mean we get to point at so much more. Actions and interactions that  go beyond charitable acts, the day-to-day caretaking or improvement of strictly personal lives and careers, or  ways to intermittently engage in a hobby (e.g. attending business networking events, or monthly pickup basketball games). etc., contribute so much more to the realization of a robust civil society. Membership and relationships with groups and organizations that fight for a specific cause, or act as a forum for building relationships, and community participation enable this. So, the existence, relevance, and strength of organizations and associations with their own features, methods, reasons for being, and internal structures should be a large part of how we evaluate the health and condition of today’s civil society. 

Indeed, a healthy civil society would see organizations and groups acting as distinct structures, yet still extensions of their communities, to contribute to the direction and coordination of solutions to the crises brought about by the pandemic. One can imagine how this, among other things, might mean communities would be able to coordinate the delivery of PPE, food, or other necessary items to vulnerable people. Furthermore, it’s not hard to imagine the existence of private safety-net mechanisms and programs some could rely on to alleviate financial or other logistical pains brought about by the disruption of economic activity most drastically felt at the beginning of the pandemic, and still to some degree now. Civil organizations might even be able to go as far as helpful involvement in spreading information, and raising awareness, about illness prevention and vaccine availability through their own channels or methods that community members might find more trustworthy, reliable, and attentive to the local needs of the community. All might be possible without having to rely on the benevolence of corporations, outside charities, or government.

In any event, this or any other kind of community organization and coordination will not, usually, spring up overnight. It seems to be recognized by everyone’s common sense at some level that a critical mass of people must participate in civil society on a consistent basis for private action, organization, and planning to be regarded as a viable, ongoing source of alternatives to government solutions. This is demonstrated by the reactions and narratives that surround any occasion where large numbers of people do spontaneously lend their time and resources to assist others in need they have no previous connection with. For instance, people rushing to help alleviate the pain of destruction in a flood zone is correctly framed by general narrative as amazing examples and heartwarming exceptions to the rule of normal circumstances—that it is hard to ask or expect people to invest their time and effort in helping others if it doesn’t directly concern their own family, careers, and so on. Thus, someone seriously dedicating themselves to assisting others when they need it is cause for special celebration and recognition. The conclusion for many is a reasonable one: Private action, although often helpful, is not something that can be consistently relied upon because most of us have little to no ongoing participation, membership, and investment in organizations or associations that, by their nature, would step up and answer a crisis or problem with coordination, aid, etc. So, many feel that’s what the government is for. For a vital civil society that can take on substantial roles currently assigned to the government  to exist, a large part of the population must join, and participate in, these sorts associations and organizations on an ongoing basis during regular times.

A strong civil society requires long-term and consistent investment from individuals. Formally joining a group and investing the time to work alongside others in it and be there for them means those same people (and others associated with the group) will be there for you if you ever need them. The absence of ongoing membership and participation in private organizations and associations means that strong infrastructures and networks of private support can never be built and maintained as key pillars of our lives. That means they will never come to be regarded as a consistently viable alternative to state coordination, management, and aid in the face of crisis or other social and economic strain. 

Furthermore, consistency is only one part of the story. Meaningful, committed involvement and solidarity with others is just as important as ongoing attendance, participation, or signals of your commitment. For civil society to ever be an effective and serious replacement for state-controlled planning and action, it cannot be something that loosely hangs onto the edges of our lives. Involvement in private organizations and associations must have breadth across time and depth in the present. In other words, civil society can’t be a semi-cared-for garden we rush to water only when we have an immediate need to strengthen it to bearits fruits. Some casual attendance here and there, continual participation in a mailing list or newsletter, and so on won’t form the underlying going concern of a safety and support network someone can rely on by simply being a going concern. A strong investment in active participation with the intent of forging the very real relationships and interpersonal dynamics that can grow throughout ongoing activities and processes does that.

Ultimately, exactly how to go about creating and executing the specifics of a stronger civil society is trickier and more challenging than recognizing some of its general, but important, characteristics in conversation and calling for more of that. At the end of the day, there is no template or starter-kit solution one can thrust upon a community from the top down that takes care of all the details needed to strengthen private organization and association. Some individuals may prioritize organizing associations and groups that aim to exclusively solve a specific set of problems in their community. Others might decide their organizations or associations should act primarily as a forum members use to associate with each other and form bonds just for the sake of it—participation in activities, traditions, or events may naturally follow or not. 

In any case, a crucial part of building strong pockets of civil society is improving the associations and connections that encourage the development of strong relationships and social networks that can provide the organizational and support frameworks outside of the standard government-provided ones, and those we may have for our narrowest private purposes. There are certainly examples of these kinds of networks and associations that exist today that can be looked upon as models. The least that can be said about them is that they provide the sense of community and support described throughout this essay. When the pandemic hit they were ready and able to step up and help their community, and even other ones. One can point to examples like the Mormon communities and churches who have been able to participate in both the donation and logistics coordination of providing food relief to their communities and others, and put their money where their mouths are when it came to vaccines

However, it is certainly true that, today, the degree many (if not most) people participate in building and maintaining these kinds of associations and organizations is relatively limited—especially if they do not have religious or other faith-based convictions. The question is how similarly functioning organizations, associations, and elements of community can come into play for the vast majority of people. This is  the question libertarians will have to answer if they are serious about devolving government roles to civil society. 

Civil society is us, and it shouldn’t stand-in as a theoretical or idealistic throwaway term that means “a bunch of other people that aren’t me or the government will take care of it because that’s what they choose to do with their time.” When we point a finger and say civil society should (or can) handle something, we’re actually pointing at a mirror. And, when we look at who is reflected we should be questioning if they are truly in a position to help anyone other than themselves, their small group of friends, or family through a broader form of private organization or association they have ongoing and meaningful participation in—or call upon help for themselves. If one thing is to be learned about civil society in the face of the strain brought about by this pandemic, it’s that it is plainly obvious the ongoing and meaningful associations we need as evidence to seriously claim private action and organization would meet or exceed the capabilities of of the state and benefit most people do not exist nearly to the extent they could. 

If that is indeed the case, it’s not surprising that millions of people think civil society isn’t the solution to many of the social and economic problems we are facing now, and will face. They know, and we should all know, that the kind of private associations and organizations that would solve these problems without government can’t exist without deep, consistent investment over the long term—regardless of how badly we may need them, and how strong our theories and ideals are. When things are back to normal, whatever that normal is, we have to do better at creating the civil society we want to point to in good times and bad—and that especially includes those that preach it as the ideal alternative to government. Talk is cheap.

Featured Image is Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Society Hall, by Quentin Melson