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Two arguments for limited government and expanded civil society

The associations of civil society give us freedom to find systems that meet our needs.

LAUREN HALL: Generally speaking when we talk about civil society we're talking about all the ways that people associate with each other when they're not interacting directly with the state or the political process, and they're not buying and selling things on the market. So in the sort of theory of civil society we generally talk about three different types or sort of subsets of civil society. There are the primary associations, and some people don't put this in civil society at all. And those are sort of friends and family. So the kin relations that we have, the really close friendships that we have. And those are the primary associations that again are sort of quasi voluntary and our families are not always totally voluntary. But those are the really close intimate relationships. What matters more for most civil society scholars are the secondary and to a certain extent tertiary associations.

And the tertiary associations are the kinds of associations that you're a member of but you don't really interact with people in those associations. So if you are a member of, or if you donate to NPR, for example, or the various environmental groups you might send a check once a year, so you're a member in a sort of nominal sense and you give them financial support but you're not really interacting with anybody. It's not what we call a thick relationship.

But when people think about civil society broadly very often what they're thinking about are these secondary associations. And so the secondary associations are all of the situations in which people organize and associate with each other that are not based off of kin and that are not based off of selling or sort of swapping services. So you can think about these as everything from religious associations so the church that you go to, the synagogue that you go to, to the roller derby team that you're on to the group that you meet up with at the library to do puzzles or whatever with on Sunday afternoons. So all of those different ways that you associate with people to fulfill some kind of end.

The major argument for limiting the power of government broadly and expanding what we call civil society, which again we're primarily talking about these secondary associations, but depending on who you talk to there's arguments about really expanding the role of the family, for example, also. But the major argument is, well there's two arguments I'll say. One is a basic efficiency argument and the efficiency argument simply says the government, especially in large nation states is simply too big to know what people actually need and is too big to actually help them in the way that they need to be helped. So this is related to Smith's argument about sort of universal benevolence. It would be really nice if we could take care of everyone, even people that we've never met. But we just can't. We don't have the systems in place to do that. And moreover we're actually more likely to harm them because we don't know what they really need. So imagine that there's some sort of hurricane and you show up with a huge truckload of water and everyone says well, we have wells. What we really need are generators.

Well now you've wasted a bunch of resources bringing them something that they don't need and they're no better off. And so the efficiency argument says we need to try to devolve a lot of services onto the people who know those people the most and again those secondary associations where people have face to face knowledge of what everyone needs. So that's the efficiency piece. The moral piece though is one that I think is even deeper than the efficiency piece and that's a question of coercion,
which means that even if you don't like the government's response to your specific problem you will be forced to accept it. So what a lot of classical liberals and libertarians get concerned about is the moral problem of government intervention which is that the government is a coercive organization.

And when we talk about the state generally very often what we talk about is it's any kind of institution that has a monopoly on the use, of course, of force. A legitimate monopoly, a monopoly on the use of force. So what that means is government can say I want to help these people and I'm going to raise your taxes to do it. And so while we might agree that those people need to be helped, I might not agree about the way that the government is helping. And I might also not agree with a variety of things that the government does with my tax dollars.

So, for example, the government might say I want to use your taxes, I'm going to take money from you and I'm going to force you to give me that money and I'm going to use that money to create a single payer health care system. And I say okay, I'm in favor of single payer healthcare, but the government is also going to use that money to say go to war with a bunch of people that I think are innocent in Afghanistan or Iraq. So all of a sudden I don't have a choice in how my money is being used. I might appreciate one use that the government is putting it to, but I might have real problems with other uses. And I don't have any option or way of exiting that relationship.

So what happens in civil society, at least ideally, is that the secondary associations give you more freedom to move between associations that do meet your needs in various ways. They also give you just more freedom to dissent without the coercive piece. So if I'm a member, for example, of a conservative religious organization I may say there's all these things that I agree with about this community, but there's a couple of things that I don't agree with. So I recognize that in order to be a member, a full member of this community I might have to have very similar kinds of beliefs about certain things. But there's areas that I can disagree and so maybe when the tithing, the basket goes around and there's a specific organization that they're supporting that I don't believe in or trust I say well, I'll put my money into something else for this week or something like that. So there's a freedom of exit with secondary associations and that's true broadly speaking. So if I'm a member of a very, again to use the religious example, if I'm a member of a very conservative religious organization and I, for example, don't like their attitudes toward say women or LGBTQ folks I can say you know what, I'm going to find a different religious association that I want to be a part of that, in fact, has what I think are better values in this area. And so I can move.

So when we talk about freedom of exit that's what we mean is the ability to exit relationships that are no longer serving our purposes. The problem with government broadly is that there's no exit.

So I can look at the government and say well, I've got all these problems with say, for example, wars and the criminal justice system or I'm really upset about something else. But I can't withdraw my tax dollars and say I want to put them somewhere else. I'm stuck. I'm stuck with that government. And, in fact, because of restrictive immigration policies it's almost impossible nowadays to move to another country unless you're extraordinarily privileged and have a job in that country and all sorts of other things. So for a lot of libertarians the problem of government is both that it tends to solve problems in inefficient ways, but it also relies on coercion when if you rely on these civil societies, these secondary associations, you create more wiggle room for people to find systems that meet their needs.

  • There are three subsets of civil society: primary, secondary, and tertiary associations.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology professor Lauren Hall says there are two arguments for expanding civil society and limiting the power of government, and they include elements of efficiency, morality, and coercion.
  • Ideally in civil society, secondary associations give you more freedom to meet your needs in various ways. If we relied more heavily on civil society rather than government, we'd have more wiggle room to find systems that work for us.