How We Can Recapture the Lost Civic Society - America's Future Foundation

August 13, 2019


How We Can Recapture the Lost Civic Society

By: Peter Lipsett

You could lose everything tomorrow. Then you’d need government.

Jonah Goldberg occasionally mocks this idea on his podcast. To go from a middle-class suburbanite to homeless on the street would take circumstances so extreme as to be unfathomable. It would mean that his immediate family, extended family, close friends, loose acquaintances with kind hearts, and every social and community organization with which he is tangentially associated would have to turn its back on him.

You’re probably in the same boat. A certain segment of society will pin that on your “privilege.” Can we really chalk it up to that, or is something more going on?

Likely, you also believe in typical “bourgeois” values such as thrift, respect for others, self-reliance, not stealing or lying, and generally being a stand-up guy or gal.

The term “bourgeois norms” might get you the side-eye if tossed out in mixed company. But what if being “bourgeois” is really the path to saving America?

That is, in a sense, the thesis of the forthcoming book by Howard Husock. In Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and the Decline of Bourgeois Norms, Husock goes beyond the typical argument of big government being bad to explore how government came to be so entrenched in the social service state and what the alternative looks like.

Interested in how we reignite civil society?

Get the Book: Howard Husock’s book comes out Sept. 10. It’s available for pre-order, but the first 30 AFF readers who complete the request here can receive a free copy mailed to them compliments of the Novus Society.

Join Us Live: Howard Husock and Peter Lipsett are joining AFF-Dallas on Monday, Sept. 23 and AFF-Atlanta on Tuesday, Sept. 24 for a discussion! RSVP for one of these events now.

Figuring this out is more than academic for Husock. Without the generosity of the formerly thriving private civil society organizations, he might not be here. Husock grew up hearing his father speak of what he called “The Agency” that took care of him and his siblings as they were being “raised without parents and without the support of public funds.”

Through the privately supported help offered by the Juvenile Aid Society, Husock’s father didn’t fall into a life of poverty, but instead found a path to move up the economic ladder. The Society lifted him and so many others up by instilling these norms, coupled with valuable alms and services.

As Husock writes, “They sought to shape his values – to inculcate the norms that are sometimes mocked as ‘bourgeois’ – in the belief that the right behaviors were as important as food and shelter in the long run.”

From Values to Programs

If you look back at your own life, you likely learned many of these values from your parents. These include self-respect, honor, confidence, trust, self-control, and good manners.

To lost children of New York City in the 1850s, Charles Loring Brace’s Children’s Aid Society offered a refuge to both eat and have shelter. It also offered something more – the chance to learn “the norms of a modern, industrial society.” Husock devotes a chapter to the story of the Children’s Aid Society, which saved thousands of children and began to change the fabric of New York in a positive way.

Husock highlights several examples of people like Brace who led change by improving the formative character of those in hard situations. He also chronicles the steady march toward a new and dangerous way of thinking, one that believed the poor’s problem was not a matter of norms and values, but a more naked need for cash.

Rather than taking a formative approach to building people of character and capability, the government programs so prevalent today are “reformative…They are designed to remedy problems, not to prevent them from appearing in the first place.”

And like so much with government, it starts with the best of intentions.

In what I consider the most fascinating chapter of the book, Husock recounts the story of Wilbur Cohen, a chief architect of the modern-day social-service apparatus. Unlike Charles Brace and others who looked to instill positive norms, Cohen and his cohorts built a legacy “based on public policy for the poor, not personal involvement with them.”

Cohen worked behind the scenes in the Kennedy administration to help pass the 1962 Public Welfare Amendments to the Social Security Act. These changes threw more money at rehabilitation services, social workers, and cash transfers.

These changes were made with the idea that “once the financial need [for the poor] was met, nothing more need be offered.”

That didn’t work. Government programs ballooned far beyond the original scope. Spending for what is now known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children grew from $1.4 billion in 1962 to $3.5 billion 1969. That’s a $2.1 billion increase in only seven years. It will not be a surprise to you that this trend line hasn’t turned around in the last fifty years.

In fact, Wilbur Cohen later described the 1962 law as his “greatest disappointment” and a “dismal, 100 percent failure.” Oh, would that more of today’s lawmakers reflect on government-expanding legislation this way, and then actually do something about it.

The Myth of Scale

I recently had the chance to interview Husock about his book at a conference. I asked him about a seeming paradox in his book. We often hear that while civil society groups are great, they are little fish in big ponds, and that only government can bring programs to scale.

Husock makes the opposite argument: “Only norms lead to scale and only civil society can transmit norms. Were a restored civil society to focus on the formative rather than the reformative…it would make government-funded social programs less necessary.”

Husock explained to me that this is really the core thesis of his book. The human-to-human transmission of these life-affirming normative behaviors can reach so much farther than any government program.

Husock doesn’t argue that there is no role for government as a social safety net. However, with broader acceptance of these norms, we can positively change the trajectory of so many lives such that the need for these programs goes down.

What do we do?

The government intrusion into the voluntary sector continues apace, to the point that far too many nonprofit organizations act essentially as a provider of government service. However, the sort of formative, character-building organizations Husock advocates also continue to grow and flourish. He cites the story of the Harlem Children’s Zone in detail, but also notes other such organizations that dot the landscape of America.

I asked Husock how we, particularly those of us just getting started in forming our philanthropic thinking, should approach giving support to the sorts of norm-forming organizations he highlights. He recommends two things: start local, and give to organizations that don’t take any money from government.

Government likes to expand. However, by encouraging these “bourgeois” norms in society, we can change the equation, reducing the demand for such services in the first place.