Civil Society in a Time of Pandemic

By MICHAEL MATHESON MILLER | May 26, 2020

Governments are instrumental in wars, natural disasters and, we’ve found, pandemics.

But we've already seen overreach and appropriate wariness. There is already low trust in both the government and the media.

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?

If, on the other hand, 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.

If the pandemic has shown us anything, in the meantime, it is how vulnerable and powerless we are as lone individuals.

So what’s left?

More than ever, we see the value of that vast space between the individual and the state: civil society. Freely chosen associations, churches, business and community groups, extended families – these are our path out.

We have a chance right now to renew civil society, strengthen our social fabric, revitalize localism and show our political elites that we can indeed govern ourselves. This is a time to look at society in new ways and build new technologies that facilitate associations and community and not just promote either the collectivism of the state or individualism.

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 that leads to uniformity and loss of political liberty.

Civil society has always been distinctly American. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on Americans’ distinct tendency to form associations with important political, social and economic impact. What was true when the Frenchman travelled America in 1831 is no less important today.

Over the last few months, 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.

Many groups voluntarily cancelled or postponed conferences. Private companies asked people to work from home, parishes stopped public masses, many families cancelled trips—again this happened before the official lockdowns, all because people want to be socially responsible, self-isolate, 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 how American civil society can function in a time of crisis.

But there is also a deeper political and social meaning here.

Nisbet worried about what he called the “twilight of authority” where civil associations, churches, families no longer had any autonomy, 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.

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 the heavy hand of martial law.

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.

The United States has the responsibility to allow civil associations and private individuals and private companies to work out these things first. We all have a role: to participate in 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.

Michael Matheson Miller is Research Fellow and Director of Acton Media at the Acton Institute. Permission to reprint is granted is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

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