Published in The Freeman Online, August 28, 2013
American public discourse is characterized today by predictions of decline and fall that offer little hope to the rising generations. From economic, social, and political critics, there is ample commentary on America’s self-destructive path.
Such prognoses have given birth to a mini-industry of Tocqueville studies, with partisans of all stripes hearkening back both to Tocqueville’s analysis of the strength of American democracy in our habit of association and to his awareness of a young nation’s underbelly, vulnerable to soft despotism.
“Like Tocqueville, I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens,” writes Niall Ferguson in his current bestseller, The Great Degeneration. So far, so good.
While I share the contemporary fascination with Tocqueville’s powers of description and prognostication, I am cautious about claiming that “civil society” holds the solution to our present decline. The current institutions and leaders of civil society to which so many are looking for answers have themselves been shaped by their partnership with the welfare state. Few are in a position to articulate, much less reclaim, their independence from the State.