Can Civil Society Save Us?

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.

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Common Sense Philanthropy

One watch set right will do to set many by.

—American folk saying

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

—Alfred North Whitehead, as quoted by F. A. Hayek

In a recent presentation to the Hewlett Foundation, Bill Schambra adroitly contests the sensibility of the foundation community’s current fascination with “strategic philanthropy.” For Schambra, the best tool in the philanthropist’s tool kit may be simple common sense. He proposes that instead of filtering grant-making decisions through complex rationalizations involving the development of theories of change and logic models, philanthropists should put more trust in the more pedestrian logic of people and their communities:

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The Philanthropic Enterprise

In 2000, I had the opportunity to get acquainted with Richard Cornuelle, a leading figure in the early libertarian movement who became one of our country’s most insightful analysts of the philanthropic sector. Dick had long believed that the intellectual case for the free society was still most vulnerable where civil society intersected with the welfare state. Could America be both a free and humane society and resist the soft despotism of which Tocqueville had warned?

Dick invited me to help him develop a project that would engage scholars in rethinking the rationale for private philanthropy and in renewing “voluntary welfare,” represented in the American traditions of mutual aid, charity, and voluntary association and in the innovations of the emerging trend of social entrepreneurship. For over a decade, funded almost solely by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Project for New Philanthropy Studies @ DonorsTrust worked closely with Dick and a small circle of scholars and advisors to renew and deepen the classical liberal understanding of philanthropy as a counterweight to the dominant Progressive paradigm shaping today’s state-based welfare system.   Some of that work is represented in our journal, Conversations on Philanthropy, published annually since 2004 and available online at .

After Dick’s death in 2011, we formally launched The Philanthropic Enterprise to continue this important work. The mission of The Philanthropic Enterprise is to strengthen public understanding of the ways in which independent philanthropy and voluntary social cooperation contribute to human flourishing. Our programs (1) inspire conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians to think more deeply about philanthropy and voluntary association, and (2) inspire philanthropy scholars and professionals to think more clearly about the principles of freedom and prosperity. No one else is doing this essential intellectual work.

Conversations on Philanthropy

Conversations on Philanthropy: Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought is a journal in English, and publishes original articles, essays, and book reviews addressing considerations of the role of philanthropy in a free society. Our aim is to promote inquiry and reflection on the importance of liberality—both in the sense of generosity and of the character befitting free individuals—for the flourishing of local communities, political societies, and humanity in general. As such we seek to open new perspectives on the theory, roles, and practices of philanthropic activities ranging from charitable giving, the actions of eleemosynary organizations, trusts, foundations, voluntary associations, and fraternal societies to volunteerism, mutual aid, social entrepreneurship and other forms of social action with beneficent intention (whether or not also combined with commercial and/or political purposes).

To facilitate conversations among traditional academic disciplines, Conversations on Philanthropy may include papers from a number of fields, including history, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, philanthropic studies, religious studies, belles lettres, law, and the physical sciences, as well from philanthropic practitioners.

Editor:  Lenore T. Ealy

Review of Inglis, History Man

Review of Fred Inglis, History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood

Published in Books and Culture, Dec/Jan 2012

In An Autobiography, published in 1939 on the eve of World War II, English philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) reflected on the historical legacy of World War I. “[A] war of unprece-dented ferocity,” wrote Collingwood, “closed in a peace-settlement of unprecedented folly, in which statesmanship, even purely selfish statesmanship, was overwhelmed by the meanest and most idiotic passions.” The war, Collingwood conceded, “was an unprecedented triumph for natural science,” a triumph that also “paved the way to other triumphs: improvements in transport, in sanitation, in surgery, medicine, and psychiatry, in commerce and industry, and, above all, in preparations for the next war.” The Treaty of Versailles had nevertheless failed, on Collingwood’s account, to restore the human side of affairs to any semblance of good order. The “power to control Nature” had overrun man’s “power to control human situations,” and the treaty gave way to a reign of natural sc

ience with the power to convert Europe “into a wilderness of Yahoos.”           ….read more


Review of Frumkin, Strategic Giving

Review of Peter Frumkin, Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy2007

 Published in Azure, Spring 5767/2007, no. 28

“The desire for human betterment,” observed grants economist Kenneth Boulding, “is part of the genetic potential of the human species.” It is thus remarkable, if we take at face value the centrality to the human experience of giving as a means of pursuing human betterment, that we remain mostly in the dark about the philanthropic arts…. Read more.