Considering voluntary associations

Daniel McCarthy writes that we might need an extraordinarily virtuous and heroic leader, singularly capable of harnessing the power of the executive to its fullest to restrain American governmental excesses. How do we get a powerful executive branch to intentionally restrain its incredible power for the sake of the constitution and the common good of the American people?

Dan also teases out an incredibly important point about the role played by America’s “mediating institutions”—the “voluntary institutions” that create the vital civic space in this country between the government and individuals in their daily lives:

The checks that the Constitution cannot supply, and which may or may not come from the character of those who hold office, might be sought outside of politics. In a healthy republic, there is a moral balance—a counterweight to the moral exceptionalism of the modern executive, as well as a practical check on power itself. The counterweight rests with the public, in the form of civil society: voluntary institutions that obviate the need for government power, stand ready to act as centers of moral resistance and to inculcate a different way of looking at the world’s problems.

Yet there is a defect in the way that lovers of liberty such as Hayek conceive of “voluntary institutions”: too often they only feel the force of half of the idea. Voluntary association cannot fulfill its task if it is more “voluntary” than “associative”: it has to be both. Association, quite apart from conscious voluntary commitment, has to involve solidarity, a sense of common feeling and duty among members, something rather contrary to the spirit of individualism. Worse, the spirit of civil society has an element in common with collectivism that is not shared with the ethos of the free market.

The old voluntary associations were only semi-voluntary: ethnic communities and their institutions, for example, and above all churches. The family has never been wholly voluntary, though it is not “collectivist,” either. Class-based organizations like labor unions are perhaps inherently dyseconomical and coercive. And the largest of all meaningful associations, the nation, is in its essence not voluntary.

These institutions could be abusive and limiting to individuals, but they helped to establish widely shared and inflexible moral convictions, which imposed certain constraints upon political power. As individuals have become emancipated from traditional semi-voluntary associations—as all institutions have become more voluntaristic—moral attitudes have fragmented, and only relatively simple and ephemeral passions come to be widely shared.

This is why civil society has not been an adequate check on the growth of power even in a free country such as our own. Not only does the state often undermine civil society, but freedom itself does so. This is partly because civil society traditionally contains an element of unfreedom, and it’s partly because the psychological attractions of freedom are so different from those of “thick” association. Solidarity, loyalty, friendship, and love, as constituent elements of civil society, cannot be faked. They cannot be revived by dedication to “voluntary association” or “civil society” in the abstract.

If its true that civil society and its ability to negate the need for a strong central government in the first place is undone by open-ended freedom, then where does that leave us? It leaves us needing new forms of association as citizens, as neighbors, as people of faith, etc.—associations that are still voluntary, but “thicker” in terms of at least semi-lifetime commitment. We need voluntary institutions that are harder to withdraw from, both in tangible and intangible ways ranging from attractive employment/family benefits that would be asame to lose, to subtler penalties for withdrawing from cooperation with neighbors, community obligations, etc.

America was created to be a free society, but the crucial question for every citizen is “Who and what are you going to serve with that freedom you’ve got?” At present, the answer is usually “I’m going to serve myself.” Our divisive politics and stagnant economics are testament to how well that approach has been working.

I think improvement can start with asking young people how they’re going to use their freedom for something beyond self-pleasure. And not accepting abstract answers (would be worthless) but trying to get at as concrete an answer as possible.