Social thinkers today like to talk about civil society. By contrast with the state, which is the realm of law, civil society is the realm of custom, ritual, tradition, manners, morals—all those informal instruments by which we control our behavior, adjust our mutual relations, and forge meaning out of our common life. Civil society is the realm of our value-transmitting institutions and voluntary associations, from the family to the school, church, and civic group. If they are weak just now, social thinkers say, that’s only because an overblown welfare state has sucked the air out of them. Social renewal means deflating government enough to give those institutions some room to uplift the poor and restore a sense of control and engagement to ordinary citizens.
But how much of this is true, and in what ways? City Journal’s first issue of the new millennium illuminates these key questions by a close look at some representative cases. Heather Mac Donald’s "Why the Boy Scouts Work" on page 14 gives us civil society as it is supposed to be: a voluntary association in which elders transmit to the young a body of technical lore, yes, but—more important—a clear code of virtues and a set of traditional rituals that invest the smallest activities with meaning and value. Tying your neckerchief or folding the flag in the right way shows that you are a certain kind of person, capable of mastery and worthy of self-respect. Democratic from its start a century ago, and born out of concern for the moral and physical plight of inner-city boys in particular, scouting still has the power to capture the imagination of poor urban kids and to give them the induction into a civil version of manliness that they so acutely need today. For all scouting’s excellence, the elites despise its corny virtue and have sicced the courts on it for its strongly held values. It remains to be seen if the state will succeed in denaturing this vibrant corner of civil society.
Catholic Charities, which began as a model civil-society voluntary association, freely—almost exultantly—relinquished the religiously based ethic that gave it its distinctive soul in favor of the worldview of the welfare state, as Brian C. Anderson shows on page 28. As a consequence, it is much less effective than formerly at serving the poor, because it no longer can inculcate the values of personal responsibility and moral renewal that once informed its ministry. It has, instead, only the value-free, no-blame victimology of the welfare state, which decades of experience since the War on Poverty show doesn’t work. Though the ability to get state funding encouraged this jettisoning of traditional values, it didn’t cause it; so we have to ask whether the state crowds out the institutions of civil society or whether the same cultural forces that shape public policy also mold, and weaken, the institutions of civil society without state intervention.
That is the inescapable conclusion of Kay S. Hymowitz’s "What’s Wrong with the Kids?" on page 40. Families—it is a cliche to say so—are the building blocks of civil society, socializing individuals and transmitting to them a society’s values. But what if the core value of a society is no values, as in our own, where the central ethic of tolerant nonjudgmentalism has evacuated every principle of any passionate conviction? What if schools convey education lite—a content-free curriculum that doesn’t awaken young people’s imaginations to human accomplishment, human possibility, human dignity? Then, as Hymowitz shows, young people, even children of the prosperous middle class, can fall into degraded lives in pursuit of sensation: degraded sex and—at the outer limit—what happened at Columbine. Like the leaders of Catholic Charities, these institutions of civil society have fallen into the material fallacy: that man’s needs begin and end with food, clothing, and shelter—or Calvins and gourmet kitchens, at the fallacy’s high end.
Man is the animal that creates meaning and thereby makes himself human. In that civil-society realm of manners and mores, as Roger Scruton shows, every gesture represents our effort to enchant and humanize what we share with the animals: to dine rather than to eat, to have romance and marriage not just copulation, to create ourselves according to an ideal, whether of a gentleman or a good scout. When we are in danger of forgetting that, Scruton shows, even when we have everything, we have nothing, for that is the essence of nihilism.
Can we blame the state for that? Hardly: the state does not create culture.