Political Society vs. Civil Society

In his introduction to a 1996 Mackinac Center budget study, the late Joseph Overton penned a masterful essay on the differences between the coercive instrumentalities of what he called "political society" and the voluntary institutions of civil society (defined by the Center's Michael LaFaive as "That network of private groups, community associations, religious organizations, families, friends, coworkers and their heartfelt interactions"). 

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Overton characterized the differences as defining a "principled vision for the state of Michigan and the culture in which her citizens live," one in which each policy choice is evaluated on "whether it will advance or retard a vibrant, diverse, and prosperous Michigan culture." Understanding this difference is another useful implement for those interested in restoring limited, representative government to keep in their toolbox.

Here is that introduction by Joseph Overton:

Michigan citizens can choose, and have historically chosen, between two basic methods of organizing their affairs.

One, called political society, places responsibility for a wide range of human needs in the institutions of government. The people of Michigan elect public officials who, through statutes and administrative bureaucracies, design programs that attempt to respond to perceived problems.

In a political society, for example, these officials attempt to ensure the quality of goods and services by requiring licenses to practice certain trades, and requiring government approval before certain products may be sold. They attempt to guarantee quality education by certifying teachers, establishing curricula, and building schools and regulating their operation. They attempt to spur economic development by selecting and subsidizing certain businesses and industries, often at the expense of others. They attempt to care for the poor by dispensing government aid for food, day care, transportation, housing and medical care. These programs, of course, are funded through a variety of taxes on Michigan consumers, workers, property owners, and businesses, and fees on particular activities.

A second method of organizing affairs is called civil society. Instead of relying on institutions of government to provide social goods, participants in a civil society rely instead on private intermediary institutions such as the family, voluntary associations, religious groups, and commercial firms operating in a free-market economy. To facilitate the operations of these intermediary institutions, governing institutions provide judicial and enforcement services. They protect human life, property, and individual liberties against aggression, enforce contracts, and prosecute fraud and misrepresentation.

In this environment the creative energies of free people are engaged to solve problems as close to the source as possible. Strong families and community institutions, rather than expansive bureaucracies in Washington and Lansing, are looked to for the most effective solutions.

This choice between political society and civil society is crucial because in many ways the two are mutually exclusive. When governing institutions establish programs that attempt to improve upon private intermediary institutions, three damaging things occur. First, there is a prevailing sense that the problem is being solved by government — an idea promoted by the politicians and bureaucrats responsible for the plan — which causes individual citizens and their private organizations to disengage or moderate their involvement. Secondly, resources are taken from private individuals and organizations through taxes, which reduces their ability to provide assistance independent of the government. Finally, government programs often generate numerous rules and regulations that prevent or hinder private organizations from dealing effectively with the problem.

While the institutions of civil society flourished in the 19th century, political society has characterized this century. Michigan in particular has advanced political society at the expense of civil society. Michigan is dominated today by political institutions on which its citizens are becoming increasingly reliant, but which have failed to strengthen our culture, especially in the inner cities. It is time to demand that Michigan leaders make clear and consistent choices about the direction they wish to take the state. There is no better manifestation of the political society approach of Michigan government than the state budget. Here, then, is a tour through Michigan political society, with recommendations for advancing civil society as the best way to strengthen Michigan culture.