The New Civil Society

Mad Men

Mad Men photo credit:
Frank Ockenfels/AMC

As free marketers, we understand the essential role of a civil society. It is ballast to a limited government, limited regulations, low imposition on citizens — when the government isn’t telling you how to think and what to do, that responsibility suddenly resides in the citizens themselves. But civil society is too often a foreign concept to those unfamiliar with de Toqueville, Hayek, Bastiat and all others who have indicated the value of a sphere of private entrepreneurship and civilian affairs ‘regulated’ by voluntary associations and institutions.

The traditional ideas for what constitutes a civil society are more formal institutions, such as a church or a union, as well as the broadest interpretation, which is the family. But I would posit that the democratization of art has created another civil check on behavior — the books, movies and music that we seek out.

When I’m presented with a moral quandary, I think much faster of Dumbledore’s advice in Rowling’s Harry Potter, or Elinor Dashwood’s advice in Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” or even Cliff Huxtable’s advice in “The Cosby Show,” far faster than I think of anything else. When Dumbledore says that “It is our choices, Harry, that show us who we really are far more than our abilities,” that just sticks to my ribs.

Everyone has that favorite book, or movie, or TV show, which they feel obligated to tell everyone about and are offended when other people don’t like it as much. Why does it feel so personal when someone else doesn’t like it? Perhaps because it’s teaching you more, and you’re interacting with it more, than just “a simple story.”

Back in 1996, the Mackinac Center’s Michael LaFaive defined civil society as “That network of private groups, community associations, religious organizations, families, friends, coworkers and their heartfelt interactions.” If you’re interacting with art — you choose what will guide you, first and foremost — then does it not belong on the list? It too is an informal institution that provides a check to your behavior and guides your actions in society.

When the idea of “civil society” is not available in elementary school, high school, undergraduate programs and many graduate programs, it’s important to actively avoid a “culture-by-default.” Whatever civil society is, it must be conscious.

It must be because it’s very powerful. There’s a scene in the TV series “Mad Men,” which takes place in the 1960s, where to clean up after a picnic the mom airs out the picnic blanket. She scatters the trash everywhere in the field, and they proceed on their merry way. Nowadays that scene is strikingly foreign to viewers — and it’s not because of some government program. We moderate ourselves now that we interpret that behavior as disrespectful to other picnickers as well as bad for the environment, and many people are doing it all the time, every day, making it more effective and long-lasting than a state-run program.

That’s civil society at work, and it’s not just theory.