Among the multitude of amazing reports about the situation in Libya is what is said to be the complete absence of institutions of “civil society.” Not irrationally, Moammar Gadhafi apparently viewed any potential equivalents of Rotary Clubs, YMCAs or Habitat for Humanity not as aspects of a healthy society, but as threats to his rule. In this, he has much in common with the Communist Chinese leaders, who repress the Falun Gong, insist that even churches be officially authorized by the state and monitor Twitter feeds to guard against Egypt-inspired popular revolts.
When viewing from afar the political repression in these countries, Americans can feel a renewed gratitude for our democratic freedoms, and especially for our long tradition of peaceful transfers of political power. But we often overlook a critical ingredient in that tradition: the institutions of our civil society, nonprofit associations of all types which not only serve those in need but allow for the flourishing of views and approaches not conceived directly by government.
It was Tocqueville who wrote that “Americans of all ages, all conditions and all dispositions, constantly form associations … religious, moral, serious, futile, enormous or diminutive.” This combination of association and philanthropy has given us everything from the Boy Scouts to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. American civil society is dynamic, changing to reflect emerging needs and problems and helping to keep our social fabric from fraying. Just as we have private entrepreneurs — from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to the immigrant opening a nail salon — so do we have the “social entrepreneur,” who spots new societal problems that need to be addressed and finds private funds to do so. Think Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America.
For the past 10 years, the Manhattan Institute has sponsored an award competition for just these sorts of young, startup nonprofits (www.manhattan-institute.org/html/se2011_form.html). Every year at this time, we receive a small flood of nominations of organizations testing new ways to deal with new problems. The roster of winners should reassure those who worry that American society is falling behind in addressing these issues. Even if our government is proving less than effective, our civil society is rising to the challenge.
The impact of the hundreds of such organizations sprouting up each year is much greater than the sum of their individual parts. As the political scientist Robert Putnam has observed, the capacity to form associations based on shared goals and trust correlates with the capacity to create wealth and prosperity. Which makes it unfortunate that the Obama administration has consistently proposed reducing the value of the charitable tax credit and continues (through its Social Innovation Fund) to believe that Washington can and should decide which new nonprofits are best.
Even these mistakes, however, are unlikely to undermine America’s powerful tradition of civil society. After all, citizens who have never bothered waiting for government to fix a problem don’t tend to
Howard Husock is the vice president of policy research at the Manhattan Institute and director of its Social Entrepreneurship Initiative. The Manhattan Institute is seeking nominations of newer nonprofits providing help to those in need, without relying on government grants. Suggestions are welcome at www.manhattan-institute.org/html/se2011_form.html.