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The Year Is 2016 and American Society Has Finally Become Civilized

If Big Government Became Little Government, Would a Kinder, More Caring System Take Its Place? A Peek Into a Possible Future

May 19, 1996|Nina J. Easton | Nina J. Easton is the magazine's staff writer. Her last article was a comparison of the cultures of Hollywood and Washington

This scenario, which takes place in the year 2016, is based on interviews with leading critics and proponents of the civil society model, including futurist Alvin Toffler; Don Eberly, director of the Harrisburg, Pa.,-based Civil Society Project; University of Maryland professor William Galston, a former advisor to President Clinton; poverty expert Isabel V. Sawhill of the Urban Institute; Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol; Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Bradley Foundation President Michael S. Joyce; Adam Meyerson, editor of the Washington-based Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship; David Kuo and Arianna Huffington of Washington's Center for Effective Compassion; Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise; Princeton social scientist John DiIulio; Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam; Marvin Olasky, author of "The Tragedy of American Compassion," and Charles Murray, author of "Losing Ground." Community activists--such as First AME pastor Cecil Murray; Valerie Lynne Shaw, a veteran of L.A.'s community development corporations, and Marsh Ward, who runs Clean and Sober Streets, a widely hailed drug rehabilitation program in Washington --also were consulted.

Once upon a time in America, cutting government spending was a simple matter of dollars and cents, a reaction to high taxes and a mounting national debt. Now, the drive for smaller government is taking on new meaning in American political discourse. Today, many influential political thinkers see it as a magic bullet that holds out the promise of putting America on a path toward rebuilding the nation's character and sense of citizenship.

Here's the logic: Over the last several decades, Americans have turned more and more of their personal responsibilities and social obligations over to Washington. A bloated welfare state, the argument goes, is merely the manifestation of a nanny government and the irresponsible citizenry it has spawned. Welfare checks to single mothers enable fathers to shirk their family obligations. Government-run poverty programs let us off the hook for helping the needy in our neighborhoods. Social Security undermines our resolve to save money for our own retirement. Just send the check to Washington, and let unseen bureaucrats do the rest.

Those who believe that this argument has just a grain of truth tend to cluster around New Democrat think tanks and journals, a breeding ground for new-wave liberals like President Clinton. Those who buy the argument lock, stock and barrel congregate inside conservative and libertarian think spots. These are the folks likely to be overheard quoting "The Book of Virtues" author William Bennett or that 19th century French aristocrat who chronicled America*s simpler years, Alexis de Tocqueville.

That brings us to the term of art that is all the rage in Washington today: "civil society." When Tocqueville surveyed American society in the 1830s, he concluded that our democracy derived great strength from the tendency of its citizens to freely come together--outside the realm of government--to solve problems in associations, committees and clubs. He called this thriving segment of American life "civil society." And whether coaching Little League, volunteering at an AIDS hospice, attending neighborhood watch meetings, raising funds for the local symphony, helping a church food drive or even organizing everyday life around the needs of children or aging parents, most Americans have a role in the civil society that Tocqueville described.

Michael S. Joyce, president of the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which promotes private solutions to social ills, describes America's modern civil society this way: "Between the huge and impersonal national state and the isolated self there is a place where we come together as citizens in a manner that frees and enhances us in our humanity. We do it in our families, in our churches and synagogues, in our neighborhoods . . . . We join [in civic activity] for fulfillment of many of our noblest human urges--to help one another, to guide our children . . . ."

It's a romantic image of America--too romantic, say critics such as Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, who argues that America's voluntary sector has always worked in close tandem with the state. Liberal critics of the civil society movement also say that a strong federal safety net is the only viable redress for a capitalist economy that has produced widening class differences and the loss of decently paid jobs for low-skilled workers. Civil society proponents, in contrast, argue that America's root problem is at least as much moral and cultural as it is economic.

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