Editor’s note: The following is a review of a new book by Howard Husock, Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms (available now).
People need what the government doesn’t provide: help in developing the personal traits that will reduce dependency and foster success.
I was having lunch a few years ago with the director of New York City’s welfare agency, a respected social-policy expert with a long career in government and the nonprofit sector. She had just spent a difficult morning observing the workings of New York’s Family Court, which had jurisdiction over cases involving child abuse, foster care and spousal support, among other matters that were routinely found in her own agency’s enormous caseload. “If only ministers in New York preached more about the virtues of matrimony,” she said, “my job would be much easier.”
Howard Husock, a vice president at the Manhattan Institute, might well agree. In “Who Killed Civil Society?,” he indicts government policies for eroding the values that enable people to succeed in life—such as thrift, industriousness and self-discipline—and for undermining traditional practices, like marriage, that cultivate success in all sorts of ways. “Despite the massive scale and blanket coverage of the modern social service state,” he writes, “it fails to provide something essential . . . : the modeling of habits and values that lay the foundation for upward social mobility and life as a contributor to one’s community.”
A few social scientists and cultural critics—including Charles Murray, Myron Magnet and Brad Wilcox —have made broadly similar arguments, but Mr. Husock focuses here more narrowly on civil society: the charities and voluntary associations—from Kiwanis clubs to Boy Scout troops, from community food banks to the PTA—that were once a distinctive feature of American life. Before the New Deal, he contends, such groups not only allowed Americans to join one another in a range of service activities but also taught them how to become good citizens and good people in the individualistic culture of the United States, where the older ties of religion, nationality and social class were less binding.
Leslie Lenkowsky is professor emeritus of philanthropic studies at Indiana University.