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).
A new book makes the case
If civil society is dead — and evidence of its decay abounds, from the derelict exurban brownstones that were once home to orphanages and industrial schools to the ever-dwindling numbers of community organizations — Howard Husock’s question is one worth asking. In his new book Who Killed Civil Society? he explores the confluence of cultural, political, and economic developments that destroyed the “mediating institutions” that once imparted “middle-class values” to the poor and destitute.
It is a story told through anecdote, first through the eyes of Husock’s orphaned father, on whose behalf “a private organization called the Juvenile Aid Society, staffed in large part by volunteers, stepped in and provided a solid foundation for his life.” The Juvenile Aid Society “sought to shape his values — to inculcate the norms that are sometimes mocked as ‘bourgeois.’” These norms have been abandoned, in his eyes, to the great peril of the poor.
The book chronicles the evolution of social services from the late 19th century to the present, using emblematic figures — philanthropists, reformers, and ideologues — as vehicles to chart its development. This is Husock’s means of personalizing what is, in part, an impersonal plot: Whatever the role of individual social-service agents, it was the whirlwinds of legislative and cultural revolution that would destroy value formation and civil society in turn.
John Hirschauer is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review Institute
Photo: Wilbur Cohen being sworn in as Secretary of HEW (SSA History Archives/Wikimedia Commons)