On Institution-Building

Hi guys! Thanks for inviting me to post on Catallarchy. For my first post I'd like to comment on a discussion we had at the Catallarchicon the other weekend. As I recall, we argued for some time about the efficacy of building parallel institutions in civil society to compete with and supplant the state, as an alternative (or supplement) to political advocacy. I was, and remain, skeptical, due to the historical tendency on the part of governments to co-opt or muscle out any really successful alternative institutions. But later in the week, I got an anecdotal bit of support for the pro-parallelism position.

I was visiting a longtime friend (name omitted to protect privacy) who lives in a slightly-gentrified but still quite gritty inner-city neighborhood. He moved there partly for cheap housing, but also partly so as not to have to live in boring whitebread suburbia, and has become something of a pillar of the local community: captain of his block (I hadn't realized such things still existed), volunteer for grassroots improvement organizations and the charitable activities of his local church.

He knows I'm a libertarian, but we'd not discussed politics until he asked, unprompted: "Why aren't there more libertarian social activists?" By "social activists" he meant not political advocates, but participants in civil society organizations like those he supported. I brought up the wonderful Institute for Justice and its pro bono legal work, and he agreed that that somewhat fit the bill, but wondered why there wasn't more in that vein. He continued (I'm paraphrasing slightly from memory):

"The thing that most appeals to me about libertarianism is the idea that, if you see a problem out there you want addressed, you should just go and try to address it yourself, rather than seek a political solution. I find that dealing with the government sucks, and so do nearly all the people I work with, and the federal government is the worst; trying to get the feds to solve a social problem is like trying to crush some ants with a club too big to even lift. So if you hate politics on principle, community voluntarism should be a natural alternative."

I don't have the data to give his question a specific answer. My guess is, however, that there are two explanations, which seem contradictory but really are not:

1. Outspoken libertarians, like outspoken ideologues of any other stripe, are addicted to arguing; effective or not, we find debate such a congenial recreation that most of the time we're seen in public, it's debating.

2. Those libertarians who are social activists, however, tend to want to keep their politics separate from their other activism; they see no point in arguing theory with those they collaborate with to specific, practical ends.

I know I love argument so much that I'll keep worrying the nuances of an issue to death even when it may be unwise to do so from a political macrostrategy perspective. And there's nothing wrong with argument-as-recreation; 95 percent of the blogosphere, if not more, consists of that. Nonetheless my friend may be right: when it comes to actually changing the world in a pro-liberty direction, one unit of political advocacy may be worth much less than one unit of institution-building. Make private, voluntary solutions work despite the State-- build and preserve them in the teeth of all restrictions and taxes-- and we might get further than all the LP, RLC, and DFC types ever could.

Or we might not. I'm still not sure. Food for thought.

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Rich- Point taken about your

Rich-

Point taken about your original comment being not "civil society is bad" but instead being "civil society not all good".

Rich & Joe, It would seem

Rich & Joe,

It would seem then that we need more terms, or that we should explicitly carve out different conceptions of Civil Society depending on different assumptions about what qualifies.

When Micha talks of civil society he certainly doesn't have in mind non-state actors that act like state actors (keeping in mind the libertarian objection to state action is based on its violent/coercive aspects, not simply because it is called 'the state').

Looking at civil society as being the totality of voluntary civic and social institutions that make up society as opposed to the force backed structures of the state, then you could say that organizations people voluntarily join (and are not physically forced or threatened into supporting) and yet have coercive aims could be part of civil society.

The problem with this (and why I said almost any definition starts to beg the question) is that there are most certainly *state* institutions that fit this definition aside from the convenient "its not called state" demarcation. Lots of people voluntarily join state institutions to go about forcing people to do their or the collective will, for example. This is what I was getting at prior when I said that a definition that includes too much rapidly becomes useless and arbitrary.

Civil Society is generally used to compare and contrast with state activity. This distinction becomes arbitrary the more you allow it to include and enclose institutions that act as states do (one group compelling compliance from another according to the former's wishes). But I agree that if you do as I suggest and define civil society up so that "I am for everything that is good and exclude everything that is bad" you still have the problem of (a) what to do with and how to characterize what is excluded amd (b) what to do about institutions that fit my criteria most of the time but from time to time engage in (from a libertarian perspective) state-like activity- ala the church, or trade union violence, or vigilance councils (non state but institutionalized, which are civil up to the point that they voluntarily organize to coerce others).

Joe-

There are lots of kinds of coercion, and surely states or state-like things don’t have a monopoly on coercive behavior. Societal mores are often enforced coercively, though not through laws or anything that really looks much like law. Ditto for religious institutions or even purely private organizations like businesses (thus I might wear a tie to work even when company dress code does not require it because doing otherwise earns me funny looks and snide comments from coworkers). Certainly laws are coercive, but can’t public opinion be coercive, too? You are right that institutions that start establishing things that look like laws are using a form of coercion that makes them start to resemble states, but I don’t see why a group cannot be wholly a non-state-like thing and still use public opinion to coerce behavior.

I think this is an overbroad conception of coercion, or at least not the type of coercion typically considered by libertarian analysis. Which isn't to say that its not valid concerns, but I think when you start getting into all the times where one person's will is thwarted by another for whatever reason, and call that 'coercion', you're veering into extraordinarily broad territory where it would not be inappropriate to counter with a simple "life sucks" response.

Thus the term of coercion would need more precision too, some modifier attached to it to make it tight enough to be useful without being so specific as to lose use again.

Rich-

I'm not sure I agree with excluding the market from civil society, but it appears that the definers wanted to keep 4 categories conceptually separate- state, civil society, family, and market. There may be some use there on a conceptual level but its far blurrier in practice.

With regards to good and bad, I defer to as pluralist a view of the good as I can get away with, simply because history shows us the results of insisting on too universal a conception of the good. Which means that yeah, libertarian volunteerism is likely to include a lot of things that from any given perspective don't seem good, but for me I set the point at which I begin to get concerned (as a 3rd party) much higher than others, even though I too have a comprehensive conception of good & bad.

Joe, do you mean public

Joe, do you mean public opinion expressed only by (say) ostracism and verbal condemnation, and not by violence or threat thereof?

For, if you do, it seems to me that such opinion cannot rightly be seen as coercive. Nor can you be said to be coerced to wear a tie to work because your coworkers will make snide remarks if you don't. Not all effective or influential mechanisms are coercive ones; not all psychological pressure is coercive pressure. Otherwise where would the line be between persuasion and coercion? (I've heard it argued that persuasion *is* a form of coercion, but I find this both unpersuasive and noncoercive. :-))

2. Those libertarians who

2. Those libertarians who are social activists, however, tend to want to keep their politics separate from their other activism; they see no point in arguing theory with those they collaborate with to specific, practical ends.

When a normal hears that you have "rigid" political principles it makes them uncomfortable, because people don't like to disagree when they are not debating. A libertarian who is not a social idiot will not take issue with a polite disagreement, but normal people don't expect that. In any case, if you pass it off like some religious thing that is beside the point, people will forget about it and remember you as a social activist instead of a libertarian.

Remember that we are the

Remember that we are the capitalist left. When we see a problem, it's not just something to solve, but something to solve at a profit. Our organizations may look like leftist social organization, for example IJ. But our organization may look like businesses.

There's also a sort of photo-negative of the above: as capitalists, we realize that making a profit (via voluntary transactions of course) helps people. Profits are the market's way of showing us where we are most valued. Therefore you see a lot of libertarians in business, making money and helping people, letting their talent be channeled by the market. Put another way, we don't need to use reason or moral sentiments to determine what problems to address, we just take the highest bid.

Who's wiser: me, or the market? Is giving a bum on the street a quarter better than earning a dollar working at McDonalds? I'm sure most leftists find answering such questions easy, but to us it is not.

Of course, there are many problems that cannot be solved via the market, because the state is interfering in one way or another. These are the sorts of things we like to talk about.

Brian, you have to get past

Brian, you have to get past this civil vs uncivil idea; "civil" has more than one meaning, and does not mean what you think it does when it's part of this phrase. Here's another explanation from that same wiki page:

"Civil society or civil institutions refers to the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations or institutions which form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force backed structures of a state (regardless of that state's political system)."

Trade unions are given as one example. Are trade unions always "civil", in the sense of polite, etc.? No, picketing is not generally considered to be polite, and sometimes labor conflicts erupt into violence. That does not mean that trade unions aren't part of civil society.

It is also historically incorrect that lynchings were always done by "mobs". Many areas had vigilance committees. These were indeed non-state institutions.

Nor is it true that civil society is supposed to comprise all forms of social organization but the state. As the definition you quoted explains, it's usually considered to exclude the family and the market as well.

Lastly, I thought it was clear from my first comment that I wasn't saying that civil society was inherently bad, just that it wasn't inherently good. For instance, organized religion is considered to be part of civil society, yet you may not consider even a nonviolent madrassa that teaches an intolerant version of Islam to be good.

And you shouldn't fool yourselves that everyone would think that libertarian volunteerism as part of civil society would be inherently good, either. I would guess that it would depend on the type of volunteerism, especially when you get to the "despite the state" part.

Brian: _Contra Joe, I would

Brian: _Contra Joe, I would say that civil society necessarily describes only uncoercive behavior done by non-state actors- for if an institution is seen as possessing a legitimate right to coerce others then it necessarily takes on aspects of the state, and concomitantly loses aspects of civil society._

It seems to me that this claim essentially just begs the question. Maybe you're right that, to a certain extent, that's unavoidable. Still, all that you've really done here is just to _define_ civil society as uncoercive. But that's exactly the question at issue here. I'm not sure that I see why a non-libertarian should buy a definition that says that _only_ states act coercively.

There are lots of kinds of coercion, and surely states or state-like things don't have a monopoly on coercive behavior. Societal mores are often enforced coercively, though not through laws or anything that really looks much like law. Ditto for religious institutions or even purely private organizations like businesses (thus I might wear a tie to work even when company dress code does not require it because doing otherwise earns me funny looks and snide comments from coworkers). Certainly laws are coercive, but can't public opinion be coercive, too? You are right that institutions that start establishing things that look like laws are using a form of coercion that makes them start to resemble states, but I don't see why a group cannot be wholly a non-state-like thing and still use public opinion to coerce behavior.

I think that "civil society"

I think that "civil society" is one of the most overused catchphrases in the political vocabulary right now, and I find the idea that civil society is always good to be vacuous. When people get together to do "charitable activities at their local church", that may mean operating a soup kitchen, it may mean picketing an abortion clinic, or it may mean raising money for thinly-veiled evangelical appeals. House-raisings are an action of civil society, so are lynchings. Saying that civil society is good without reference to particular content is about the same as saying that government is good. Both are types of social structures that are needed to some degree, that is all.

With regard to libertarianism, I think that Leonard has the right of it. But people don't congratulate the people who they are in a capitalistic relationship with. The thanks that businesspeople get are in the form of money. And it's impossible for the market to "build parallel institutions"; markets don't build in some guided sense, and anything that's part of the market certainly is not a parallel institution in our society. Nor does the market compete with the state -- on the contrary, as the Bush administration has shown, elements of the market can purchase the state in all areas that do not conflict with theocracy.

Among the parallel

Among the parallel institutions are churches where people can give of themselves to meet social needs without recourse to the state. While many of my fellow churchgoers may not consider themselves libertarians, their activities and personal ministry in the church are consistent with libertarianism and promote civil society.

Rich, Oops. I posted at work

Rich,

Oops. I posted at work before I left and saw "uncoercive" when I highlighted "uncoerced". Of course, by that definition you're right, it doesn't rule out coercive action that is not coerced.

But still, it strikes me as a bit odd that the definition would be so broad as to essentially lead us back to the original objection that "you are positing civil society as everything remaining when you remove the state"- after all, if a lynch mob, which is a coercive yet uncoerced collective lacking general social legitimacy in its use of violence, can be considered part of civil society, it broadens the definition to allow any sort of evil to count as 'civil' society; which begs the question of why exactly we're calling it civil society when it encompasses uncivil behavior as well. This may be a question where question-begging is unavoidable, but it seems that its awfully convenient for a statist to define everything bad (or all bad social outcomes) as civil society to say "hey, over here on the state side, we'll stop that evil."

Civil society, as mentioned in the definition above, is inherently institutional. What makes up institutions? Non-transience & de facto acceptance / modus vivendi acceptance amongst the people that make up & surround these institutions. This acceptance (of either sort) is what makes up legitimacy. (After all, if people won't accept something, in the ultimate sense we're employing here, then they're at war with that thing, and a state of war is antithetical to civil society; rather, civil society ceases to exist when there is open war, fighting, death & destruction).

Coming by other definitions the state is the institution in a society that has at least some recognized legitimacy to employ violence/coercion (this can be at the family level, though there is usually a kin exception in almost any system to a point, or all the way up to monarch, it doesn't matter; to me the key is what is considered legitimate). Those institutions where there is no consensually legitimate right to employ violence would be separate from the state and thus fall into "civil society". How else do we distinguish between the state and civil society if not by who gets to employ violence with legitimacy?

As the quote from wikipedia points out, in reality the lines and boundaries blur- even in the family case parents, who do not have a general license to coerce others, are for the most part allowed to coerce their children (within limits set by some institution or tradition, coercive or not).

Taking up the case of lynch mobs again- there is no "institutional lynch mob"; that would be a contradiction in terms. The point of a lynch mob IS the sponteneity AND the fact that it takes a mob assembling to overcome general prohibitions against illegitimate coercion.

If there is no institution, and it has no legitimacy in the use of coercion or violence, then I'm hard pressed to see how a lynch mob could *possibly* be considered part of civil society. Contra Joe, I would say that civil society necessarily describes only uncoercive behavior done by non-state actors- for if an institution is seen as possessing a legitimate right to coerce others then it necessarily takes on aspects of the state, and concomitantly loses aspects of civil society.

Leonard, Why would an action

Leonard,

Why would an action need to be performed by a collective organization in order to count as an uncoerced but itself coercive act? Aren't the actions of a spontaneously-formed mob uncoerced by anyone else? And can't the actions of that mob still themselves prove coercive?

For what it's worth,

For what it's worth, regarding the question of "uncoerced collective action," it strikes me that Rich's might be the more natural reading of the phrase. The distiction between Rich's reading and Brian's might better be captured by distinguishing between _uncoerced_ collective action and _uncoercive_ collective action. The difference, in other words, is one of asking whether someone coerced some group of people into acting collectively or whether the collective action of some group of people coerced other people. It strikes me that the phrase as Brian quotes it pretty clearly means the former and not the latter.

I'm equally unsure of Micha's definition of civil society. Maybe he and Rich really do agree, but I think it might be wrong to think of 'civil society' as limited only to actions that are themselves civil. One can well imagine a society that, say, required adulterers to wear scarlet A's on their clothing. Such a decree might be enforced by the community and not specifically by passing a law. Such an act, I would think, would be properly described as an act of civil society.

One can, of course, simply stipulate that 'civil society' means to describe only _uncoercive_ actions taken by groups that are distinct from the state, but that's a somewhat strange definition; at the very least, I suspect that it's not what most who use the phrase generally mean.

It is an interesting

It is an interesting distinction, Rich. Uncoerced coercive action. Usually the domain of the criminals and the state (and jealously guarded by it), but not always. I'd agree, though, that a lynching, if performed by collective organization, would count as an action of "civil society" under the definition at wiki.

Whether or not everyone will want to use that definition is another matter. But I am happy enough to.

I do think that capitalists often do get thanks and other positive feedback. It's not just wages. As Micha said, I like having a relationship (of sorts) with the people that I do business with. Although in contrast to Micha, I certainly think these relationships are "less personal" than non-market friendships. Money exchange does change a relationship.

Rich, First of all, the

Rich,

First of all, the concept of civil society is important, especially for libertarians, because it gets people to distinguish between government and non-government social interactions. Take patriotism, for example. If patriotism is love of the U.S. government, then I am certainly not a patriot. But if patriotism is love of one's country, defined as the ideals and culture that are distinctively American, then I am a proud patriot. Without thinking about civil society as distinct from government, people tend to miss this point.

I think you also misunderstand the term civil society. It contains within itself a positive bias because of the word "civil." Civil implies peaceful, polite and courteous. Things like lynchings certainly do not fall under the category of civil. Civil society is not simply what is left over after we account for the government. Civil society is what is left over after we account for the government as well as private violence and bigotry.

I thank people I do business with. I love to establish lasting, friendly relationships with employers, employees, restaurant owners, waiters, customers, and all other types of people who trade value for value with me. There is no reason why economic relationships need be less personal or meaningful than non-economic relationships.

And of course the market competes with the state. From private arbitration agencies that resolve legal disputes, to private mail carriers, to private schools, to private insurance, to private security guards, to private homeowners associations - and on and on.

And given that a number of us here are anarchists, I would dispute your claim that government is a social structure that is needed to any degree.

Brian, you appear to be

Brian, you appear to be determined to misread me. I never suggested that civil society equals everything left over when the state is removed, as you say that I did. Re-read my first comment.

You are also misreading the definition. A racist lynching is indeed an "uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values." No one is coercing the lynchers into doing it. Of course, they are coercing someone else, but this is a common thread through the actions of many of the groups that are examples of "civil society". For instance, the social movement of Prohibition involved temperance crusaders who would gather in voluntary associations to go out and bust up taverns, and these groups were certainly part of the civil society of their day. No part of the definition excludes actions that you may consider to be uncivil.

Why aren't there more

Why aren't there more libertarian social activists? Social activity is social: collective. But libertarianism is ideologically individualistic to the extreme; rights inhere only in individuals, not collectives. Now, there's no necessary connection between this sort of individualism and antisociality or unsociality. However I think there's a strong correlation and probably causation: being an unsocial person, standing outside the crowd, gives you a view of the crowd unlike that of the joiner. Being unsocial also means that solutions that are attractive to a social personality won't necessary appeal to you.

A social personality, encountering a problem, naturally wants to join with others to solve it. This can happen inside the state, or outside it via civil society. Either way, you get to meet people and talk. What fun! An unsocial personality wants to fix problems by himself, if possible. When that can't happen, he is just frustrated. He does not want to join an organization and waste time in meetings, waiting in lines, calling people, gladhanding crowds, etc. to get things done.

Libertarians love the free market in part because it empowers them as individuals. In a free market, when you run into a problem you just take your business somewhere else. No fuss, no muss, no confrontation, no explanation, no permission. Not very social. In the state if you run into a problem, there is usually no individual means to address it other than leave the territory of that state.

I think that you're engaging

I think that you're engaging in one of those libertarian redefinitions of phrases. The phrase "civil society" does not simply mean "society" as modified by "civil" (as in courteous). Civil society "refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values." See

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_society

which provides the usual sort of sociological description of the phrase.

Rich, If you look closely,

Rich,

If you look closely, Micha said what you said, and thus you either agree or are both engaging in redefinition.

Specifically, the definition

Specifically, the definition you provide says:

Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy group.

Thus, by the definition you provide, lynchings are most definitively not a part of civil society. In your earliest post you made the distinction Micha disagreed with, suggesting that civil society = everything left over when the state is removed. That is not Micha's point, but it seems to have been yours originally until the wikipedia mention.

"When Micha talks of civil

"When Micha talks of civil society he certainly doesn’t have in mind non-state actors that act like state actors (keeping in mind the libertarian objection to state action is based on its violent/coercive aspects, not simply because it is called ‘the state’)."

It is a typical propaganda technique to use phrases in nonstandard ways, and to support these changes with folk etymology, all for the purpose of making an association with a phrase that sounds good and derailing any challenges to the association with definitional issues. I don't care what Micha thinks that civil society is or what you think it is. Words have meanings, and you don't get to define them.

If you want to say that libertarians support civil society, except for a list of exceptions, then say so. Be sure to specify what the exceptions are instead of just saying that you don't like coercion, because libertarians often play a similar definitional game with the word coercion. For instance, I've seen many libertarian writings about how coercive trade unions are. I would guess that the libertarian support of "civil society" is limited to that subset of civil society which does not challenge the producer portion of the market in any way.

Rich, Reframing or shifting

Rich,

Reframing or shifting the perception of a phrase is sometimes also called analytic philosophy. I'm not sure why you would think that redefining words is propaganda. Propaganda implies an attempt to persuade through the use of non-rational methods. Brian, whether you agree with him or not, seems pretty clearly to be offering reasons for his definitions. We can still argue over whether those definitions are accurate, but accusing him of spreading propaganda, or worse, of an inability to communicate, is counterproductive if not outright disingenuous.

Brian, "Reframing or

Brian, "Reframing or shifting the perception of a phrase" is indeed propaganda. And the point of argumentation is not to see who can frame the issue better. Your attitude is exactly what I'd expect of someone who has so much difficulty with ordinary communication. When words have no generally agreed upon meanings, that's what happens.

Rich, Words do have meaning,

Rich,

Words do have meaning, yet I *do* get to define them (as does anyone else). Unless you're a closet platonist who thinks that there is one universal and unchanging definition for any particular concept (that don't relate to mathematics or logical structure, of course), the connotation & context of words (especially in a fluid and irregular language as English) constantly changes.

Reframing or shifting the perception of a phrase is not illegitimate at all (as you seem to imply by whipping out the 'propaganda' word) but rather the very point of political argumentation when one is trying to change the way in which people see the world. Definitions matter and they *are* mutable, otherwise we'd never have left the absolutist age.

Nick and Brian, Nick: _Joe,

Nick and Brian,

Nick: _Joe, do you mean public opinion expressed only by (say) ostracism and verbal condemnation, and not by violence or threat thereof? For, if you do, it seems to me that such opinion cannot rightly be seen as coercive._

Brian: _I think this is an overbroad conception of coercion, or at least not the type of coercion typically considered by libertarian analysis._

I think you're exactly right that libertarian analysis doesn't generally consider coercion that doesn't involve violence or the threat of violence. And this is precisely where my liberalism and yours part company. In fact, I think that what we're looking at is precisely Levy's distinction between pluralism and rationalism that Brian quite usefully directed me to in another thread.

Obviously one does have to do more work than I've done here to spell out what exactly counts as coercive public opinion and what does not. There will be some kinds of cases that are hard to tell. But surely the example that I gave earlier (some modified version of _The Scarlet Letter_) counts as coercive public opinion despite there being no violence or threat of violence attached.

Rationalist liberals, I would argue, favor states precisely because we worry about the coercive effects of private, non-state groups, and because we recognize that such coercion need not take the form of laws. This is a big part of Mill's project in _On Liberty_ (and a reason why I always find libertarian readings of Mill to be really odd). To wit:

_Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them...There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indespenable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against despotism._

Or later

_The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion._

You both are right, then, that it will be important to draw lines very carefully so as not to include all forms of persuasion as coercion. But it's not at all clear that the only possible line to be drawn is the one that puts violence and threats of violence on one side and everything else on the other. Perhaps it's true that libertarians draw the line in that particular place, but there are plenty who would disagree. Surely it's not unreasonable to think that some forms of moral pressure could be coercive? Providing arguments that X is wrong is one thing. Community-wide shunning of some person for doing X is another thing entirely. I don't see what's so odd about saying that the former is legitimate while the latter is coercive.

Perhaps another way to put the point. Must all threats be threats of physical harm? Shunning, after all, does harm the person being shunned, but the harm in this case is psychological rather than physical. So why wouldn't that count as the sort of pressure that is illegitimate?