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, Muammar el-Qaddafi 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 leadership, 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, non-profit 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 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 last 10 years, the Manhattan Institute has sponsored an award competition for just these sorts of young, start-up non-profits (http://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.
Are you concerned about how well immigrants adapt to American life? So was Jane Leu, the founder of Upwardly Global, dedicated to helping immigrants with professional-level skills get jobs commensurate with their talents. Sitting in on an Upwardly Global meeting—with immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central America, together in an office in San Francisco, over which flies an American flag—is both a moving experience and a reminder of the importance of immigrants to the U.S. economy.
So it is, too, with a visit to Chicago’s United Neighborhood Organization, whose leader, Juan Rangel, has built a program to help southwest Chicago’s Mexican immigrants take—and pass—the American citizenship test.
Are you concerned about those who lack health insurance? So was Hilton Head, South Carolina physician Jack McConnell, whose idea for a free clinic staffed by retired doctors and nurses laid the groundwork for Volunteers in Medicine—which has gone on to help establish more than 80 such clinics nationwide, each built with local money and staffed by local help.
Those concerned about the job prospects of low-income, inner-city students can take comfort in The Cristo Rey Network. It has not only saved inner-city Catholic schools scheduled to be closed but also developed an effective new approach to reduce drop-out rates: a school year built around part-time jobs with prestigious employers. Founded in Chicago, it now includes 24 schools and 6,000 students in 16 states.
And those who lack confidence in the Veterans Administration’s capacity to help troubled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans can look to The Mission Continues, a St. Louis-based organization founded by Rhodes Scholar and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens.
His organization links veterans with civic groups working on “service projects” across the country, from restoration of the Appalachian Trail to the rebuilding of a soldiers’ monument in St. Louis. In an era when too many see veterans as victims, Greitens operates on a novel theory: that even after returning home, many veterans want to continue to serve America.
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 non-profits 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 discourage easily.
Howard Husock is vice president of policy research at the Manhattan Institute and director of its Social Entrepreneurship Initiative. The Manhattan Institute is seeking nominations of newer, non-profits providing help to those in need, without relying on government grants. Suggestions welcome at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/se2011_form.html.