The Conditions in Which Private Groups May Perform Civic Functions

Here’s an insightful post by Paul Horwitz on the Garnett, Inazu, McConnell essay that I commented on a few days ago. Paul introduces his post with a discussion about contemporary attitudes toward government’s “insist[ence] that private organizations comply with its own sense of the good,” and he claims that though many people continue to believe that such insistence is illegitimate, “the momentum” within the elite classes (or call them how you will) “is on the other side.” I am always pleased when Paul shares at least some of my sensibilities.

One more thought connected to Paul’s comment on these interesting matters. Tax exemption for private nonprofit organizations made a certain amount of sense when two conditions obtained: (1) the size of government, and the scope of its role in American social life, was a good deal smaller than it is today, thereby both necessitating and making space for the involvement of private nonprofit institutions for the support of civil society; and (2) the view that these private institutions could and should play an independent role in shaping civil society in accordance with their own senses of the political and moral good, senses that might diverge in important respects from the state’s.

The conditions are mutually reinforcing and mutually dependent. As government becomes larger, both the need and the space for private institutions shrinks as does the perception that private institutions might actually have something of value to say in the way civic formation that is very different from what the state says. The “need” question is complex, because the breakdown of condition #1 would not necessarily mean that we would see fewer private institutions performing the sort of work that they had performed in the past. Indeed, the increase in the size and scope of the government’s role might itself necessitate greater numbers of private institutions to help it fulfill its enlarged offices. But we should expect to see a sharp decline in private institutions engaged in civic formation whose values differed sharply from the government’s. Whatever public/private partnerships endured after the fall of condition #1 could not continue to operate under the premises of condition #2. One might say that this is to be expected–indeed, it might be said to validate a hoary separationist rallying cry: if private institutions want to be in the business of performing civic functions, they ought to expect pressure to conform to the government’s preferred views of the civic, political, and moral good (a footnote: I’m always struck by how decidedly Protestant the theology supporting these kinds of separationist arguments seems). All true, though one could offer in return that such increased pressure is not inevitable but the product of a historical contingency: the breakdown of the two conditions above.

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