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Civil Society—America’s Great Heritage

Civil Society—America’s Great Heritage

“Taxation,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes a century ago, “is the price we pay for civilization.”  A much better case can be made that taxation is the price we pay for the lack of civilization.  If people took better care of themselves, their families, and those in need around them, government would shrink, and society would be stronger as a result.

People helping people because they want to and not because government tells them they must is the sign of a civilized people and a civil society. Cultural progress should not be defined as politicians taking more and more of what other people have earned and spending it on the people’s alleged behalf. Genuine cultural progress occurs when individuals solve problems without resorting to politics or politicians.

In 2019, Richard Graber of the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation paid tribute to civil society:

It’s tempting for politicians to offer more government programs as a fix to society’s problems. But it’s families, social clubs, churches, and the like that have a greater and lasting impact on daily life. We must work to improve and sustain civil society in every way we can by encouraging self-governance and engaging in our communities. 

When the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville visited a young, bustling America in the 1830s, he cited the vibrancy of civil society as one of this country’s greatest assets. He was amazed that Americans were constantly forming “associations” to advance the arts, build libraries and hospitals, and meet social needs of every kind. If something good needed to be done, it rarely occurred to our forebears to expect politicians and bureaucrats, who were distant in both space and spirit, to do it for them. 

A half-century after Tocqueville’s visit, President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have appropriated $10,000 in federal aid to assist drought-stricken farmers in Texas. He stated in his veto message:

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The lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune…. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

Cleveland rallied the nation and Texas farmers received many times in voluntary assistance what the vetoed bill would have given them in public money. Even with the explosive growth of government and its taxation in recent decades, Americans still are the most generous and caring people on the planet.

We cannot restore civil society if we have no confidence in ourselves and think that government has a monopoly on compassion. We’ll never get there if we tax away nearly half of people’s earnings and then, like children who never learned their arithmetic, complain that people can’t afford to meet certain needs.

We’ll make progress in restoring civil society when the “government is the answer” cure is recognized for what it is—false charity, a cop-out, a simplistic non-answer that doesn’t get the job done well, even though it makes its advocates smug with self-righteous satisfaction.

In the ongoing debate about out-of-control government spending, my vote goes to whoever wants to cut the most. I have far more confidence in what the people can do with their own money than I do in almost anything politicians can do with it after they launder it through the bureaucracy.

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