Robert Nisbet was a professor at Columbia University and an influential defender of the traditional institutions of community life which stand between the bureaucratic state and the isolated individual: charities, churches, neighborhood groups, and the family. These smaller-scale organizations console, soften, and enrich life. And they do so without endangering the freedom and goodness of society, as mass-scale helping organizations can.
It’s easy for smaller-scale philanthropists to feel intimidated when they compare their diverse actions to the more monolithic efforts of bigger institutions, particularly the giant, uniform activities of government. But as Nisbet notes in the following extract from his classic The Quest for Community, those massive actions are also more impersonal and brutish, and will often be less socially wholesome than more modest human-scale philanthropy.
What Lewis Mumford has written in The Culture of Cities is eloquent and irrefutable. “We need, in every part of the city, units in which intelligent and cooperative behavior can take the place of mass regulations, mass decisions, mass actions, imposed by ever remoter leaders and administrators. Small groups: small classes: small communities: institutions framed to the human scale, are essential to purposive behavior in modern society. Very stupidly we have overlooked the way in which large units limit opportunity all along the line: not merely by physical friction of space, or the burden of a vast mechanical and administrative overhead, but also by diminishing opportunities for people with special capacities. Thus Sir Raymond Unwin has pointed out that twenty communities with a population of 50,000 people would not merely be more adequately governed, probably, than one city that contained a million: it would, for example, give an opportunity for 20 mayors or city managers, against one in the big center. This rule holds true in every other part of society. We demand the impossible in the way of direction and specialized service from a few people, and we fail to demand the possible from those who are better equipped to handle adequately a smaller job. With our overgrown institutions, overgrown colleges, overgrown corporations, overgrown cities, is it any wonder that we easily become the victims of propaganda machines, routineers, and dictators?”
The passage from Mr. Mumford’s book makes it plain that the necessity of decentralization is by no means confined to the structure of the political State, great as the need there may be. Decentralization is just as necessary in the operation of the other great associations of modern society—the industrial corporation, the labor union, the large church, the profession, and the great university. More than a little of the diminution in the psychological and cultural influence of these associations in recent times results from their failure to remain responsible to the small areas of association within them. This is the consequence of the same kind of centralization and collectivization we see in politics. The fault lies in the common failure to unite the broad purposes of the large associations with the small, informal relationships composing them.
The labor union, the legal or medical association, or the church will become as centralized and as remote as the national State itself unless these great organizations are rooted in the smaller relationships which give meaning to ends of the large associations. To conceive of a great labor union, industrial enterprise, or church as an association of individual members is but to intensify the processes of atomization which such associations can and should counteract. No large association will remain an object of personal allegiance, no matter how crucial its goals may be, unless it is constantly sensitive to the existence of the informal but potent relationships of which it is really composed. It has surely become evident by this time that the most successful and allegiance-evoking business enterprises and cultural association in modern life are those that regard themselves as associations of groups, not of raw individuals. To recognize the existence of informal social relationships, to keep central purposes constantly alive in these small groups, and to work toward the increasing spontaneity of these groups is, I believe, the cardinal responsibility of the great private association.
Only thus will the large formal associations remain important agencies of order and freedom in democracy. Only thus will they succeed in arresting and banishing the augmenting process of insecurity and moral isolation which now paralyze individual wills and strike at the roots of stable culture.
There is a vast difference between the type of planning—whether in the large State, industry, or the school—that seeks to enmesh the individual in a custodial network of detailed rules for his security and society’s stability, and the type of planning that is concerned with the creation of a political and economic context within which the spontaneous associations of men are the primary sources of freedom and order. The latter type of planning is compatible with competition, diversity, rivalry, and the normative conflicts that are necessary to cultural creativity. The former type is not. . . .
There is the kind of State that seeks always to extend its administrative powers and functions into all realms of society, always seeking a higher degree of centralization in the conduct of its operations, always tending toward a wider measure of politicization of social, economic, and cultural life. It does not do this in the name of power but of freedom—freedom from want, insecurity, and minority tyranny. It parades the symbols of progress, people, justice, welfare, and devotion to the common man. It strives unceasingly to make its ends and purposes acceptable—through radio, newspaper, and document—to even the lowliest of citizens. It builds up a sense of the absolute identity of State and society—nothing outside the State, everything in the State.
Increasingly, in this type of State, the basic needs for education, recreation, welfare, economic production, distribution, and consumption, health, spiritual and physical, and all other services of society are made aspects of transfer comes to be accepted by almost everyone—by businessmen in search of guaranteed production and profit, by educators in need of funds, by labor in the interests of guaranteed jobs and living wages, and by liberal reformers in the interests of housing programming or other projects. Autonomous areas of economy, education, and other spheres of culture shrink constantly. Invasions of minority rights are defended, as are invasions of social authority and responsibility, and limitations upon right of association in the name of the people, of social justice, of preparedness for war against poverty, ignorance, disease, and external national enemies.
Such a State may well call itself democratic and humanitarian. All contemporary totalitarian States so refer to themselves. Such a State may found itself upon the highest principle of virtue, even as did the Republic of Plato. There can be such a thing as democratic totalitarianism even as there can be, as we have learned in disillusion, socialist totalitarianism. The design of totalitarianism, as Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” has taught us, can be infinitely varied and in human hands and proceed from the formal veneration of God as easily as from the hatred of God. The impersonal despotism of virtue, as someone has said, is not the less despotic because it is virtuous.
But there is also the kind of State that seeks, without sacrificing its legitimate sovereignty grounded in the will of the people, to maintain a pluralism of functions and loyalties in the lives of its people. It is a State that knows that the political absorption of the institutional functions of an association, be it family, local community, or trade union, must soon be followed by the loss or weakening of psychological devotions to that association. It is a State that seeks to diversify and decentralize its own administrative operations and to relate these as closely as possible to the forms of spontaneous association which are the outgrowth of human needs and desires which have relevance to the economic, educational, and religious ends of a culture. It seeks cultural diversity, not uniformity. It does not make a fetish of either social order or personal adjustment, but it recognizes that the claims of freedom and cultural anonymity will never have recognition until the great majority of individuals in society have a sense of cultural membership in the significant and meaningful relationships of kinship, religion, occupation, profession, and locality. It will not spurn the demands of human security but it will seek means by which such demands can be met through spontaneous association and creation rather than through bureaucratic rigidities of formal law and association.
Either type of State may be labeled democratic and humanitarian. But the difference between the two types is infinitely greater than the differences between capitalism and socialism, or between monarchy and republic. The first type of State is inherently monolithic and absorptive and, however broad its base in the electorate and however nobly inspired its rulers, must always border upon despotism.
The second type of State is inherently pluralist and, whatever the intentions of its formal political rulers, its power will be limited by association whose plurality of claims upon their members is the measure of their members’ freedom from any monopoly of power in society.