Niall Ferguson is author of Civilization and other books, and a professor of history at Harvard University. This is excerpted from his Reith Lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The talk was broadcast by BBC on July 10, 2012, and may be read in its entirety here.
Nearly ten years ago I bought a house on the coast of South Wales. I bought the house mainly to be beside the sea, but there was a catch. The lovely stretch of coastline in front of it was hideously strewn with rubbish. Thousands of plastic bottles littered the sands and rocks. Plastic bags fluttered in the wind, caught on the thorns of the Burnet roses.
Dismayed, I asked the locals: who’s responsible for keeping the coastline clean?
“Well, the council is supposed to do it, down by here,” one of them explained, “but they don’t do nothing about it, do they?”
I took to carrying and filling black bin-liners whenever I went for a walk. But it was a task far beyond the capacity of one man. And that was when it happened: I asked for volunteers.
Well, the first beach clear-up was a modest affair. The second was more of a success. . . . It was when the local branch of the Lions Club became involved, however, that the breakthrough came. I had never heard of the Lions Club. I learned that it’s originally an American association, not unlike the Rotary Club. Both were founded by Chicago businessmen about a century ago and both are secular networks whose members dedicate their time to various good causes.
The Lions brought a level of organization and motivation that far exceeded my earlier improvised efforts. As a result of their involvement, the shoreline was transformed. The plastic bottles were bagged and properly disposed of; the roses were freed from their ragged polyethylene wrappings.
Together, spontaneously, without any public sector involvement, without any profit motive, without any legal obligation or power, we had turned a depressing dumping ground back into a beauty spot. Now I ask myself: How many other problems could be solved in this simple and yet satisfying way? . . .
Civil society, properly understood, is the realm of voluntary associations—institutions established by citizens with an objective other than private profit. These can range from schools to clubs dedicated to the full range of human activities, from acrobatics to zoology, by way of beach clearing. . . . I want to ask how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of a vibrant civil society. And I want to cast doubt on the fashionable idea that the new social networks of the internet are in any sense a substitute for real networks of the sort that helped me clear my local beach.
“In no country in the world,” declared Alexis de Tocqueville in the first book of his Democracy in America “has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America. . . . The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life.”
Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy. But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small . . . if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.”
. . . In his best-selling book Bowling Alone, my Harvard colleague Robert Putnam detailed the drastic declines, between around 1960 or 1970 and the late 1990s, in a long list of indicators of social capital:
- Attendance at a public meeting on town or school affairs: down 35 percent.
- Service as an officer of a club or organization: down 42 percent.
- Service on a committee for a local organization: down 39 percent.
- Membership of parent-teacher associations: down 61 percent.
- The average membership rate for 32 national chapter-based associations: down by almost 50 percent.
- Membership rates for men’s bowling leagues: down 73 percent.
What is happening? Well, for Putnam, it is primarily technology. First television, then the internet—that has been the death of traditional associational life. . . . Facebook and its ilk create social networks that are huge—but weak. . . . I doubt very much that online communities are a substitute for traditional forms of association.
Could I have cleared the beach by poking my Facebook friends or creating a new Facebook group? I doubt it. A recent study revealed that most users in fact treat Facebook as a way to maintain contact with existing friends—often ones they no longer see regularly because they no longer live nearby. The students surveyed were two and a half times more likely to use Facebook this way than to initiate connections with strangers—which is what I had to do to clear the beach.
It is not technology that has hollowed out civil society. It is something Tocqueville himself anticipated, in what is perhaps the most powerful passage in the whole of Democracy in America. Here he vividly imagines a future society in which associational life has died:
“. . . an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. . . .
“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood. . . .”
Tocqueville was surely right. Not technology, but the state—with its seductive promise of security from the cradle to the grave—was the real enemy of civil society. For Tocqueville, it would be fatal for “the government . . . to take the place of associations.”
“Sentiments and ideas renew themselves,” he wrote, “the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.” Amen to that. . . .
Over the past 50 years governments encroached too far on the realm of civil society. That had its benefits where, as in the case of primary education, there was insufficient private provision. But there were real costs, too. Like Tocqueville, I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens. For true citizenship is not just about voting, earning, and staying on the right side of the law.
It is also about participating in the troop—the wider group beyond our families—which is precisely where we learn how to develop and enforce rules of conduct. In short, to govern ourselves; to educate our children; to care for the helpless; to fight crime; to clear the beach of rubbish. . . .
Our society—and indeed most societies—would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state. If that is a conservative position, then so be it. Once, it was considered the essence of true liberalism. . . .
Our once vibrant civil society is in a state of decay, not so much because of technology, but because of the excessive pretensions of the state: a threat that Tocqueville presciently warned Europeans and Americans against.
We humans live in a complex matrix of institutions. There is government. There is the market. There is the law. And then there is civil society. . . . Once this matrix worked astonishingly well, with each set of institutions complementing and reinforcing the rest. That, I believe, was the key to Western success in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. But the institutions in our times are out of joint.
It is our challenge in the years that lie ahead to restore them. It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to clear up the beach.