Sunday, April 10, 2011

When civil society fails

Who keeps the collective conscience of a society/nation?

In theologically or politically centralized societies, the answer may be 'government', but not so in open, democratic ones. There the answer is more likely to be 'civil society'. In democratic structures, civil society is the funnel that narrows down innumerable personal sensibilities into a practical number of society-wide moral choices which often shape public policy.

(For the sake of this discussion, civil society is any instance where more than one humans cooperate to think, discuss, or act on something of public consequence; e.g., friends, family, neighborhood associations, religious groups, political parties, TV, newspapers, bloggers etc. It can be any organization but one with police powers; i.e.,the government.)

In an ideal democracy, civil society should be the testing and debating grounds for any potential changes in public policy instituted by governments. A couple of examples of this from the United States which demonstrate how civil society has actively and for long debated gaps in public policy not fully addressed by either arm of the government: gay rights and smoking. In neither of these issues has the judiciary or legislature done enough to conclusively set a direction but in both cases, civil society has set the tone for the discussion. These can be taken to be signs of a healthy democracy.

But negative-minded as we are, let us focus on two instances where civil society has lagged behind the government or behind circumstances.

1. The collapse of the housing market and subsequent financial disaster

Both civil society and government were caught with their pants down when this hit. Civil society's reaction has been to find convenient scape goats like "Wall Street fat cats" and "greedy mortgage lenders". But the fact is that Wall Street and the mortgage industry were only fulfilling an insatiable hunger for cheap money and easy lending on part of the public. Zig Ziglar said once:
You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.
Helping others is precisely what those allegedly rotten scoundrels were doing. The drug junkie should share the blame with the street-corner crack dealer.

Then, and even now, civil society has failed to see anything wrong with the mindset of those "innocent" everyday Americans who wanted more house, more car, more everything than they could fairly afford. On the contrary, as the overspending orgy or the past decade was receding, civil society was worried that prudent behavior by individuals would hurt the economy.

2. Entitlement reform

It is well known that the US' government finances are likely screwed in the long run because of looming liability of future entitlements - Social Security and Medicare. Even as elected representatives have long tossed around the issue like a hot potato for electoral reasons, civil society has pretended the problem does not exist. As the Tea Party (which, admittedly, is one element of civil society) pushes legislators to start acting towards entitlement reform, it is clear that any resulting reform will be in spite, not because, of civil society at large.

Civil society debates should give rise to legislation, not the other way round. When the latter happens, and when it happens in profoundly important areas like the above, all is not right with democracy.

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