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Book Review: Community Without Politics

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Community without Politics: A Market Approach to Welfare Reform
by David G. Green (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1995); 184 pages; £8.00.

It seems that thirty years after the introduction of the Great Society programs of the 1960s, it is finally being accepted that a fundamental mistake was made. Rather than eliminating poverty, reviving neighborhoods and communities, and raising up those who seemingly were left at the periphery of society, the welfare state has perpetuated poverty, destroyed families and neighborhoods, and created an underclass of unemployables.

But while there is a growing consensus that the welfare state is a failure that has generated outcomes perversely contrary to the publicly proclaimed intentions of its advocates and initiators, there is no consensus about what to put in its place. After all these decades of expanding state dependency by a growing number of people in the society, few can even conceive of a world without government safety nets and redistributive programs. The general view seems to be that it is either the paternalistic state or the isolated individual, cut loose with nothing to assist or protect him if some personal misfortune strikes.

In 1993, David G. Green, director of the health and welfare unit at the free-market Institute of Economics Affairs in London, England, published a book entitled Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics (see the book review in Freedom Daily , May 1994). Dr. Green explained how social problems were solved in 19th-century Great Britain, before the welfare state. Besides charitable organizations, a vast network of for-profit companies and mutual-aid societies covered Great Britain. They provided pension programs, unemployment and disability insurance, death benefits, and health insurance. Before any of the major government welfare-statist programs began in 1911, these private-market institutions were covering and assisting a vast majority of the British working population, both the middle-income and poor alike.

Furthermore, these voluntary “friendly societies,” as they were called, also often had as their purpose the teaching and reinforcing in their members the personal habits of discipline, self-responsibility, mutual support, and forethought of the future in the form of savings and financial management of their incomes. They also nurtured a sense of community and voluntarism, separate from and independent of state action. In this earlier book, Dr. Green demonstrated that there had been, historically, a third alternative to either the paternalistic state or the isolated individual. There had been — and could be again — a vibrant civil society of voluntary associations to solve many if not most of the social ills that 20th-century welfare statists have tried to solve with the state.

In his new book, Community Without Politics: A Market Approach to Welfare Reform , Dr. Green now presents the underlying conception of society that can and needs to serve as the foundation if such a free, voluntary civil society is to replace the welfare state in the next century.

Following Friedrich A. Hayek and Michael Oakeshotte, Dr. Green argues that a free society is a “civic association.” Each individual shares the same equal rights to life, liberty, and property before the law. The law has the single, primary function of protecting these rights from intrusion and aggression. “Order” in society emerges as the often unintended byproduct of the mutually beneficial and voluntary associations among the individual members of that society. The sense of “social solidarity” that the members of the society share and have in common is based not on any imposed hierarchy of goals or purposes; rather it is based on a sense of the principles of human freedom, individual worth and dignity, and moral responsibility for the preservation, improvement, and continuity of the free and prosperous civil society.

The free, civil society, Dr. Green argues, must also be a moral society, but a moral society not only because it does not tolerate or condone violence or plunder. A free society, he reasons, can only long endure if it also fosters a common set of virtues. At this point, Dr. Green goes out of his way to insist that such a set of commonly shared virtues is not to be imposed by government — indeed any and every attempt to try to do so undermines the very purpose of such virtues. Nor does he advocate some rigid, detailed set of puritanical rules. Rather, it is the type of virtuous behavior that, he shows, has been the common property of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, F. A. Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, and most other classical liberals during the past two hundred years.

What are these virtues? At their core is the idea of self-responsibility — the notion that the individual makes his own decisions and that he is responsible for his actions and their consequences. For example, when a person takes on the obligation of marriage, he takes on the duty to raise, support, and care for his children. To be successfully self-responsible requires the individual to nurture within himself the quality of “character,” which means that the most valuable property that any individual possesses is a sense of self-respect and a belief that his actions concerning himself and others have enabled him to earn that respect in his own eyes and in those with whom he chooses to associate.

Another of these virtues is that the individual has a sense of responsibility for the quality of the society in which he lives. He realizes that he is a member of a community of free men and that as such a member of a free society, its spiritual and material health requires that he participate in the voluntary associations of mutual assistance and good works.

At this point some proponents of freedom may say: “Oh, yeah! Well, you can’t tell me how to live or that I have to give to charity. It’s my life, I’m a free man, its my money.” Dr. Green does not in the least suggest that this person or anyone else should be forced to do what he does not want to do. But he does say:

“[T]he person who advocates virtue or good character need not be “telling” anybody anything. He offers a view of the good life for others to accept or reject. . . . Yet, it is an inescapable part of the human condition to grow to adulthood within a cultural heritage which, in every society so far known to history, has taken a view about matters such as the family and obligations owed by biological parents to their own children. To label efforts to uphold a given moral view as “authoritarian” ignores the inevitability of shared moral concern in any social order and telescopes the valid distinction between the “external” enforcement of standards and “self”-control in the light of the moral tradition into which we are born.”

Through a good portion of Community Without Politics , Dr. Green details precisely how the welfare state has fostered a society in which a growing number of people manifest what most of us would consider unattractive behavioral traits. It is the welfare state that has dehumanized man, made him insensitive to his own sense of self-worth, self-regard, self-respect, and self-responsibility, and cruelly callous towards his fellow men. And, Dr. Green argues forcefully, it is the free and “voluntarily” virtuous society that can and will humanize man, if only we can do away with the welfare state.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).