Monday, January 30, 2012
As Rick notes, Yuval Levin's piece today and Ross Douthat’s column yesterday are valuable reflections on the importance of institutional pluralism in a liberal society, a point underappreciated by many, including Douthat's colleagues on the editorial board. Yuval and Douthat show that the disagreement over the HHS mandate is a debate over whether and in what circumstances the coercive power of the state should be employed against the institutions of civil society. As Yuval observes, Catholicism (and especially American Catholicism) is a uniquely institutional form of religion, with social service agencies, hospitals, and schools at every level, and Catholic institutions are, not surprisingly, on the front lines of these battles. It strikes me that one’s view of the HHS mandate will often vary depending on whether one embraces “the logic of congruence,” in Nancy Rosenblum’s phrase, or a robust commitment to the freedom of civil society (churches, civic organizations, families, etc.), including toleration for views one sharply disagrees with. If the former, then you just have to bide your time until your side has a grasp on the levers of state power, and so, as Douthat points out, the increased authority of the state in these matters will eventually gore everyone’s ox--liberal or conservative, religious or not--depending on the politics of the administration. As Rosenblum and Robert Post put it in the introduction to Civil Society and Government (Princeton, 2002):
Advocates of congruence fear that the multiplication of intermediate institutions does not mediate but balkanizes public life. They are apprehensive that plural associations and groups amplify self-interest, encourage arrant interest-group politics, exaggerate cultural egocentrism, and defy government. What is needed, in their view, is a strong assertion of public values and policies designed to loosen the hold of particular affiliations, so that members will be empowered to look beyond their groups and to identify themselves as members of the larger political community. The “logic of congruence” envisions civil society as reflecting common values and practices “all the way down.”
All of this was diagnosed by Tocqueville, who saw that individualism and statism are reinforcing over time, crowding out religious and other forms of associational life for the allegiance of citizens:
As in periods of equality no man is compelled to lend his assistance to his fellow men, and none has any right to expect much support from them, everyone is at once independent and powerless. These two conditions, which must never be either separately considered or confounded together, inspire the citizen of a democratic country with very contrary propensities. His independence fills him with self-reliance and pride among his equals; his debility makes him feel from time to time the want of some outward assistance, which he cannot expect from any of them, because they are all impotent and unsympathizing. In this predicament he naturally turns his eyes to that imposing power which alone rises above the level of universal depression. Of that power his wants and especially his desires continually remind him, until he ultimately views it as the sole and necessary support of his own weakness.
It frequently happens that the members of the community promote the influence of the central power without intending to. Democratic eras are periods of experiment, innovation, and adventure. There is always a multitude of men engaged in difficult or novel undertakings, which they follow by themselves without shackling themselves to their fellows. Such persons will admit, as a general principle, that the public authority ought not to interfere in private concerns; but, by an exception to that rule, each of them craves its assistance in the particular concern on which he is engaged and seeks to draw upon the influence of the government for his own benefit, although he would restrict it on all other occasions. If a large number of men applies this particular exception to a great variety of different purposes, the sphere of the central power extends itself imperceptibly in all directions, although everyone wishes it to be circumscribed.
Thus a democratic government increases its power simply by the fact of its permanence. Time is on its side, every incident befriends it, the passions of individuals unconsciously promote it; and it may be asserted that the older a democratic community is, the more centralized will its government become.
Democracy in America, Vol. II, Pt. 4, Ch. 3