January 1, 2010

Sociality, Civility, and Spontaneous Order

Theoretical Problems of Peter Berger’s Contribution to the Pluralism of Mediating Structures
  • Steven Grosby

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This paper is on “the Berger/Neuhaus collaboration on civil society," which is a pressingly important argument. It is possible that the merit of the arguments of To Empower People may, today, be more easily grasped than when it was written, given the renewed interest during the last twenty years in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. One assumes that, at the time of its composition, Berger’s and Neuhaus’s vigorous and proper defense of individual initiative, nongovernmental institutions, and the freedom of not only the individual but also his or her associations owed much to works like Richard Cornuelle’s Reclaiming the American Dream: The Role of Private Individuals and Voluntary Associations (1965) and, above all, Robert Nisbet’s wrongly neglected classic, The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (1953). In fact, it would not be wrong to view the arguments of To Empower America as being an application of the implications of Nisbet’s work for public policy.

The self-described goal of the pubic policy to utilize mediating structures was “to expand (what has come to be understood as) government services without producing government oppressiveness”—an anticipation of what has subsequently come to be known as “compassionate conservatism.” However, if Berger and Neuhaus were correct to observe that the modern welfare state is here to stay, then one can no longer take for granted the obviousness of the merit of the limited state. On the contrary, one is obligated to explain why an apparently welcomed, even if ambivalently so, expansive government is oppressive. Berger and Neuhaus did this is two ways, through the concept of efficiency and the pluralistic orientations of human action.