The following essay, aimed at further explaining this organizational purpose, was approved by the Institutes Board of Directors on September 30, 2011.
Many observers of America have noted the exceptional role and vitality of our civil society. Early on, Alexis de Tocqueville famously described the importance of voluntary associations in America. Other observers have used terms such as intermediate associations, mediating structures, spheres of justice, and spheres of love to denote the crucial functions of civil society in the guidance and governance of the nation.
So much depends on this issue. Whether American civil society weakens or thrives in the coming years is arguably the greatest question facing the nation today. Moreover, the relationship of American law to American civil society—the relationship between the modern state and those institutions which the modern state does not create but upon which it significantly depends—is likely to remain one of the nations most consequential and controversial public debates.
Finally, civil society has also become a global concept. Today, important debates on the meaning and potential of civil society are taking place around the world, including, for example, among the leaders of the Middle Eastern uprisings of 2011.
But if civil society is such a big idea, what exactly does it mean? Civil society is the web of relationships and associations that mediates between the person and the state. Civil society is not the isolated individual, and it is not the umbrella of government and law—it is all the thick, diverse social fabric in between, from families to chess clubs, from soup kitchens to the PTA, from labor unions to the shop around the corner to the business downtown, from Wednesday night prayer meetings to Saturday morning softball leagues.
In short, civil society is the complex set of relationships and associations that occupy most of our time and energy and fill up most of our day-to-day lives. The associations of civil society are largely, though not exclusively, voluntary. (For example, we do not choose our parents or our cousins, although as adults we usually do choose to stay in or leave certain family networks, and to join or create others.)
Civil society is a primary incubator of our philosophies of life and our cultural values. In civil society, we encounter that large, complex arena of our communal life in which we most directly acquire our understandings of what is right and wrong and how to live a good life, and through which we most directly pass on those values to the next generation.
Of course, these three orders—individual, civil society, and state—constantly interact and overlap. The individual person participates in, and influences, civil society. Law and government certainly influence and at times guide civil society—sometimes for good, sometimes for ill—just as civil society influences the state and can help to shape the law. But the essence of civil society is neither the individual nor the state. It is instead the (hugely important) stuff in between.
What makes civil society tick? What is its DNA? When we speak of the person, we are speaking mainly about individual rights and duties. And when we speak of the state, we are speaking mainly about the distribution and uses of power. But when we speak of civil society, we are speaking mainly about the quality of human relationships.
The DNA of civil society, then, is not individual behavior and its not the law. It is relationships, human bonds.
Our mission at the Institute for American Values is to study and strengthen civil society.
We regard civil society as both a means and an end of a good society.
We recognize that civil society is not always a sphere of sweetness and virtue. There can be bad civil society as well as good, weak as well as strong. The degradation of civil society can occur in at least four ways:
In recent decades, many key institutions of U.S. civil society appear to have been weakened, in some cases severely, by one or more of these trends. In particular, the emergence of expressive and consumerist individualism as regnant cultural values, combined with (and in part related to) the growing strength of government as an engine of isomorphic social change, seems clearly to have contributed to an overall shrinkage and weakening of civil society.
These complexities mean that, as we aim to study and strengthen civil society, we are doing more than simply cheer-leading. Our discipline is a much more rigorous and potentially consequential one.
Within the focus on civil society, the institutes three current priorities are marriage, thrift, and public conversation. Together, these three are primary determinants of the health of civil society.
The family is the seedbed institution of civil society, and marriage is the basis of the family. Across the globe, marriage is the main human institution governing the link between the voluntary spousal association and the biological parent-child association. Marriage is therefore societys most pro-child institution. In fact, its the only institution that brings together the three main domains of parenthood—biological, social, and legal—into one association.
Thrift—the word comes from thrive—is the moral discipline of wisest use. Thrift says: Use all that you have (including your money) in the wisest way, to promote thriving. If marriage is civil societys core idea when it comes to reproduction, or successfully bearing and rearing the next generation, thrift is civil societys core idea when it comes to production, or wisely using money and other resources.
Importantly, thrift qualifies and guides the free market by providing it with a moral framework. Thrift is therefore a morally robust alternative to both laissez-faire (anything goes, provided that its legal) and consumerism (the more stuff I have, the better). Thrift as a value is closely linked to the concepts of generosity and stewardship.
In formal terms, the words marriage and thrift are not perfectly symmetrical. Marriage is an institution guided by certain values, whereas thrift is a value that can orient both individuals and institutions.
But as core ideas of civil society, the two go hand in glove, and they stand best when they stand together. Forming stable marriages and building economic independence over time—marriage and thrift, the nest and the nest-egg—are the indispensable and interconnected pathways to the American mainstream and the linked prerequisites for a thriving civil society.
Unlike marriage, which is an institution, and unlike thrift, which is a value, public conversation is fundamentally a process. That process is nothing less than the life blood of democratic civil society.
Like civil society itself, that life blood can be thick or thin, vital or degenerate. The symptoms of degeneracy in public conversation include shrillness, treating opponents as enemies, and assuming bad faith. The symptoms of vitality include civility, openness to other views, and reasonable argument in the service of truth. Vigorous public conversation depends decisively upon the shared and hard-won ideas that our access to truth is imperfect and that we and those with whom we disagree possess equal dignity and are therefore more alike than different.
In our engagement with scholars from the Arab and Muslim world and in other ways, we aim also for a global public conversation both through and about civil society:
We seek this global engagement because we know that core issues of human flourishing transcend national boundaries and that the finest of what we sometimes too casually call American values are in fact the shared inheritance of humankind.
The Institute for American Values is a voluntary association. This fact puts us in an interesting position: We are a clear example of the very thing we seek to study and strengthen. Or to borrow from Mohandas Gandhi, we are therefore called upon every day in our work to be the change we seek.
We embrace that challenge, starting with our commitment to the core organizational values of stewardship, scholarship, and collaboration.
Stewardship: We recognize that our resources are not our own; they are gifts from others which we hold in trust. What we produce, we seek to share generously with others.
Scholarship: Our lodestars are scholarly excellence and intellectual freedom and integrity.
Collaboration: We typically work in groups, through which we pursue collaborative research and interdisciplinary conversation over time. Our signature intellectual product is the jointly authored public statement. Almost all of our work involves partnerships with other civil society organizations.
Our mission is to study and strengthen civil society, of which our organization itself is a part. Civil society is the thick web of human relationships and associations that mediates between the person and the state. That sphere of society has been vital to the shaping of the American experiment and is an essential feature of free societies everywhere.
Civil society can be weak or strong, and can work for good or for ill. Three primary characteristics of a thriving civil society are successful marriages, thrifty stewardship of resources, and vigorous public conversation both at home and abroad. Such a civil society is both an end in itself and the best means of sustaining democratic self-government and promoting human flourishing.