Mike Lee on Conservatism and Civil Society

September 30, 2013

Mike Lee provides a useful reminder that conservatism values the rich tapestry of voluntary associations and private organizations that grow organically in a free society over a long period of time.  (As conservatives, we certainly care about the poor; we believe that it is better for care to be provided in the context of those institutions, rather than mechanically transacted by the government.)  To the extent that the government imposes a stunted, flat vision for society—in which there is increasingly only the state and individuals, and nothing else—it destroys that complex ecosystem, which will not easily be rebuilt.

In April, he delivered a lecture at the Heritage Foundation titled “What Conservatives Are For.” “The Left has created this false narrative that liberals are for things, and conservatives are against things,” he said. “We say we are for lower taxes, or less regulation, or spending restraint. But those are just policies we advocate. They’re not what we’re really for. What we’re really for are the good things those policies will yield to the American people.” The failure to make that case, in Lee’s view, cost Republicans the 2012 presidential election, and he is urging his fellow Republicans to embrace a “compassionate conservatism” different from that advocated by George W. Bush. Its focus is on the conservative vision of community and the role of civic institutions in aiding the needy. “Those robust institutions of civil society represent the best, the most important piece of any civilization’s ability to deal with the vulnerable,” he tells me. “Government can’t create those institutions, but it can weaken them. If it weakens them too much it can destroy them, and once they’re gone, it can’t just push the restart button and have them spring back into action.”

From Eliana Johnson’s profile of him at National Review Online, “The Other Defunder: Mike Lee’s quiet conservative leadership”.

If you’re not familiar with the term “civil society” (I wasn’t), it is used in other senses as well, but in this sense, according to

the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens; individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government

[The term] had a long history in state theory, and was revived with particular force in recent times, in Eastrn Europe, where dissidents such as Vaclav Havel employed it to denote the sphere of civic associations threatened by the intrusive holistic state-dominated regimes of Communist Eastern Europe.[6]

The term civil society has a range of meanings in contemporary usage. It is sometimes considered to include the family and the private sphere, and referred to as the “third sector” of society, distinct from government and business.[7] . . .

Volunteering is often considered a defining characteristic of the organizations that constitute civil society . . . .

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