What is Civil Society? – with Lauren Hall

In society, there are different communities and groups that we belong to; some voluntary and others less so. Dr. Lauren Hall, associate professor of political science at the Rochester Institute of Technology, discusses what it means to be in civil society as part of our video series with Big Think on the core concepts of classical liberalism.

Generally speaking, when we talk about civil society, we’re talking about all the ways that people associate with each other when they’re not interacting directly with the state or the political process, and they’re not buying and selling things on the market.

– Dr. Lauren Hall
Dr. Lauren Hall

According to Dr. Hall, the construct of civil society can be broken down into three groups: primary, secondary, and tertiary associations.

These different groups are categorized by varying levels of participation. Primary associations are typically comprised of family or close friends. Tertiary associations are groups you belong in, or are a member of in the nominal sense, but don’t necessarily interact with other members of the group; for example, being a supporter of NPR. It is the secondary associations that play the largest role in the idea of civil society.

Secondary associations are all of the situations in which people organize and associate with each other that are not based off kin and that are not based off of selling or swapping services.

– Dr. Lauren Hall

“You can think about these as everything from religious associations… to the roller derby team that you’re on, to the group you meet up with at the library to do puzzles with on Sunday afternoons,” Dr. Hall elaborates.

These secondary associations usually have the most on-the-ground knowledge of their community’s needs, and allow the most flexibility, including “freedom of exit”; meaning the ability to opt into or out of participation in them.

Dr. Hall goes on to address the argument for limited government, and the importance these secondary associations play within it, illustrating two main points within the argument: efficiency and morality.

The efficiency argument states that the government is too large to truly know what people need, and therefore too big to help people in the way they need to be helped. “Moreover, we’re more likely to harm them because we don’t know what they really need,” Dr. Hall says. She reasons that the secondary associations in civil society would have more face-to-face knowledge of what everyone within a given community actually needs.

For the second argument, it’s an issue of morality and, most specifically, it centers on the question of coercion. What does coercion mean, exactly? As Dr. Hall puts it, “[It] means that even if you don’t like the government’s response to your specific problem, you will be forced to accept it.”

The problem with government broadly is that there is no exit… I can’t withdraw my tax dollars and put them somewhere else. I’m stuck. I’m stuck with that government.

– Dr. Lauren Hall

Dr. Hall says that while you may agree that certain areas or people require support, you might not agree with the way the government is providing that support. “All of a sudden, I don’t have a choice in how my money is being used. I don’t have any option or way of exiting that relationship.”

According to Dr. Hall, secondary associations provide more freedom to move between associations that do meet your needs, while also giving you more opportunity, through the freedom of exit, to dissent without the coercive component.

“If you rely on these secondary associations, you create more wiggle room for people to find systems that meet their needs,” she concludes.

This video is one in a series about the core concepts of classical liberalism. Additional articles, videos, and content on this topic and others can be found on the Institute for Humane Studies blog.

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