February 19, 2005


Don Eberly's Conservative Civil Society (Bill Berkowitz, Feb 7, 2005, Working for Change)

An advocate of shrinking government, Don Eberly, the head of the Civil Society Project promotes faith-based organizations, private philanthropic initiatives, traditional families, volunteerism and the building of a 'values' society. Whose 'values' is the question.

You won't find him on many of television's talking head programs, you wouldn't be able to pick him out of a line-up, and his essays aren't sexed-up or buzz-worthy, but for more than 15 years, Don Eberly has been one of the leading advocates of a strain of conservative advocacy known as "civil society."

Although vague and often ambiguous, "civil society" advocates intend to shrink government by handing over responsibility for maintaining and administering what's left of the social safety net to faith-based organizations, corporate and community groups, families and philanthropic initiatives. As neoconservative cultural critic Gertrude Himmelfarb has written, "When we speak of the restoration of civil society it is a moral restoration we should seek."

And moral renewal, along with building the conservative century, is what Eberly is seeking. He gives great weight to an observation made by Michael Novak (bio at AEI), the veteran conservative scholar who is currently the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute (website). Novak maintains that "The American political party that best gives life and breath and amplitude to civil society will not only thrive in the twenty-first century. It will win public gratitude and it will govern."

During a conference held in 2000, and sponsored by The Heritage Foundation in commemoration of the five-year anniversary of the class of 1995, Eberly told a group of Congressmen and Congresswomen that the defeat of totalitarianism and the rollback of the welfare state were the two greatest achievements of Republicans and conservatives over the past two decades. An essay derived from that speech, and later published in Essays on Civil Society – An American Conversation on Civic Virtue (Volume 2000, No. 1) – a publication of Eberly's Harrisburg, PA-based Civil Society Project, (website) laid out Eberly's thesis for social transformation – shrinking government and building a values society based on tradition American values.

After the defeat of totalitarianism, "the second major question before the country and the Congress for the past several decades was how could we tame a seemingly untamable welfare state" Eberly writes. "The entire weight of sophisticated opinion – buttressed by every school of prestigious school of public policy in this nation – was that increasing segments of American society would steadily come under the managerial supervision of a credentialed, enlightened, bureaucratic elite.

"The fact that we are now instead talking mostly about the miracle-working power of local faith-based charities, which in their ragtag existence represent the antithesis of the public administration state, is nothing short of breathtaking. Their very existence, not to mention their effectiveness, is an affront to the pedigreed and professional social service bureaucracy."

For Eberly, "it was not merely welfare spending that was conquered, but the idea behind it...the welfare state."

Where would conservatives go from there?

Before George W. Bush took office in January 2001, and laid out his faith-based initiative, Eberly was arguing the virtues of "compassionate conservatism" – the elusive concept credited to Marvin Olasky, editor-and-chief of the evangelical weekly, World magazine. Politically, compassionate conservatism "triangulates the ideological claims of big-government liberalism on the one hand and a pure laissez-faire conservatism on the other. It steals the mantle of compassion, long monopolized by liberals, while adding a practically useful modifier, to the noun conservatism."

But compassionate conservatism is not the end-all be-all in and of itself writes Eberly: It "does not speak to the need to recover virtue throughout the majority society, apart from which we are left with partial remedies directed selectively to the poor," which is unfair. "The moral pathologies afflicting American society are no respecters of class, ethnicity, or geographic boundaries. The problems of divorce, co-habitation, fatherlessness, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, abortion and as host of other moral ills are not confined to the poor."

Eberly sees a "values crisis" in America and claims that it can only be addressed by Americans organizing "for social change outside the political process"; renewing the non-governmental sector of civil society, particularly the development of voluntary associations.

If the "great challenge" of the 1980s and 1990s was to "reign in government," the "great challenge" of the twenty-first century is to "rebuild non-governmental institutions – to not merely replace government with the economic market, but to replace more and more of the public sector with a viable social sector.... [and] build up the good society."

Even many of the President's supporters underestimate how the Ownership Society, Faith Based Initiative, Culture of Life and even Liberty's Century interlock to create a truly revolutionary politics.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2005 7:53 AM
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