Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms
by Howard A. Husock.
Encounter Books, 2019.
Hardcover, 176 pages $24.

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

It’s a likely sign of the times. On a Tuesday last December, the phone rang with an unknown caller number, one of many that day. I answered usually with politeness and someone from some charitable organization reminded me that the day was “Giving Tuesday” as if that one day within the spirit of the season is when giving’s breadth was to be considered lest the homeless and hungry not be clothed or fed.

I don’t have an unfavorable view of such community organizations laboring away at phone banks to attract donations, but am much more favorable to my own little platoons, a phrase likely overworked a bit, as if all of Edmund Burke could be reduced to that pair of words. One might, rather, prefer belonging to a society more like the Port William Membership. But there are statistics available that point to a “giving” decline including what is published in our own church bulletin each Sunday as a weekly budget shortfall. A recent National Review article by Howard Husock, for example, notes that giving by individuals in 2018 declined by 3.4 percent adjusted for inflation, likely the consequence of the number of taxpayers who opted not to itemize and thus no longer qualified for a charitable deduction. If this is the case, the suggestion is that charitable giving is largely the generosity of those who itemize or the result of charitable organizations funded by foundations or federal and state bureaucracies.

When my father became ill with cancer in the late 1960s with a few months to live, our old-time Lutheran pastor would come to visit quietly and with good assurance. But then he was called elsewhere and the new pastor arrived, whose concerns were less with the little platoons of our family and middle-class community and more with social justice writ large. Confusing for my father who had done little for the people in Madagascar compared with what he had done with the bourgeois norms of our small town. Still the authority of the pastor was not to be challenged and thus my father was instilled with more than a smattering of guilt.

This small example fits nicely into Husock’s Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms.

Two words need definition here. Bourgeois is not for Husock a negative word. It simply means conventional middle class attitudes and has nothing to do with boredom or merciless capitalist exploitation. Norms are simply standards or practices of social behavior that are usual and expected and are to be learned. Husock’s argument is that we have lost sight of those positive social norms with vexing results well apart from the weekly check written to the church, stuffed in the envelope, placed in the collection basket or plate as the ecclesiastical case may be. At issue, then, according to Husock, is the failure of the “massive scale and blanket coverage of the modern social service state” to impart norms that only a civil society can provide. Bourgeois norms, “not material conditions,” are the factors that “lead to improved outcomes for the individual and society.”

Following a fine personal chapter on “How Civil Society Saved My Father,” Husock narrates the biographies of Charles Loring Brace, Jane Addams, Mary Richmond, Grace Abbott, Wilbur Cohen, and Geoffrey Canada. Tracing the stories of their lives is to follow a process in which citizens initially worked to promote in their own civil societies a norm-promoting culture by nurturing healthy habits. In time, however, as Husock continues this history, that formative effort was replaced by a massive social service state. There is more to admire, in other words, in the early efforts of Brace and Addams rather than the later social scientists Wilbur Cohen and many other exemplars of bureaucratic facelessness. This is not to say, in a libertarian fashion, that government does no good and cannot support or supplement private charity and civil society. We do make up the government after all, and its agencies are not separate from the citizens. Indeed, there may be social service projects that only government can provide. However, the difference lies in whether such government activity is motivated by an interest in reinforcing those civil society norms, or “reforming” them in accord with some abstract blueprint for society.

Brace was the founder of the New York Children’s Aid Society who also dabbled in journalism, writing a regular column in the New York Times called “Walks Among the New York Poor.” These portraits of poverty and vice led him to conclude that the “street rats,” so named by the police, had become so by poor parenting. With several colleagues, Bruce set out to give children an alternative to the squalid street life in the New York slums. The theory was simple enough: place the children in a different environment where the atmosphere was wholesome. This placement would turn street children into self-reliant members of society where gainful work and education were supported by bourgeois norms

What is important to note for Husock is that the success of the effort came about through one person’s initiative and not the resources of either New York City or any other bureaucratic organization. It was, of course, an early version of foster care but endorsed by local rural faming community committees. The “orphan rains,” as they were called, ran from 1854 to 1929 emigrating some 100,000 “street rats” toward the American midwest where, Brace believed, “the gradual efforts of kindness, the influence of patience and of tact in discipline … as well as the moral teachings given” would set the norms for “behavior to guide development into adult life.” That Brace could raise money in such tremendous amounts from generous benefactors is a story in itself whereby Brace “made uplifting … impoverished children a national concern” and gave the organization a “vitality arising from constant contact with the public.”

But not all of the poor in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were impoverished New York City children. Cities were teeming with poor immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, “many of whom were unacquainted with such concepts as citizenship in a democracy.” Founded in 1859, Addams’s Hull House on the near west side of Chicago became in time the standard bearer of eventually five hundred settlement houses nationally. The mission was simple enough: Hull House was an adjunct to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century women’s movement, a community dedicated to provide social and educational opportunities mostly for recent European immigrants and working-class people through what Addams called the “three R’s,” residence, research, and reform. Each settlement house was therefore a residence where volunteers held classes in literature, history, art, and domestic activities especially for that mix of ethnic groups now gathered into neighborhoods.

Husock cites in good detail the accomplishments of Hull House settlements as an example of social welfare for those ethnic groups struggling to adapt to American ways, those bourgeois norms, but at the neighborhood level, relying also on public support alone and not intrusive government. But as Husock also makes clear, when the efforts of Hull House alumnae “pivot,” forces “were set in motion that drew private, civil society groups into an embrace with government—an embrace tightened by funding—which over time pulled [original settlement house founders] away from the broad promotion” of those middle class bourgeois social norms. This development seems innocuous at first, but during the five decades from 1880 to 1930 efforts on behalf to the poor “were shifting focus away from helping them meet the demands of American society, toward changing that society through political reform” which is more or less a synonym for “new forms of therapy under the name of social work.”

The problem he traces in following chapters concerns the ways by which social welfare became an arm of big government bureaucratic offices, a process that Husock writes “was attended by an intense and fascinating debate within the ranks of those seeking the right mix of politics and antidotes to ameliorate poverty.” The result, called “scientific charity and services,” came at the expense of bourgeois norms. In two chapters Husock analyzes the work of Mary Richmond and Grace Abbott. Richmond taught caseworkers how to collect and evaluate “social evidence,” that is, “facts as to personal or family history which, taken together, indicate the nature of a given client’s social difficulties and the means to their solution.” But when social and political circumstances combined to “stream large amounts of federal dollars … [t]his expansion replaced the private, civil society … as independent agencies providing civil services evolved into government contractors.” And thus “federal matching grants,” which became commonplace as a consequence of the Sheppard Towner Act, began the process of centralizing what had once been the province of the private charitable sector.

In discussing the condition of children during the 1930s, Grace Abbott argued that civil society was clearly not able to deal with such problems. It was an “emotional lever,” Husock remarks, moving public policy more toward a role of the state in overseeing social services. What had previously been an emphasis on character and morality as prerequisites for upward mobility now became “money payments” by big government for “services in needy areas and among groups in special need.” Put another way, the private nonprofit sector staffed by volunteers was considered to be “no longer practical” since the rich and poor alike are now pictured as the victims of circumstances of a wrong social order. The staffing became the province of those in possession of a Masters Degree in Social Science, a resumé pre-requisite that presumed a certain expertise.

Uncle Sam was now rocking the cradle. But it remained for Wilbur Cohen (whom Husock calls the consummate federal bureaucrat) to increase the social service state by shaping legislation behind the scenes and guided by his own strong views. Cohen, critically, did not view social problems at the level of families or communities but rather in terms of the whole economy, the point being that financial aid was not a tool for social issues: it was the the tool. For Husock, then, the stage was properly set for the massive expansion of the social service state in the 1960s, the welfare boom that did not resolve the welfare crisis but rather created “social work practices which fostered continued dependency.”

Add to the list, then, government devising programs through a panoply of social services to provide rehabilitation but not relief: family breakdown, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, domestic violence, and all to be administered with a 2017 federal budget of $53 billion, which was too low by a billion dollars. Husock’s concluding point draws attention, then, to the idea of those one-time “mediating institutions,” churches, community groups, and voluntary associations that had in the past steered citizens toward the means and behavioral norms that improved their own situation. But this latter evidence is not encouraging: the social service state is, in practice, a far-reaching bureaucracy whose leadership is “inevitably distanced from those in need.”

My father once had an employee, Gordon, still young and without self-reliance. Gordon needed a car for which he needed a loan. My father co-signed the loan. And then, as the plot goes, Gordon committed an indiscretion and damaged that car beyond repair, and did so with no insurance. He vamoosed into the army leaving my father “holding the bag.” About five years later, about the time my father was nearing the end of his life with that cancer, Gordon reappeared, in uniform, three stripes with two rockers below, a sergeant first class. He had a check for my father including interest. They talked in private for some time. Gordon was in tears when he left. But in his hand was the check, torn in half. My father had forgiven him and then, with parting words, thanked him for his service. 

Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.

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