the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
It is increasingly common for progressives to speak of “civil society”. But the term is used also by some conservatives, with a rather different intent. Development progressives encourage civil society in underdeveloped regions where government has proven unequal to the construction of a functioning society, particularly where it has failed to address poverty and other economic problems. Human-rights progressives encourage civil society in oppressive states where the government has become the enemy of the people. Government is the central institution in society, traditionally. But where it cannot or will not serve the people’s interests, the people will create an alternative, often a parallel set of institutions. These institutions, associations of citizens composed voluntarily for common purpose or mutual advantage, form the civil society.
If government had a benign origin, it was as just such civil society. But there is little chance that government was ever without an element of dominion. If conservatives were to note sincerely that government is a compulsory institution and that its power should be minimized, they would surely find common ground with human-rights progressives. They would even find common ground with anarchists. One of the central premises of anarchist belief is that individuals will never develop the will to do something positive if they are continually being compelled in that direction. The compulsion breeds resentment. But if the individuals come to the positive behavior of their own accord, the behavior will become part of their culture; they will practice it faithfully and pass it on to acquaintances and posterity. Paternalism does not work; individuals must think for themselves, must make their own mistakes and learn from them.
But that is not, of course, the sincere argument that most conservatives are making. The issue of government, liberty, and civil society is always bound with the economic state. It seems virtually certain that government always had, as one of its primary functions, the protection of material property. The “mutual-aid society” for the defense of individuals from violence was extended also to the protection of the society’s land-control arrangement, from encroachment by foreign societies, and from dispute within the society itself. It might be supposed that within the society, there was agreement on the issue of land control, each citizen conceding to others’ claims in return for a concession on its own claim. But the claim of the society for the whole of the land within its control, in the face of competing claims by other societies, rested solely on force. And we have still not passed from the state where land control rests on force, or is in constant dispute. There can be no having without having not.
Conservatives do not question property arrangements, almost without exception. Far from recognizing control of land as a form of dominion, conservatives recognize limitations on their control of land as a form of dominion. Therefore they would limit the power of government to regulate their disposal of natural resources as they would. To tax the landowner to finance services for the poor is viewed as unjust to the landowner, and conservatives oppose it wholly. They countenance government only insofar as it is protecting their property from those who dispute their claim. In moments of candor some might admit that they would have no property but for the government. Nonetheless, they make a rhetorical enemy of government. While they often express concern for the poor, they reject “compulsory” assistance, derived from taxes. Thus they call on civil society. It is, they believe, a task that can justly be handled only by voluntary associations, such as churches and civic groups. The poor cannot rely on the government; ideally, they would rely on themselves.
The stewardship calls on all individuals and all institutions to abandon the practice of dominion, and adopt the practice of stewardship. It must, of course, call on government to do the same. Government is a powerful force in society; the state represents the organization of society itself. Government must refrain from committing injustice, but there is no requirement of justice that it act in charity. It must only, as all powers must, behave responsibly.
And yet that responsibility broadens dramatically when government becomes involved in the dispensation of natural resources. Natural resources, and Earth itself, are not inherently possessions of anyone or anything. It is government, acting for society, that presumes to parcel and warrant the land. In doing so, it adopts the role of master of the land, or the role of steward. There is no neutral point. Justice, then, requires of the government that its land-management policy be equitable and responsible, that it minimize consumption and destruction of resources, and maximize benefit, with the interests of all Earth, present and future, human and non-human, in mind. It is not justly free to dispose of the resources solely for the benefit of a few, or even a large majority; and one society cannot manage the land under its control in its own interests only.
A Stewardship of Earth must eventually take the place of government. It will not be in the business of directing individuals’ lives, but it will make itself guarantor of justice, according to a simple, well-publicized, universal standard. It will resist the imposition of dominion by any individual or group over any part of humanity or nature. It will strive to ensure that no person is unjustly deprived of health or freedom, suffers unwarranted attacks on body or necessary resources, or is denied its equitable stake in the natural wealth that is the biological sustenance of all, and the gift and product of none.
At its core, though, the stewardship is beyond the mere fulfillment of obligations under justice. The stewards of the world have chosen to place the needs of the world ahead of their own. Their commitment arises from conscience, not social pressure. They are a minority engaged in the voluntary assumption of duties in the preservation and improvement of the world. They work not so much to coopt the instruments of dominion, but to establish an independent ability to care for the world. The stewardship is then, in one sense, identical with the civil society of the present.
And in yet another sense, the civil society is all that will remain should the ideal of stewardship ever be universal. The stewardship practices and teaches first the responsibility of the individual for the consequences of its own actions. If this attitude of responsibility were adopted by all, no individual would be required to assume extraordinary responsibility. The need for charity would extend only to those situations with uncontrollable consequences, and to those individuals with inadequate power to deal with situations for which they could not be held accountable. There would be a society of self-governing, or autonomous, individuals. Even under this lesser ideal of autonomy, the imposition of the collective stewardship on any one steward would be much less than is the case today. And the stewards would continue to work for the higher ideal of altruism, in which each individual recognizes the holistic connection of all elements of the universe, and holds itself accountable for all things, not merely those within its proximate control. A collective stewardship under pervasive altruism would fulfill its role with ease, and the individuals would be free to pursue, alone or with others, their personal, spiritual, and intellectual development, joy, beauty, and merriment, as they saw fit. Any association would be voluntary, and for mutual advantage or common interest ― a civil society.
© O.T. FORD
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and O.T. Ford