Sunday, July 11, 2010

CSOs and State 11: Rights and Responsibilities, Liberal Civil Society

(This is my article for, July 10, 2010 with original title, "More Statist than the State")

A statist view is one arguing that things and social processes, as much as possible, should be done by the State and not by individuals, households, their voluntary organizations, or private enterprises. This view therefore, belittles if not removes the role of personal and parental responsibility in running our own lives, our own households, our own community.

There is an often-quoted phrase, “more popish than the pope”, to refer to persons and institutions who seem to be more fundamentalist in Catholic belief than the Pope. The phrase “more statist than the state” may as well apply to people who seem to be more fundamentalist in their belief of the big role of the state than the administrators of the state itself.

In my personal observation, these “more statist than the state” individuals and leaders have certain characteristics.

One, they are seldom found in mainstream political parties. Rather, they are found among mainstream NGOs and civil society organizations (CSOs), media and the academe. Check for instance the paper, “Why do intellectuals oppose capitalism” by Robert Nozick, and I wrote a brief discussion about the paper here,

Two, these individuals and leaders are obviously driven by socialist belief and deep hatred of the profit motive and social inequity under capitalism. But they do not belong to a Socialist or Communist political party. Rather, they espouse socialism on a sectoral basis. Like health socialism, education socialism, ecological socialism, land redistribution socialism, and so on.

Three, while they may not explicitly admit that they are socialist or driven by socialist philosophy, they are explicit and unequivocal in demanding that “health is a right”, “education is a right”, “pension is a right”, “clean environment is a right”, “social insurance is a right”, “land ownership is a right”, and so on. For them, almost everything is a right, an entitlement from society via the state and its various subsidies. Even if some citizens are lazy and irresponsible, they are still entitled to certain subsidies by the state because “life is a right.”

Four, one will seldom or never hear from them the words “personal responsibility.” As almost everything is “government or state responsibility”, then there is little role for personal and parental responsibility in running their own lives. The state should allocate v percent of GDP for education, w percent of GDP for healthcare, x percent for environmental protection, y percent for food security, and so on. They may not be explicit in advocating for central planning but that is exactly what they want the state should do.

Five and a corollary to #4 above, one will seldom or never hear from them the advocacy for individual liberty and individual rights. What is paramount for them are national and collective freedom and collective rights. Individualism is taboo and the individual can only realize his/her growth potential if the collective is well-taken cared of by the political administrator of the collective, the state.

As a former Marxist-socialist myself more than two decades ago, it is somehow easy for me to identify such kind of attitude as I used to harbor such sentiments too. And having abandoned that statist philosophy several years ago, I have learned to embrace the value of individual liberty and its sacredness not to be subsumed most of the time under collective liberty.

People should assume more personal and parental (or guardian) responsibility in running their own lives, their own households and communities, if they wish to realize more individual freedom. Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin.

At the end of the day, fear of responsibility is fear of freedom itself.

Meanwhile, here's a related short paper from the FNF, sometime in October 2008:

The Vision of a Liberal Civil Society

The term “Civil Society” is used with many different meanings in the political discussion at different political levels. In our context, we are only concerned with the local level and the idea of a liberal civil society.

Inhabitants and citizens of a community generally have to accept specific restrictions in their individual freedom to guarantee peaceful living within their community. They agree to these limitations and accept the given laws, decrees and regulations in a wide range, which are set up by their local government.

Administrations have the tendency of covering the society with a dense network of regulations, as they tend to say in “the best of the citizens”. These regulations not only define what is not
allowed, but in many cases, what is allowed or what a citizen can do.

Through these networks of regulations, the administration tends to limit the citizen’s responsibility for acting and, at the same time, takes away certain aspects of his or her personal freedom. And this can happen in a way which exceeds necessary limitations by far.

But an individual can only keep his dignity through personal responsibility. Therefore the citizens in a community need to trust each other, so that all individuals are able to act and live without unnecessary regulations affecting their freedom or self-responsibility.

This is the image of a liberal civil society, to live in a community/municipality with as few regulations as necessary. However, a liberal civil society is characterized by an active citizenship where each individual feels responsible for the general public, demonstrated through free activities, voluntary co-operation and work, as well as taking responsibility.

This ideal image of a broad self-responsibility requires as many ways of influencing the structure  of the local government. The Swiss model with a high degree of plebiscitary elements is one example of such a model.

To adopt the Swiss model is almost impossible in most countries of the world. However, there
are some visible ways of increasing citizen’s participation. Such means to improve public participation can be found in the work fields of “city development” and in some cases through the setting up of the municipality’s budget, which can be called the citizen’s budget.

We can imagine that this can be extended to many more areas of citizens’ participation initiatives.

From a liberal perspective, the goal of municipal politics has to be that voluntary and private initiatives dominate the public life, and public administration only intervenes for subsidiary reasons. But we know that today this is just a vision.

See also:

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