Civil and Uncivil Societies

Civil and Uncivil Societies

Is the modern state is quietly killing civil society in the Western world? And what can non-Western societies do to build a vibrant civil society?

By Niall Ferguson

Nearly ten years ago I bought a house on the coast of South Wales. With its rugged, windswept Atlantic coastline, its rain-soaked golf courses, its remnants of industrial greatness and its green hills just visible through the drizzle, it reminded me a lot of where I grew up, in Ayrshire – only slightly warmer, nearer Heathrow airport and with a rugby team more likely to beat England.

I bought the house mainly to be beside the sea – but there was a catch. The lovely stretch of coastline in front of it was hideously strewn with rubbish. Thousands of plastic bottles littered the sands and rocks. Plastic bags fluttered in the wind, caught on the thorns of the Burnet roses.

Dismayed, I asked the locals who was responsible for keeping the coastline clean?

“Well, the council is supposed to do it, down by here,” one of them explained, “but they don’t do nothing about it, do they?”

Infuriated, and perhaps evincing the first symptoms of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, I took to carrying and filling black bin-liners whenever I went for a walk. But it was a task far beyond the capacity of one man. And that was when it happened: I asked for volunteers.

Well, the first beach clear-up was a modest affair. The second was more of a success – the sun actually shone, as it sometimes, very occasionally, does. It was when the local branch of the Lions Club became involved, however, that the breakthrough came. I had never heard of the Lions Club. I learned that it’s originally an American association, not unlike The Rotary Club – both were founded by Chicago businessmen about a century ago and both are secular networks whose members dedicate their time to various good causes.

The Lions brought a level of organisation and motivation that far exceeded my earlier improvised efforts. As a result of their involvement, the shoreline was transformed. The plastic bottles were bagged and properly disposed of; the roses were freed from their ragged polythene wrappings.

Together, spontaneously, without any public sector involvement, without any profit motive, without any legal obligation or power, we had turned a depressing dumping ground back into a beauty spot. Now I ask myself: How many other problems could be solved in this simple and yet satisfying way?

In my lectures, I have tried to open up some long sealed black boxes: the one labelled democracy, the one labelled capitalism, and the one labelled the rule of law. Tonight I want to unlock the black box labelled civil society.

Properly understood, it is the realm of voluntary associations – institutions established by citizens with an objective other than private profit. These can range from schools – about which more later – to clubs dedicated to the full range of human activities, from acrobatics to zoology, by way of beach clearing. There was a time when the average Briton or American belonged to a startlingly large number of clubs and societies.

Today, that’s no longer the case. I want to ask how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of a vibrant civil society. And I want to cast doubt on the fashionable idea that the new social networks of the Internet are in any sense a substitute for real networks of the sort that helped me clear my local beach.

“In no country in the world,” declared Alexis de Tocqueville in the first book of his Democracy in America “has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America…The citizen of the United States is taught from infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life.”

Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy. But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him:

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small… if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate.”

This is a justly famous passage, as is Tocqueville’s amusing contrast between the way American citizens banded together to campaign against alcohol abuse and with the approach to social problems in his native land:

“[I]f those hundred thousand men of the American Temperance Society had lived in France, each of them would have addressed himself individually to the government, begging it to oversee the nation’s wine bars.”

Tocqueville didn’t exaggerate 19th Century America’s love of voluntary associations. Yet just as he’d feared the associational vitality of the early United States has since been significantly diminished.

What is happening? Well, for Putnam, it is primarily technology. First television, then the Internet – that has been the death of traditional associational life. But I take a different view. Facebook and its ilk create social networks that are huge – but weak. With 900 million active users – nine times the number four years ago – Facebook’s network is a vast tool enabling like-minded people to exchange like-minded opinions about, well, what they like.

Maybe, as Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt argue, the consequences of such exchanges will indeed be revolutionary – though just how far Google or Facebook really played a decisive role in the Arab Spring is, I think, debatable. After all, Libyans did rather more than just un-friend Colonel Gaddafi. But I doubt very much that online communities are a substitute for traditional forms of association.

Could I have cleared the beach by poking my Facebook friends or creating a new Facebook group? I doubt it. A recent study revealed that most users in fact treat Facebook as a way to maintain contact with existing friends – often ones they no longer see regularly because they no longer live nearby.

The students surveyed were two and half times more likely to use Facebook this way than to initiate connections with strangers – which is what I had to do to clear the beach. It is not technology that has hollowed out civil society. It is something Tocqueville himself anticipated, in what is perhaps the most powerful passage in the whole of Democracy in America. Here he vividly imagines a future society in which associational life has died:

“The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone …

“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood…

Tocqueville was surely right. Not technology, but the state – with its seductive promise of security from the cradle to the grave – was the real enemy of civil society. For Tocqueville, it would be fatal for “the government … to take the place of associations”.

“Sentiments and ideas renew themselves,” he wrote, “the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”

Amen to that. And may any future independent Scotland act accordingly.

To see just how right that wise Frenchman was, ask yourself – how many clubs do you belong to?

For my part, I count three London clubs, one in Oxford, one in New York and one in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am a deplorably inactive member, but I pay my dues and use the sports facilities, the dining facilities and the guest rooms several times a year. I give regularly, though not enough, to two charities. I belong to one gymnasium. I support a football club – no longer, I hasten to add, the illustrious Scottish club recently and ignominiously forced into liquidation. I am probably most active as an alumnus of the principal educational institutions I attended in my youth: the Glasgow Academy and Magdalen College, Oxford. I also regularly give time to the schools my children attend, as well as to the university where I teach. Let me explain to you why I am so partial to these independent educational institutions.

Now, be warned: the view I am about to state is highly unfashionable. At a lunch held by The Guardian newspaper, I elicited gasps of horror when I uttered the following words: “In my opinion, the best institutions in the British Isles today are the independent schools”. Needless to say, those who gasped loudest had all attended such schools.

If there is one educational policy I should like to see adopted in Scotland as well as in England and Wales, it would be a policy that aimed to increase significantly the number of private educational institutions and, at the same time, to establish programmes of vouchers, bursaries and scholarships to allow a substantial number of children from lower income families to attend them. Of course, this is the kind of thing that the Left reflexively denounces as elitist. Even some Conservatives, like George Walden, regard private schools as a cause of inequality – institutions so pernicious that they should be abolished. Let me explain to you why such views are utterly wrong.

For about a hundred years, there’s no doubt, the expansion of public education was a good thing. As Peter Lindert has pointed out, schools were the exception that proved Tocqueville’s rule, for it was the American states that led the way in setting up local taxes to fund universal and indeed compulsory schooling after 1852. With few exceptions, widening the franchise elsewhere in the world led swiftly to the adoption of similar systems. This was economically important, because the returns to universal education were very high: literate and numerate people are much more productive workers.

But we need to recognise the limits of public monopolies in education, especially for societies that have long ago achieved mass literacy. The problem is that public monopoly providers of education suffer from the same problems that afflict monopoly providers of anything: quality declines because of lack of competition and the creeping power of vested producer interests.

Now, I am not arguing here for private schools against state schools. I am arguing for both – because biodiversity is preferable to monopoly. A mix of public and private institutions with meaningful competition favours excellence – that is why American universities, which operate within an increasingly global competitive system, are the best in the world – 21 out of the world’s top 30. While American high schools, in a localised monopoly system, are generally rather bad. Witness the most recent scores from PISA – the Programme for International Student Assessment for mathematical attainment at age 15. Would Harvard be Harvard if it had at some point been nationalised by either the State of Massachusetts or the Federal Government? You know the answer.

In the United Kingdom, we have the opposite system: it is the universities that have essentially been reduced to agencies of a government-financed National Higher Education Service – despite the advent in England and Wales of top-up fees that are still below what the best institutions should be charging. Whereas, there is a lively, and financially unconstrained, independent sector in secondary education.

The results? Apart from the elite, which retain their own resources and / or reputations, most UK universities are in a state of crisis. Only seven made it into The Times Higher Education Supplement’s latest global Top 50 – happily, including the University of Edinburgh, just. Yet we boast some of the finest secondary schools on the planet.

The apologists for traditional state education need to grasp a very simple point: by providing ‘free’ state schooling that is generally of mediocre quality, you incentivise the emergence of a really good private system – since nobody is going to pay between £10,000 and £30,000 a year for an education that is just a wee bit better than the free option.

It is, I think you’ll agree, rather ironic that the policies being introduced to address the problem of low quality public education in England are the responsibility of a Scotsman. Of course, Michael Gove picked up the idea from a Fettes lad named Blair.

Turning failing schools into self-governing academies. In just two years, the number of academies has gone from around 200 to approaching half of all secondary schools in England. Schools like Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, or Durand Academy, a primary in Stockwell, show what can be achieved even in impoverished neighbourhoods when the dead hand of local authority control is removed.

Even more promising are the new free schools being set up by parents, teachers, and others like my old friend Toby Young, who has finally worked out the real way to win friends and influence people.

Notice, that these schools are not selective, they remain state funded, but their increased autonomy has swiftly lead to much higher standards of both discipline and learning.

There are many on the left who deplore these developments. Many Labour MPs would happily disown the very idea of academies. Free schools and academies are conspicuous by their absence here in Scotland, yet they are part of a global trend.

Many people erroneously believe that Scandinavia is a place where the old fashioned welfare state is alive and well. In reality, Sweden and Denmark have been pioneers of educational reform. Thanks to a bold scheme of decentralisation and vouchers, the number of independent schools has soared in Sweden. Denmark’s free schools are independently run and receive a government grant per pupil, but are able to charge fees and raise funds in other ways if they can justify doing so in terms of results.

Today in the United States, there are more than two thousand charter schools – like English academies, publicly funded but independently run – bringing choice in education to around two million families in some of the country’s poorest urban areas. Organisations like Success Academy have to endure vilification and intimidation from the U.S. teachers’ unions precisely because the higher standards at their charter schools pose such a threat to the status quo of under-performance and under-achievement.

In New York City’s public schools, 62 per cent of third, fourth and fifth graders passed their maths exams last year.

The latest figure at Harlem Success Academy was 99 per cent. For science it was 100 per cent – and no, this was not because the charter schools cherry-pick the best students or attract the most motivated parents. Students are admitted to Harlem Success by lottery. They do better because the school is both accountable and autonomous.

There is however, a further step that still needs to be taken, even by Michael Gove. That step is to increase the number of schools that are truly independent, in the sense of being privately funded and truly free – in the sense of being free to select pupils.

Significantly 6 out of 10 academy heads said in a recent survey that the national agreement on pay and conditions prevents them from paying effective teachers more money, or extending the school day to give weaker pupils extra tuition.

There are no such inhibitions about private education elsewhere. In Sweden, companies like Kunskapsskolan – The Knowledge School – are educating tens of thousands of pupils. In Brazil, private school chains like Objetivo, COC and Pitagoras are teaching literally hundreds of thousands of students.

But perhaps the most remarkable case of all is India. There, as James Tooley has shown, the best hope of a decent education in the slums of cities like Hyderabad comes from private schools like the imaginatively named Royal Grammar School, Little Nightingale’s High School or Firdaus Flowers Convent School. Tooley and his researchers have found similar small-scale private school movements in parts of Africa too. Invariably, they are a response to atrociously bad public schools, where class sizes are absurdly large and teachers are frequently asleep or absent.

The problem in Britain is not that there are too many private schools. The problem is that there are too few. And if their charitable status is ultimately revoked, there will be even fewer. Only around 7 per cent of British teenagers are in private schools, about the same proportion as in the United States.

If you want to know one of the reasons why Asian teenagers do so much better than their British and American peers in standardised tests, it’s this: private schools educate more than a quarter of pupils in Macao, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. The average PISA maths score for those places is ten per cent higher than for the UK and the U.S. The gap between them and us is as large as the gap between us and Turkey. And guess what? The share of Turkish students in private schools is below four per cent.

Private education benefits more people than just the elite. In a recent article my Harvard colleague Martin West and Ludwig Wustmann demonstrated that – and I quote:

“A ten per cent increase in enrolment at private schools improves country’s mathematics test scores by almost half a year’s worth of learning. A ten per cent increase in private school enrolment also reduces total education spending per student by five per cent of the OECD average.”

In other words, more private education means higher quality and more efficient education for everyone.

A perfect illustration is the way Wellington School is now sponsoring a publicly funded academy. Another is the way schools, like Rugby, and Glasgow Academy, are expanding their bursary schemes, aiming to increase the proportion of pupils whose fees are covered from the schools own resources.

The education revolution of the 20th Century was that basic education became available for most people in democracies. The education revolution of the 21st Century will be that good education will become available for an increasing proportion of children. If you’re against that, then you’re the true elitist: you’re the one who wants to keep poor kids in lousy schools.

The bigger story I am telling, using education as the example, is that over the past 50 years governments encroached too far on the realm of civil society. That had its benefits where, as in the case of primary education, there was insufficient private provision. But there were real costs, too. Like Tocqueville, I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better in than central state action not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens. For true citizenship is not just about voting, earning and staying on the right side of the law.

It is also about participating in the troop – the wider group beyond our families – which is precisely where we learn how to develop and enforce rules of conduct. In short, to govern ourselves; to educate our children; to care for the helpless; to fight crime; to clear the beach of rubbish.

Since the phrase big society entered the political lexicon, abuse has been heaped upon it. Most recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury called it, and I quote: “aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable”. Even Martin Sime, the Chief Executive of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations – who says he believes in self-help – has described the big society as “a toxic brand … a Tory con trick and a cover for cuts”.

The Reith Lectures are not supposed to be political, and in giving them I have sought to avoid making partisan statements… with mixed success. But it will be clear to you by now that I am much more sympathetic than these gentlemen to the idea that our society – and indeed most societies – would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state.

If that is a conservative position, then so be it. Once, not least here in Scotland, it was considered the essence of true liberalism.

In my lectures, I have tried to argue that we are living through a profound crisis of the institutions that were the keys to our previous success – not only economic, but also political and cultural – as a civilisation.

I have represented the crisis of public debt – the single biggest problem facing Western politics – as a symptom of the betrayal of future generations: a breach of Edmund Burke’s social contract between the present and the future.

I have suggested that the attempt to use complex regulation to avert future financial crises is based on a profound misunderstanding of the way the market economy works: a misunderstanding into which Walter Bagehot never fell.

I have warned that the rule of law, so crucial to the operation of both democracy and capitalism, is in danger of degenerating into the rule of lawyers: a danger Charles Dickens well knew.

And in this, my final lecture, I have proposed that our once vibrant civil society is in a state of decay, not so much because of technology, but because of the excessive pretensions of the state: a threat that Tocqueville presciently warned Europeans and Americans against.

We humans live in a complex matrix of institutions. There is government. There is the market. There is the law. And then there is civil society. Once – I’m tempted to date it from the time of the Scottish Enlightenment, since I am here at one its brightest spots – once this matrix worked astonishingly well, with each set of institutions complementing and reinforcing the rest. That, I believe, was the key to Western success in the 18th, 19th, and 20th

Centuries. But the institutions in our times are out of joint.

It is our challenge in the years that lie ahead to restore them, returning to the first principles of a truly free society that I have tried to affirm – with a little help from some of the great thinkers of the past – in these Reith Lectures.

It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to clear up the beach.  (

— This lecture was recorded at The London School of Economics and Political Science and first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service on Tuesday 19 June 2012

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