On this episode of the Authors Corner, I interview AIER Senior Fellow Robert Wright on his upcoming book tentatively titled Liberty Lost: The Rise and Demise of Voluntary Association in America Since 1700. Robert was unsure when we can expect the book to be published but he was able to speak on the general themes he will be touching on.
The central focus of the book is on the decline of voluntary association groups from the founding of the country to the current day. The Founders of America deeply believed in the power of civil society and the actions of free individuals. Rather than creating an all-powerful state to run society from the top down, they envisioned a free society where solutions come from the bottom up. They saw the power of the productive and moral order that naturally arises when people are free to associate with one another through institutions such as business, religion, family, and mutual interest groups. America was meant to be a nation of pioneers and entrepreneurs that took matters into their own hands and supported those who needed help, not a country of dependents looking to the government for guidance.
The Founders understood intuitively what would ultimately be confirmed and expanded upon by economists and political scientists hundreds of years later. That is that government should not and cannot take care of every issue in society. The state should be confined to a core set of goals such as protecting property, securing individual rights, and providing for the common defense. With this framework in place, society can organically grow in a manner that is voluntary and free, which accommodates the most preferences for the most people. The poor can be cared for by charities and given jobs by businesses. Those who need a sense of belonging can find it at work, in mutual interest groups, or from their community institutions. Societal concerns ranging from promoting culture to curtailing drug abuse can be addressed by private organizations working together and competing in countless different ways. This is the power of voluntary association and civil society, which is far more dynamic than the lumbering inefficiency and standardization of the state.
The book focuses primarily on the Antebellum period prior to the Civil War where his scholarly knowledge is not only strongest, but also a time where American civil society was prospering. This was the same time period that the great French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville observed when he came to America and subsequently published great works examining American society. However, this is also the climax where Robert notes civil society began to recede as the government began to expand.
Today government is bigger than ever and voluntary associations have declined. The correlation is unavoidable. That is because when government grows to attempt to address various societal issues from helping the poor, to directing financial investment, it crowds out private enterprise. It then creates a shift of dependency from the private sector to the public sector, sapping energy and resources along with it. The reason is simple. Private entities, whether they be businesses or charities, cannot compete with the state, which has virtually unlimited resources and is not inhibited by costs. The problem is that, unlike the private sector, the government cannot make use of local knowledge, cannot respond well to changes, and lacks incentives to innovate. One lumbering leviathan attempting to solve societal issues cannot possibly be better than countless motivated actors in the marketplace. Just imagine if you had to get your groceries from the DMV or go to church at the IRS.
This is fundamentally the problem Robert is illustrating in his book, the decline of what was once a vibrant and energetic American civil society that is now being slowly replaced by the state. Voluntary association has been slowly losing ground to the DMV-ification of everything by the state and that poses serious threats to the long-term prosperity as well as liberty of the country.
Such a book is sorely needed because as we know when the state takes over a particular service it becomes difficult to imagine a time when such needs were met privately. The history Robert highlights in his book will hopefully refresh our memories about the power of private enterprise in addressing societal issues before it is too late. If not, it can at least serve as a reminder for what we used to be.