Not only markets but also mediating institutions deserve greater scrutiny from conservatives.

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The summer before my senior year of college, I happened upon a copy of Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions that my dad was reading. Perhaps I was not the intended audience—an English major and indie music aficionado at the time, with pretty weak political interests and convictions. But Sowell’s arguments were a revelation. I could heighten the feeling of virtuous non-conformity I enjoyed as part of my artsy circle, he showed me, by cleverly disagreeing with everyone in it, about everything.

My liberal friends all thought the federal government should remedy the many injustices in American society. Not so, I began responding, with pointed invocation of “the law of unintended consequences.” The government, my artsy friends were surprised to learn, simply cannot process enough information, enough knowledge about how human preferences change with new incentives, for its efforts at planning and regulation and redistribution to have the results it intends them to have. What we needed, my new friend Tom had instructed me, was a “market.”

Young people spouting such dogma often fit the mold of the College Republican, eager to endorse an ideology that in turn endorses their own plans to make a fortune trading bonds. I loved it for its embrace of natural, organic, and spontaneous social processes, as opposed to the artificiality and blinkered rationalism of government planning. In The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek draws an explicit parallel between social orders that emerge spontaneously and natural processes such as the formation of crystals, which move according to no external plan but result in finely integrated wholes. Russell Kirk invoked an ideal of “organic community.” Edmund Burke himself argued that the wisdom of tradition, and of the mental habits he called “prejudice,” is reliable precisely because it has emerged, piece by piece, independent of any theory or plan, and it is lost forever when political visionaries step in to supplant it with conscious designs.

In their celebration of civil society, conservatives at once acknowledge that a life buffeted by market forces might benefit from a little humanizing fellowship—and indeed that many problems are not well-suited to market solutions—while nevertheless fending off efforts by government to fill every gap.

In this spirit, I found my own sympathies less with the market and more with that other set of social processes celebrated by American conservatives: civil society. Alexis de Tocqueville famously marveled at the tendency of 19th-century Americans to organize themselves into clubs, churches, schools, universities, charities, and hospitals. In their celebration of civil society, conservatives at once acknowledge that a life buffeted by market forces might benefit from a little humanizing fellowship—and indeed that many problems are not well-suited to market solutions—while nevertheless fending off efforts by government to fill every gap. With the market generating prosperity, and voluntary associations given space to do their useful works, the government can be limited to the few things only it can do.

This theory has considerable appeal, and the urge to believe it bespeaks an admirable, and very American, self-reliance and suspicion of authority. But it was always naïve, as a description of social reality, and it is now, undeniably, obsolete. Most recent efforts at resuscitating a more coherent conservatism have focused on market fundamentalism’s shortcomings and the havoc that it has wrought on workers, their families, and their communities. A parallel rethinking of the over-idealized case for civil society is likewise needed.

* * *

Conservatives often congratulate themselves on their willingness to confront the hard facts of human nature straight on. They tell us that, outside of (or prior to) sovereign coercion, humans are natural capitalists. That is, they are naturally selfish, utility-maximizing individuals who buy and sell in impersonal markets as naturally as fish swim in the sea. And yet conservative belief in civil society as an alternative to coercive government action relies on a very different aspect of human nature, if not a different conception of human nature altogether. In the voluntary associations of civil society, people pursue common projects rationally and altruistically, not unlike communards, kibbutzniks, and other idealized characters from leftist ideology. What’s most significant about these two conceptions of human nature, though, is not the apparent contradiction between them. It’s that both conceptions are, in important ways, wrong. In their deep natures, humans are far weirder than conservative orthodoxy has allowed.  

That is, the story of human societies outside of sovereign coercion—what anthropologists call “archaic” societies—bears little resemblance to the standard conservative assumptions about either markets or civil society, with their ostensibly natural social mechanisms. People are by nature much less peaceably self-interested than they appear in conservative visions of social life, and much more status-driven, inclined to ritual comforts and fearful imitation and magical beliefs, and prone to forms of social violence such as scapegoating, banishment, and ritual murder. They tend to practice communal, often ritualized forms of production and exchange suffused with considerations of obligation and honor and shame, such as the “gift economies” described by the great French scholar Marcel Mauss. In such a society, capitalist acquisitiveness and ambition would be discouraged or punished, perhaps lethally, if members could conceive of such a thing in the first place.

These realities of human psychology are proving a serious challenge to the cherished concept of variety that makes Tocquevillian civil society so appealing.

These realities of human psychology are proving a serious challenge to the cherished concept of variety that makes Tocquevillian civil society so appealing. Top-down government approaches to problems are often unresponsive, inflexible, and inefficient. Substantively speaking, the presence of other institutions applying their own methods and perspectives to social challenges should offer a remedy. And politically, it’s salutary for the citizen to have alternatives. Public schools serve an important role, but parents must also have other options when the government adopts a practice that they find objectionable. That American charities and hospitals have been Baptist and Presbyterian, Catholic and Jewish, scientific and hippy in their orientations should both make their affinity with America’s diverse citizenry much greater and make them more useful as nodes of experimentation and specialized practice.

For civil society to save us from being locked into a single way, the government way, and to allow us instead to inhale deeply that air of republican freedom, organizations must be genuinely diverse. If they were somehow to consolidate into a single body, with a single orientation, much of their value would vanish. And if these consolidated institutions grew closer, functionally and ideologically, with the government from which they were supposed to diverge, the result might be a more suffocating sort of institutional tyranny. Not only would true alternatives become rare, but also the shared outlook, carrying both the force of government and the ardor of institutional missionaries, would become inescapable dogma for members, clients, and employees.

For civil society to save us from being locked into a single way, the government way, and to allow us instead to inhale deeply that air of republican freedom, organizations must be genuinely diverse.

In practice, this would look like the process of ideological consolidation that the Washington Free Beacon’s Aaron Sibarium has documented in America’s “independent” high schools—private schools such as St. Paul’s, Dalton, and Choate, that serve affluent, striving families nationwide. After the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, parents of students at these schools learned their children were being subjected to aggressive, baldly political indoctrination on racial matters. They also discovered that merely moving their kids to a different private school offered no relief, because the next school had invariably made such indoctrination a key part of its mission, too. No matter their distinctive origins, both religious and pedagogical, these schools had all been conquered by the same moral enterprise: “antiracism.”

The underlying cause, Sibarium showed, was the body that bestows accreditation on such schools, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). If a school didn’t make antiracism a central plank of its educational mission, NAIS wouldn’t accredit it. While this may sound like a straightforward case of arm-twisting, most administrators willingly embraced their new role as fervent missionaries of a standardized way of racial thinking.

* * *

This same process is playing out across many spheres of civil society. Anyone trained in the belief that America’s deep stock of intermediary associations is great because it is free from the rigid conformity of government bureaucracy and top-down planning will find it both surprising and depressing to read of the missions and giving habits of the nation’s biggest philanthropies. With the exception of explicitly conservative organizations, these institutions have converged, as if magically, on a single model of how to think and what to value.

Anyone trained in the belief that America’s deep stock of intermediary associations is great because it is free from the rigid conformity of government bureaucracy and top-down planning will find it both surprising and depressing to read of the missions and giving habits of the nation’s biggest philanthropies.

This process is driven by impulses that recall the communal discipline of both progressive “spaces” and archaic villages: a turn to anxious formality and imitation in the face of uncertainty and conflict. As sociologist Gabriel Rossman puts it, much of what happens in such institutions “is not about technical efficacy that rationally orients means to ends but ritual, vaguely intended to elicit good fortune by achieving legitimacy with the firm’s ‘environment.’” The most reliable way for an institution to achieve legitimacy is to imitate other institutions, generally the most prestigious ones—a phenomenon known in organizational studies as “institutional isomorphism.” This theory powerfully captures the behavior of civil society in the 21st century. 

One might assume that this convergence is a recent phenomenon, that the moral contagions of recent years are simply more infectious than they used to be, thanks to the internet and social media. But the seminal articles on institutional isomorphism were written in 1977 and 1983. A more anthropological view shows that such conformity is at the heart of how such organizations survive. They function within status economies that determine their viability, and in these economies market efficiency counts for little, while the distinctiveness that offers variety and choice—in the conservative ideal of civil society—is actively punished. This happens throughout civil society, including in the worlds of art and museums, mission-based nonprofits, think tanks both attached to and independent of academia and government, and so on.

I discovered this while researching my book, Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age, where I gave special attention to the admissions protocols of selective colleges and universities. Given their divergent origins, one might think that America’s more selective colleges and universities would favor different sorts of students in their admissions processes. But I discovered that, when it comes to the academic credentials they seek, and, more revealingly, to the moral dispositions they favor in their applicants, the admissions departments of all these different schools function as something like a single body, a single bureaucracy that imposes one standard of character across entire cohorts of ambitious teenagers.

But I discovered that, when it comes to the academic credentials they seek, and, more revealingly, to the moral dispositions they favor in their applicants, the admissions departments of all these different schools function as something like a single body, a single bureaucracy that imposes one standard of character across entire cohorts of ambitious teenagers.

For institutional reasons both petty and arbitrary, admissions officers sometimes change their character standards. These changes usually emerge from elite schools first, but they’re rapidly adopted throughout the system of selective admissions until they’re official practice at every school lucky enough to have admissions standards. In other key functions as well—both administrative and academic—colleges and universities exhibit similar conformist tendencies, converging on a single institutional model.

This is because colleges are in the reputation business. They are acutely concerned with how they appear in public, but they’re haunted by a mix of uncertainty and impotence when it comes to enhancing this appearance. Either they can’t improve their fate—their numerical rank in the college guides—or they don’t know how to. And so, to ease the feelings of uncertainty that nag them in their guiding missions of marketing and publicity, and despite their distinctive foundings by sectarians and heretics and visionaries, they resort to imitation.

* * *

Conservatives’ celebration of “voluntary associations” needs an update. Consider progressive cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York, where well-funded nonprofits entwine themselves with like-minded bureaucracies in ways that are parasitic, wasteful, and often tyrannical. This symbiosis secures the influence of extremists and insiders against dissenting and moderating voices, to the detriment of everyday citizens. In its most consequential forms, Tocquevillian civil society looks like this now.

Conservatives’ celebration of “voluntary associations” needs an update.

But it’s not just nonprofits and schools and other large-scale organizations that make civil society more a place of imitation and conformity than variety and innovation. Conservatives idealize family life as a private space where vigilant parents can resist the decadence of modern life and raise their children as they see fit. But the insecure, highly competitive atmosphere in which middle-class parents now equip their children for success injects its own conformist imperatives into parenthood and family life. The insecurity itself induces uncertain parents to imitate each other as they seek advantage for their children. At the same time, a range of institutions have evolved to administer this competition and, in administering it, to intensify it. The natural readiness of anxious parents to do anything for their children grants disturbing leverage to these institutions—from elite preschools to soccer clubs to the admissions departments of selective colleges—to act as taskmasters and gatekeepers, setting onerous and sometimes intimate conditions for participation. The radically agreeable college students who seem to leap as one onto every moral bandwagon are the products of this competitive machinery.

In other words, the view of human nature that informs both free-market ideology and the conservative celebration of civil society is radically incomplete. Given the right inducements and affordances, many deep human impulses can fuel systems of collective behavior. Such systems are autonomous and arguably natural. They’re not imposed or maintained by coercive government. And yet they’re often, as well, a travesty of human freedom and a destroyer of human goods.

Perhaps the most visceral example of this is the modern internet, increasingly the realm in which relationships and communities operate, often celebrated as a signal achievement of spontaneous order and a still-evolving ecosystem into which government must not tread. All this sounds very appealing, until one considers the human impulses that are in fact shaping it.

In his indispensable book, The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford gives a chilling, almost nauseating account…of how designers of digital slot machines use behavioral psychology’s “variable schedule of rewards” to separate slot players from their money by separating them from their humanity.

In his indispensable book, The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford gives a chilling, almost nauseating account (excerpted here) of how designers of digital slot machines use behavioral psychology’s “variable schedule of rewards” to separate slot players from their money by separating them from their humanity. Players develop blood clots from their long stretches standing at machines. They leave their children in childcare, in casinos, for hours at a time. To keep their gaming rhythm uninterrupted by bodily needs, they wear diapers. Gaming sends them into a state in which winning a payout disappears as a consideration and their goal becomes merely to stay in the dull trance of playing for as long as they can. The goal and endpoint of this process—a player bled dry of his last dollar—the benevolent game designers call “extinction.” The scientifically honed methods that induce this sort of conduct at casinos, Crawford notes, are the same ones that designers program into the apps on our phones.

Crawford’s broader argument concerns the ideal of individual freedom on which conservative and classical liberal ideas of economic agency and legal competence are based, which, he argues was always a distortion and is now a hindrance to meeting today’s challenges, given these ingenious new methods for circumventing our reason, and the evident misanthropy of those who use these methods to make money. From this perspective, the internet is a network that extracts data about human impulses, from the mouse and keyboard and phone-screen reflexes of users, which businesses sell to advertisers and also use to refine and personalize their own efforts to keep us at our screens even longer.

There is a market there somewhere, but individual internet users are not competent participants in it, either as consumers consciously exercising preferences nor as sellers of goods and services. They are more akin to some mix of unpaid intern, digital bloodbag, and lab rat. Users of internet platforms perform a sort of uncompensated labor with their reflexive typing and clicking. What their labor generates is data about themselves, not their conscious preferences but just sortable details about the half-conscious stuff they do on the internet.

There’s something frankly idiotic about the whole thing, that a meaningful part of our larger economy, a system that entangles virtually all of us, all the time, is built from the training and expression and monetization of impulses we share with rats

This labor is not onerous, but there’s good evidence that it’s destructive, especially for young people. From any philosophical standpoint concerned with human thriving, a system built from such matter, though it inspires tremendous business energy and awesome technical innovation, is sort of contemptible. Internet life is not slavery, obviously, and our catatonic jags of scrolling and tapping may yet be “free,” depending on how dogmatically narrowly you define that word, but this is a clearly diminished sort of agency. There’s something frankly idiotic about the whole thing, that a meaningful part of our larger economy, a system that entangles virtually all of us, all the time, is built from the training and expression and monetization of impulses we share with rats. If Friedrich Hayek had had to start with the internet as illustrating his theory of spontaneous order, which it does powerfully well, he probably would have come up with a different theory.

* * *

Conservatives generally believe in a realm beyond or prior to government that is the source and repository of common sense, where natural cooperation delivers a modest, tacit utopianism within the larger social framework. This utopianism underwrote Ronald Reagan’s easy faith that government “is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Government is the problem, supposedly, because we already have the solution: people’s ability to generate healthy social processes on their own. We just need government out of the way so we can reach these processes in their undefiled state.   

This “process romance,” untenable now, was always naïve. Human systems operate according to their own logic. They do not conform to conservative ideals of organic virtue or rationality, or serve human well-being, just because they are autonomous, undirected by planners and bureaucrats. Often their guiding motives are weird and pathological, and their effects are dire where they aren’t ridiculous. A skeletal system of networked computers evolved, largely inadvertently, thanks to the physical means by which we interact with it, to isolate us from moderating social cues as it taps into powerful animal impulses in our brains. The resulting system is a marvel of spontaneous integration of human action. It is also a disaster for many spheres of human life, and for the happiness of those who participate in it the most.

But the habitual recourse, in conservative thought, to a realm of virtuous, voluntary process beyond political interference is a utopian mistake, no different than the blind faith in markets that is rightly being called into question.

Of course, just as some markets function well, and some government programs deliver as promised, some voluntary associations are in specific ways useful, conducive to virtuous action and outcomes. But the habitual recourse, in conservative thought, to a realm of virtuous, voluntary process beyond political interference is a utopian mistake, no different than the blind faith in markets that is rightly being called into question. Often the thing that gets turned into a system—the pre-conscious impulses we discharge online, the human anxiety of status and social comparison that drive the funders and staffs of the nonprofit world—are entirely natural but also, in systemic form, destructive rather than healthy.

Political judgment is not a matter of working ourselves ever closer to some pure state of free and natural human cooperation. If we ever do reach such a state, we’re likely to realize it’s not what we wanted at all, and that we have to use politics and government to find our way back out.

Matt Feeney
Matt Feeney is the author of Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age. He lives in Oakland, California.
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