Argument: Big govt impedes on and weakens local associations

Issue Report: Big government


Ryan Messmore. “A Moral Case Against Big Government.” Heritage Foundation. February 27, 2007: “Ties That Bind: Horizontal Versus Vertical

When the horizontal ties that bind citizens to each other weaken, individuals become more likely to reach for the support of vertical ties to the government. The result is a vicious cycle: As the federal government grows bigger and assumes more responsibility for fulfilling the moral obligations among citizens, it can further undermine the perceived significance and authority of smaller, local institutions. It can, in other words, weaken the institutions that foster social bonds that are strong enough to generate virtues like trust and responsibility. Excessive bureaucratic centralization thus sets in motion a dangerous cycle that precipitates not moral virtue but individualism and social decay.

The resulting atomization severs freedom and justice from the communal conception of good in relation to which they derive their particular meaning, flattening them conceptually to license and procedural adherence to the written law. That leaves society vulnerable to corruption: “Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil,” asserted Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which is why “[i]t is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” [13] Human obligations—more personal and primary than legal obligations—best provide for the meeting of true need, the achievement of real public good, the resistance to oppressive power, and thus the securing of lasting liberty.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that the strengthening of vertical ties to the federal government has coincided with a weakening in the horizontal bonds of civil society institutions. “The history of the Western State,” laments sociologist Robert Nisbet, “has been characterized by the gradual absorption of powers and responsibilities formerly resident in other associations and by an increasing directness of relation between the sovereign authority of the State and the individual citizen.” [14] As centralized government has claimed responsibility for more goods and functions, it has absorbed the allegiance once placed in other institutions. As Nisbet asserts:

In any society the concrete loyalties and devotions of individuals tend to become directed toward the associations and patterns of leadership that in the long run have the greatest perceptible significance in the maintenance of life…. Family, church and local community held the allegiance of individuals in earlier times…because these groups possessed a virtually indispensable relation to the economic and political order.

As the nation-state has assumed the “determining role in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution,” allegiance to smaller forms of association has declined.[15]”