Civil Society and Social Eco-System: Seeking Solutions Beyond Market and State
Religion & Liberty Online

Civil Society and Social Eco-System: Seeking Solutions Beyond Market and State

Over at Fieldnotes Magazine, Matthew Kaemingk offers a good reminder that in our social solutions-seeking we needn’t be limited to thinking only in terms of market and state. By boxing ourselves in as such, Kaemingk argues, Christians risk an overly simplistic, non-Biblical view of human needs and human destiny:

When presented with almost any social problem (education, health care, poverty, family life, and so on), today’s leaders typically point to one of two possible solutions—a freer market or a stronger state. But in opposition to these rather myopic solutions, I think there is a more complex and biblical lens through which leaders can consider the social eco-system and the people who move around in it.

Instead of simplistic descriptions of human beings as either clients of the state or competitors in the market, the Christian Scriptures present humanity in a refreshingly complex way. We find a complex creature with a wide variety of gifts, abilities, interests, aspects, loyalties, and solidarities. Created in the image of God, human beings in the Bible are anything but simple. They are musical, communal, religious, artistic, familial, charitable, scientific, literary, moral, athletic, fun, and funny. The robust anthropology found in the Bible depicts a creature that could never be fully defined, controlled, content, or nourished by the market or the state alone—thank God.

This perspective ties in well with Rev. Robert Sirico’s final chapter in his book, Defending the Free Market, where he criticizes the popular notion of homo economicus, from which plenty of bad economic policy and market decision-making has been generated:

Any man who was only economic man would be a lost soul. And any civilization that produced only homines economici to fill its markets, courts, legislative bodies, and other institutions would soon enough be a lost civilization. Familial love, voluntary dedication to philanthropy and faith, the creation of art and music would be at their most minimal level, and whole sectors of life would completely vanish. Focusing the whole of life on the acquisition of quantifiable goods does not bring true happiness or peace, as almost everyone knows. We all have material appetites, but we do not (pray God) always feed them…Human beings find ultimate fulfillment not in acquisition but in developing, sharing, and using their God-given creative capacities for good and giving themselves to others.

Kaemingk goes on to point out how healthy governments and markets rely on social capital—features like responsibility, empathy, trustworthiness, and creativity. Yet for Kaemingk, social capital can only be cultivated outside of governments and markets. “The irony is that while states and markets depend on this social capital, they can neither produce nor sustain it,” he writes. “They need civil society to cultivate it.”

Although I’d grant that the bulk of such cultivation does likely occur in areas outside of governments and markets—in families, churches, boy scouts troops, and food banks—I would note that I find it hard to exclude governments and markets from this activity altogether (which I’m not sure Kaemingk means to do). Particularly when it comes to what Kaemingk calls “free institutions,” the market in particular puts its toe into this “third sector” quite regularly. Even in the market, Christians needn’t be trapped in a mindset of human beings as mere “competitors.” Surely there is a path for Christians to engage in a way that dips into the “musical, communal, religious, artistic, familial, charitable, scientific, literary, moral, athletic, fun, and funny.” For one recent example of the market producing a strange mix of these features, see last night’s Occupy Conan experiment.

This isn’t to disregard Kaemingk’s message about the importance of the “non-profit” world that encompasses the rest of our daily lives. I agree this is the primary well from which things flow, and I understand the need to draw categorical lines at some point and place. But I do think it’s important to note that plenty of overlap exists even among the sectors noted.

That point made, I think the thrust of Kaemingk’s argument pushes us in this very direction, making clear the broader need to reach beyond an either-or and more toward a both-and in our thinking about these things:

Beyond the benefits of “social capital,” Christian leaders can sing the praises of these free institutions and groups simply because they provide human beings—created in the beautifully complex image of God—with free spaces in which they can sing and pray, play and rhyme, stitch and paint, collaborate and converse, cook and eat, and share together their hopes and jokes, fears and passions, frustrations and failures. Civil society provides a wide variety of spaces in which creatures can glorify their creator in a wide variety of ways.

To love God and one’s neighbor is a disciple’s most pressing obligation. If we are going to love this Creator and the complex nature of his creation with all their gifts, abilities, passions, and interests, we will need to provide more than just states and abundant markets. We will need to establish and lead free spaces in which the diverse passions of our neighbors find a voice. Though many of our neighbors will not recognize their Creator, their quilts and card games, neighborhood resolutions and food drives, songs and poems, merit badges and pledge drives give glory to the complex Creator they image.

Read the full post here.

For more on retaining a proper perspective of common grace, see Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.