Indeed, even if surprisingly, civil society should turn from being a problem into a solution for the conservative-right camp. It seems that conservative discourse in our day deals a lot in the fields where the state should reduce its involvement (at least when it comes to economics) and doesn’t spend a lot of time wondering who will pick up the slack from the withdrawing state. Well, civil society can be part of that conservative ideology – when it takes on the responsibility in fields and places where the state failed. In other words: I propose moving from a negative conservatism of what not to do, which acts against needless state intervention, to advancing a positive conservative approach of what to do, which views civil society as an expression of the free will of the citizenry.
From a conservative perspective, the role of civil society does not end with advocacy efforts to advance a conservative agenda, but rather grant the freedom to every community and citizen to choose services in accordance with their needs. In an ideal world, these will be most of the services any citizen needs: education, health, transportation, welfare, and the like. It would seem that the main places where the state should be left its power are those areas requiring the use of force – security, law, policing – and those contexts requiring regulatory efforts to prevent market failures.
A possible example of such a market failure is government subsidy of public transportation for certain regions in the periphery, to ensure proper service for local residents at a reasonable price. Opponents on the right might say: “Well, who said that this is a market failure requiring state intervention?”. Once again, the answer to this important question lies in the activity of a lively, authentic civil society capable of expressing the preferences, wishes, and values of the public, whether by calling for state action and applying pressure to decision makers or by developing philanthropic efforts where the free market cannot provide a response. In addition, we should promote a public discussion of the role of the state in carrying out tasks which civil society cannot necessarily fill itself: from dealing with broad threats like climate and pandemics to national challenges like immigration and cultivating heritage sites.
The ability of the general citizenry to choose services appropriate to their way of life is nothing to sneeze at: this is democracy at its finest. This is true when it comes to almost every field you can think of: from choosing which schools and curriculum to instruct children, to choosing religious services in accordance with specific community’s needs, to cultural events appropriate for the preferences of the individuals in a community and their beliefs. Civil society allows different groups in the public to organize, work to advance the values they consider important and invest resources in the same.
Even at the ostensibly technical but actually essential level, it very much turns out that the quality of service will increase as a result of the transfer of responsibility to civil society. First and foremost, the possibility of choosing the service provider – from among the many civil society organizations operating in the field – will lead to greater competition than the state can offer. Competition will require all the organizations to improve, reduce costs, and offer more rapid responses – or at least improve along one of these three lines in accordance with the preferences of potential clients. For instance, if different organizations operate different schools and citizens are given the freedom to choose what their kids learn, this will incentivize educational institutions to improve the quality of instruction or bring down tuition.
Indeed, civil society organizations operate in almost entirely free market conditions and therefore have the incentives to operate as effectively as possible. This is true not only because of citizens paying for the services, but also due to the oversight mechanisms of philanthropists donating to the organization (if this exists) and government offices and local governments which fund the activity and examine it (with much greater care than they examine themselves). To this we can add the welcome reality that in most non-profit organizations there is less bureaucracy than in government offices and there is none of the tenure which kills any incentive to work harder or better. In fact, civil society is a hybrid creature, combining a response to public expectations from the government with the efficiency mechanisms of the free market.
This state of affairs has another advantage, as a free civil society allows every citizen and community to express their beliefs and aims without the need of the political system and thus makes the public sphere into a truly pluralistic one (as opposed to a pluralism where one group forces its values on another). We should add as an aside note that as part of the workshops we run for the Civil Society Forum, we often train representatives of organizations who work directly against each other. Aside from the value of meeting and speaking with representatives of those organizations, this state of affairs is an expression of the healthy and sportsmanlike attitude of “may the best man win” in civil struggles, while building a decision–making foundation for results which are not one-sided or based on one single value.
It’s important to clarify that the conservative camp is comprised of certain communities which sometimes work too inwardly, but unlike others it is not sectorial and does seek to serve all citizens. The great success of the conservative agenda will come if every citizen has the freedom and choice to receive the services they need.
In sum, in Israel today the role of conservative civil society is threefold: first, help educate the public to advance conservative ideas; second, create a quality alternative for the provision of broad community services, through a range of organizations working in accordance with the true needs and wants of the population they serve; third and final, as a consequence of the first two, to help the nation advance its preferences within the political system via national civil society operating in the fields of advocacy. This is the place to note that there is a close connection between these three roles, as without public education for advancing conservative ideas, we cannot increase the involvement of the conservative public in advocacy, without which some of those community services will continue to be operated in accordance with progressive views.