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Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms

By Howard Husock
Encounter Books 2019 ISBN: 1641770589

About the Book

Billions of American tax dollars go into a vast array of programs targeting various social issues: the opioid epidemic, criminal violence, chronic unemployment, and so on. Yet the problems persist and even grow. Howard Husock argues that we have lost sight of a more powerful strategy―a preventive strategy, based on positive social norms.

In the past, individuals and institutions of civil society actively promoted what may be called “bourgeois norms,” to nurture healthy habits so that social problems wouldn’t emerge in the first place. It was a formative effort. Today, a massive social service state instead takes a reformative approach to problems that have already become vexing. It offers counseling along with material support, but struggling communities have been more harmed than helped by government’s embrace. And social service agencies have a vested interest in the continuance of problems. 

Government can provide a financial safety net for citizens, but it cannot effectively create or promote healthy norms. Nor should it try. That formative work is best done by civil society.

This book focuses on six key figures in the history of social welfare to illuminate how a norm-promoting culture was built, then lost, and how it can be revived. We read about Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society; Jane Addams, founder of Hull House; Mary Richmond, a social work pioneer; Grace Abbott of the federal Children’s Bureau; Wilbur Cohen of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare; and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone―a model for bringing real benefit to a poor community through positive social norms. We need more like it.


“Most decent people on both sides of the political spectrum nowadays recognize that the widening gap between rich and poor is a grave threat to American democracy. What is to be done? For too long, too many on the left and the right have been caught in a false debate about whether the problem is ‘really’ economic and structural or ‘really’ cultural and normative. The debate is false because the answer is: both. Howard Husock has long been a thoughtful leader in this discussion, emphasizing the role of cultural norms. In this new, multilayered, and accessible book he sketches thoughtful portrayals of the work of American social reformers in order to help us discern the path forward.”
― Robert D. Putnam, Research Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids

“Howard Husock has offered a powerful diagnosis of the dysfunction at the heart of our social ills. He shows that healthy norms are essential to a healthy society, and that the institutions that might form such norms have grown weak in our time. But more important, he shows what might be done about it. This is an essential read for understanding contemporary America.”
― Yuval Levin, Editor of National Affairs and author of The Fractured Republic

“Howard Husock’s new book exhumes the bourgeois norms of personal and social uplift that preceding generations championed but that our current bureaucratic systems stifle and even discredit. By portraying the institutions these civil society pioneers built, and by spotlighting some of their successors’ work today, Husock argues that recovering and selling these norms―'preaching what we practice,’ in Charles Murray’s apt phrase―is necessary for sustained progress for our most disadvantaged Americans and thus for the quality of our community life. I think he’s right.”
Peter H. Schuck, Emeritus Professor, Yale Law School; Scholar in Residence, NYU Law School; author of Why Government Fails So Often and One Nation Undecided


About the Author

Howard Husock is the vice president for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute, where he is also a contributing editor to City Journal. He is the author of America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake (Ivan R. Dee, 2003), and Philanthropy Under Fire (Encounter Books, 2013). He is a longtime print and television journalist and documentary filmmaker, whose work for WGBH, Boston won three Emmy Awards. In 1987–2006 he served as director of case studies in public policy and management at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was also an adjunct lecturer in public management and a fellow at the Hauser Center on Civil Society. He was a member of the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (2013–18).