The values that guide us

Questions about civil society in the digital age are all I think about these days. Let me practice some of that thinking for you, if you have a minute...if not, let me wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving (USA and beyond).

Recently, there's been a lot of good writing about why we have philanthropic foundations. When I say "we" here, I mean us, the citizens of liberal democracies. My colleague Rob Reich's work, What are foundations for? and the articles written in response are must-reads. Gara LaMarche has an important perspective on Democracy and the Donor Class, especially given his experience running one of the nation's largest foundations for several years. Tom Watson adds some of his thinking at Forbes, including an interview with the founder of Inside Philanthropy. All of these articles point to pieces of the puzzle I'm trying to solve, but I still need us to step back a bit further.

Why do we have civil society? This weird space that's not fully about economic exchange or political governance? Michael Edwards, Bruce Sievers, and other scholars of civil society present many arguments for this space - sometimes called the independent sector, the nonprofit sector, the voluntary sector, social sector, or the third sector.

This space stands alongside, interdependent with the private and public sectors. An easy shorthand for thinking about the activities in each of these three is:

  • Private sector (markets): private resources for private benefit (an exchange between two people must benefit both)
  • Public sector (government): public resources for public benefit (tax revenue for schools, roads, armies)
  • Civil society: private resources for public benefit (we use our money, time, or other resources to benefit others)
But still, what is this space for? Why do we preserve (and provide incentives for) this space? I think it serves one overarching purpose in societies governed by majority democracies - it is the space to protect the rights of the rest of us. It's where we express ourselves (whether through art, ideological clusters, advocacy movements, or identity groups), it's where we protest (by taking to the streets or building a nearby playground when the city won't), and it's where we distribute services and goods that we value for non-economic or shared public reasons (such as a co-operative day care center, a shelter for abused spouses, food and shelter for those who can't afford them).

Let me break that down: expression, protest, and distribution.

Another feature of this space that is so familiar that we tend to no longer see it is that it is voluntary. Our actions in this space must be by choice, not compelled or obligated. Voluntary is even one of the aforementioned names for civil society. In internet parlance, voluntary means opt in. Without coercion. So a characteristic that shapes the space, in addition to its purposes above, is that we participate by choice and with decision making control over the resources used.

OK. So now I know what the space is for and the values that lie beneath all of the institutional, regulatory, and practices we've built up into civil society:
  • Free speech and expression
  • The right to assemble with others
  • Freedom from coercion (which includes being watched)
  • Choice
  • Clear rules on ownership*
One more thing. Democracies also rely on being able to see the rules and scrutinize the practices of those with power. Market exchanges also rely on information visibility. Civil society writ large provides some of that scrutiny on the other two sectors, and it needs to abide by standards of visibility and accountability.

Which leads me to the key areas for developing best practices for civil society in the digital age:
  • Free speech and expression
  • Assembly
  • Privacy
  • Consent 
  • Ownership
  • Transparency that enables scrutiny
We know what these words mean. But we don't have a full grasp on the practices that will enable these values in the digital age.

If you made it this far, thank you. And Happy Thanksgiving again.

*Read Sandy Pentland's New Deal on Data for insights on the importance of this question from a market perspective. Or you can watch the video.

1 comment:

Will Hull said...

Burt Weisbrod's Heterogeneity of Public Goods theory covers this topic in a thorough way. It might be worth looking into.