College students around the country have created mutual aid networks to help each other afford food, housing, and other needs during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to The New York Times, these networks are efficiently distributing goods and microgrants and “are entirely student-run, operating outside of any official college administration oversight.”

A Duke University junior who helped found his campus aid network told the Times, “It’s a form of community care that is in response to the failures of capitalist structures.”

I would characterize what these remarkable students are doing somewhat differently: as civil society at its best.

My friend and colleague Christopher Coyne, professor of economics at George Mason University and senior fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies, wrote recently in USA Today about similar peer-to-peer aid networks forming outside universities during the pandemic. “The centrality of civil society—private people coming together to effectively solve problems—is a defining feature of American life,” Coyne wrote, reminding readers that Alexis de Tocqueville praised Americans in Democracy in America for uniting with neighbors to solve community problems.

Coyne’s argument stands in contrast to most social commentary, which tends to focus entirely on two organizing forces in America: government and the market. But the richness of our non-market private sphere—our families, religious institutions, social clubs, volunteer organizations, and the norms that govern our behavior in civic life—is, as Coyne notes, a significant part of what defines us. It’s in this sphere that we learn the art of association within a liberal society.

Liberalism, in fact, depends upon a robust civil society as much as it depends upon rules of political governance and market exchange. Critics of liberalism will point to Adam Smith’s oft-quoted Wealth of Nations line (“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher…”) as evidence that market economies are inherently uncaring and atomizing—that capitalism sacrifices benevolence for the sake of self-interest. But Smith, a founding thinker within the liberal tradition, showed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments how natural and essential he viewed human beings’ inclination to care and act for each other.

“All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries,” Smith wrote. “Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.”

Current student-to-student aid networks are an inspiring, real-world example of human beings behaving as Smith believed we’re naturally inclined to behave. There are “principles in [our] nature,” Smith observed, “which interest [us] in the fortune of others.” We care about the happiness and well-being of others, though we derive “nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Mutual aid, therefore, acts as an important complement to the mutual material benefits we create through market exchange.  Further, armed with local knowledge of the people in close proximity to us, private citizens are often better positioned than distant policymakers and faceless social service agencies to administer meaningful support when and where it is needed most.

I’ve studied disaster recovery and written before about how crucial civil society was for the rebound and recovery of local communities after Hurricane Katrina. In some cases government even impeded recovery by encroaching on civil society, creating uncertainty and disincentivizing private action.  

This is not to suggest that private citizens should be expected to carry the full weight of responsibility for the country’s welfare. Problems created by Covid-19 require sound public policy and business solutions. But that’s the point. A functioning liberal democracy requires that when we are faced with complex and vexing social problems, we seek solutions in all three spheres: public policy, the market, and civil society.

I understand why the students behind college mutual aid networks might feel like they’re being forced to step up due to the failures of capitalism and government. We’re living through an unprecedented pandemic, jobs are disappearing, and our government’s response has been muddled at best.

But I’d suggest that college mutual aid networks are an important complement to more formal aid and business-driven solutions. The students who run these networks are contributing to a robust civil society response, and are therefore advancing the “liberal project” of the good society. Private, bottom-up community actions are baked into the American experiment. Our system of self-governance assumes that individuals, families, and institutions will work together, in complementary fashion, to solve local problems alongside the mechanisms of public policy and market exchange. 

For all the horrors and tragedies this pandemic has brought us, there are also occasional stories like this that remind us what America can be at its best: A society where people work together freely to address community needs without top-down control and centralized direction.

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