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Civil Society, Mediating Institutions, and Domestic Policy: "To Empower People" after 30 Years

Recorded on November 29, 2007

Location: The Heritage Foundation's Allison Auditorium

To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy has been one of the most significant intellectual influences on domestic policy and nonprofit sector practice over the past 30 years. In this 45-page book published in 1977, Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus introduced the now classic analysis that a healthy nation relies on the institutions of civil society - especially neighborhoods, families, churches, and voluntary associations - to mediate between individual citizens and the large bureaucratic "megastructures" of big government, big labor, and big business. They argued that these institutions could serve as alternate mechanisms to provide for social welfare, allowing the public to continue to respond to major social problems, yet without creating the sense of alienation characteristic of welfare bureaucracies. The intellectual framework sketched by Berger and Neuhaus is often credited with providing the basis for such well-known policy innovations as the landmark welfare reform efforts of the 1990s and the increased role of faith-based and community institutions in more recent years.

On the publication's 30th anniversary, it is opportune to revisit the original argument and subsequent attempts to design policies along the lines of its recommendations. What is the proper relationship of government to other institutions of society? What is the best way for a society to empower its people? Have the policies which were designed to strengthen and promote civil society been sufficiently faithful to the authors' vision, so that we can evaluate their ideas by evaluating the attempts to put them into practice? How have these policies empowered people over the last three decades, and how can this agenda be advanced in the years ahead?