On Civil Society
21 世紀社会デザイン研究 2006
On Civil Society
Defined loosely, “civil society” refers to “that broad scope of social relationships whereby individuals voluntarily come together in their individual capacities for a common purpose such as the betterment of society（1）.” Then, with all its historical tie with Western culture, civil society can be discussed regardless of any specific indigenous cultural context
since it is difficult to imagine a society without this sort of relationship. This argument does
not necessarily lead to the trite statement of admitting the existence of various relationships
in a society. Rather, it has more to do with denial of one specific normative model of civil
society to be followed by all the others. That is to say, “the evolving forms of social institutions in the non-Western world” do not have to rely upon “the continued invocation of a
‘pure’ model of (their) origin.（2）” Based upon this presupposition, this article first tries to
identify two distinctive features of this relationship albeit its prevalent manifold state. The
first is its relevance with the distinction between public and private domain. In other
words, a common cause, to be argued in this discussion, for which people relate to each
other is assumed to be something public. If so, who decides what is public and what is private? And how? The second follows immediately after the first point. That is, if civil society has to do with something public, then, its relation with state will have to be in question
since the both function in the same public domain, and civil society by definition being different and separate from state, then how they are, or are not, different has to be clearly
answered After having examined these distinctions, this article reexamines if they are of
absolute nature or simply of relative one. Or, whether the meaning and function of this
demarcation remain unchanged over a certain period of time. And finally implication of this
argument in the future will be made clear which is to indicate validity and utility of this concept.
First of all, “What’s the Big Idea?（3）” If we are to discuss relationship between citizens,
what aspect are we focusing on in so doing? Sociologists, psychologists and even medical
doctors may each of them have some reasons to be interested in this subject. But here our
aim is to identify how it “promot(es) collective action for the common goods.（4）” Key
word is “common good”, or, as an example in loose definition in the beginning goes, “the
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betterment of society.” If one treasures relationship with others for one’s own sake, nothing is too new nor a Big Idea. Although a bowling club in Bronx may contribute to the formation of social capital and thus this sort of collective action may as well create common
goods, still we can distinguish “direct” objective of a relationship and “indirect” outcome
from its activities. If membership requirement of a certain organization is fairly limited and
beneficiary of organization’s activities also is limited（5） (to its members, for instance,
shown as X in Table I), then this organization is hardly for ‘common goods’ whereas all the
other columns (i.e. A, B（6） and C) well deserve to be seen as functioning to serve for
‘common goods’ in one way or the other. Their function, as a total, can be seen as conduct
“of, relating to, or affecting the people as an organized community (Webster)”, that is, of
‘public’ nature. Although the nature of their activities is thus public, this relation between
citizens is not a governmental institution, nor is for profit sharing. In that specific sense it
differentiate itself from both government and businesses. Just like shadows of a cylinder
can be both a circle and a rectangle according to the direction that source of light comes
from, the same relationship can be both Non Governmental Organization (NGO) and Non
Profit Organization (NPO) depending on what it is seen in context with.
Table I : Membership and Beneficiary of an Organiztion
Table II Government or Non government: in two spheres
Table III For profit or Not for-profit: in two spheres
C in Table II and III illustrates the kind of relation discussed in this paper. Three tables
put together, altruistic, non governmental, and not-for profit activities have been identified.
But still there may remain the question, “What’s the Big idea?” So long as intentions and
characteristics are viewed and discussed from individual, or subjective, perspective, and
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21 世紀社会デザイン研究 2006
evaluated as such, they may be praiseworthy and accumulation of which will no doubt
make a better society. But does it have any further implication? In order to make this point
clear, we may have to compare this relationship, or ‘civil society’ at large, with other players, namely government and market, in our society.
Functional differentiation among the three has been tried, and, among which, “market
failure” and “governmental failure”, namely an explanation on what kind of goods and
services each player can not provide properly, is most popular（7） Civil society is said to better serve where the other two do not function well. For the sake of the argument here, however, discussion on the influence which one player is possessed of vis-a-vis the other two
seems to be more adequate. In particular, the effect of the existence of civil society on the
two other powerful players has to be examined carefully. Observation of “Check and
Balance” tripartite relationship（8） provides a good explanation on this issue. Among civil
society, government and market, the following “check and balance” has been observed.
First, excessive centralization of government (which, among others, is one of the imaginable worst damage it can bring about) can be checked and balanced by dispersive market
mechanism and civil society as decentralizing order. Second, again, excessive exploitation
by market can be checked and balanced by regulatory measures by government and reciprocity of civil society. Lastly, social tyranny of civil society (imagine traditional, kinbound rural society) can be checked and balanced by rule of law enforced by government
and assurance of life outside community by market.
Now we have already entered the second point of the argument which is distinction
between civil society and state. By definition, civil society is “institutionally separate from
government.” That is, it is “neither part of the government apparatus nor governed by”
“government officials.” However, “This does not mean that (it) may not receive significant
government support（9）.” And, indeed, as 34 countries survey shows, it receives sizable por tion (34%, on average) of its revenue from government（10）. Can an institutionally separate,
but financially dependent institution play “check and balance” role vis-a-vis its donor? This
question is not unique in civil society/government relationship only. So called “donor
dependency” has been a problem in the domain of economic development as well（11）.
Why is donor dependency problematic? For one thing, there are both theoretical and
empirical reasons to believe that it deprives donee of independence, or autonomy（12）, that
is, make it behave in “donor driven” manner. Thus it is all too easy to see with all probabilities that donee may loose any capability to remain in “check and balance” function. In
order to cope with this situation, once the author argued（13）“(T)here are but three options.
The first is for them (donees:author) to agree to sacrifice their merits, with efforts to minimize the damage, in exchange for any benefits they may enjoy from relationship with the
government. The second is for them, possibly in cooperation with the others, to try to
change bureaucrats’ behavior and mentality to more accommodate them. The third is
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somewhere in between, or it can be interpreted to employ the both, since the above is not
either-or options.” But here I may have to change the course of my argument because existence of three options is but theoretical and, in reality, the first option is the only choice for
the civil society. It is de facto the only choice because the third choice presupposes the
existence of the former two, and the second choice never exists on the side of government
so long as there do exist a number of civil society organizations that are eager to prefer the
Then, the aforementioned “check and balance” theory, however it seems reasonable on
the surface, is it but a fictitious argument which will never exist in the real world? In
order to assess the practicality of this theory, a few important elements, that have been
taken for granted so far, have to be reexamined prior to any hasty conclusions. They are,
(1) the framework within which the relationship of the three sectors, or players, are discussed, (2) inherent characteristics that the three are supposed to be possessed of, and (3)
if and whether the above two elements are expected to stay intact in the days to come.
First, although government and civil society share “non profit distribution” element
and thus clearly differ themselves from for-profit entities, still the possession of coercive
power differentiates government from civil society. That is, provision of public goods and
redistribution of wealth via collection of tax, based upon the above coercive power, is the
characteristics of government which civil society is not possessed of. Thus when we talk
about financial dependence of civil society on government, we really are talking about utilization of civil society by government for the sake of provision of public goods and redistribution of wealth.
Then, secondly, deciding characteristics of government power over the function of civil
society can be defined as government’s discretion in tax spending. In other words, to
what extent, how and to whom government is obligated to be held accountable in its
process of spending taxes. This may seem too obvious since even an elementary political
science lesson teaches “division of power”, or another format of tripartite “check and balance” structure. But the issue here lies in somewhat different place. Namely, to what
extent civil society can influence, or realistically expect to influence, the ways governments execute their budgets. In the past, when bureaucrats used to maintain their realm
where nobody else could intrude, it could have been only a far cry. But recent trends to
demand accountability to bureaucrats seem to hold this argument（14）.
That is to say, thirdly, if we regard current government/civil society relationship as
something given, i.e. object of static analysis, or rather put stress on how it can be altered.
When we see this relationship in this new light, the shape of Big idea shows up. It is Big
idea since it may bring about a new differentiation of public from private.
Previously ‘public’ conduct was understood as something “relating to, or affecting the
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21 世紀社会デザイン研究 2006
people as an organized community.” And it is executed by both governmental and non-governmental hands, in the former case, with coercive power and tax as a resource. In so
doing, governmental hands can co-opt civil society. But on the side of civil society, too, it
can influence government’s way of execution, not to mention the way the government coopt civil society. This blurring of government/non-government operational demarcation
may imply it will not serve, or be regarded as, “the origin of some kind of legitimatory
claim.（15）” When we also take into account the other blurring of demarcation, for-profit and
not-for-profit, which will be discussed immediately below, we notice the classic model of tripartite players is changing its characteristics substantially.
Homo economicus, or profit motive, has long been thought essential in economic activities. Although it still by far remains as a mainstay, we are witnessing more and more notfor-profit motivations in this field, not necessarily only as activities of strange and peculiar
few, any more. Often cited example is Linux,（16）about which no detailed explanation will
be necessary except for pointing out the fact that this whole venture has been initiated and
going on without for-profit motivation. Also prevailing idea of so-called Corporate Social
Responsibility, somewhat dubious by nature, some argue（17）, can not be totally explained
by enlightened self interest only. Social entrepreneur（18）, leading figure being 2006 Nobel
Peace Prize winner Grameen Bank（19）, also belongs to this category. Proliferation of nonprofit motivation out of traditional homo economicus mode, whether late Milton Friedman’s
liking, tends to be quite visible. So long as not-for-profit characteristic is employed as
one of the key elements of civil society, it is widening its territory into the area where for
long has been monopolized by for-profits.
This modal shift, or blurring, alarms us in two ways. First, because civil society has “the
so-called democratic deficit, as decisions that elected representatives once made shift to
unelected（20）” bodies, which can be called as the issue of legitimacy. Second, it lacks
incentive to minimize its costs because of non-profit sharing structure, which can be called
as the issue of efficiency. The issue of legitimacy is raised in comparison to public sector,
or government, and efficiency vis-a-vis market. If the blurring of the boundaries, or fusion,
between other sectors depicts these shortcomings in more enlarged scale, or, on the contrary, they can be operationally solved during the process of blurring, or fusion, we have yet
to see. When you admit, however, the argument that democracy has three inherent shortcomings, namely (1) majority rule and possible ochlocracy, (2) lack of mobility caused by
time consuming decision making process, (3) tendency to prefer short term interest to long
term interest, and civil society is a built-in safeguard for them（21）, then the latter seems to
be more likely the case. Also if we can expect various forms of “evaluation”（22） can compensate efficiency deficiency of not for-profit institutions, and thus succeed to tame the brutality of market economy, we may indeed be witnessing fruitful outcome of the fusion.
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（1） Bestor, Victoria Lyon "Reimaging "Civil Society" in Japan" Washington-Japan Journal ,
Special Issue Spring 1999
（2） Chatterjee, Partha “Beyond The Nation? Or within?” “ Civil Society And Democracy ” Elliott,
Carolyn M. ed. Oxford, 2003, p.158
（3） 1 Edwards, Michael “ Civil Society ” 2004 p.1
（4） ibid. p.14
（5） Here whether limited or open is of relative nature and not a watertight, rigid demarcation.
（6） In the case of B, although beneficiary is limited (can be even a single person), but support
from ‘selfless’ many makes it different from, say, mutual help within a family.
（7） This is introduced in most text books and readers. For example, Anheier, Helmut K.
“ Nonprofit Organizations: Theory, management, policy .” Routledge 2005 p.119
（8） The line of argument here is an interpretation of “Chitsujyo no toriahde” (Triad of Order) by
Inoue, Tatsuo “Koogi no Nanukakan” (Seven Lectures) Inoue et. al ed. “Shin Tetsugaku Koogi”
(Philosophy Lectures Today) Vol.7, Iwanami Shoten 1998 pp.42-53
（9） Salamon, Lester M. et al. “The Emerging Sector: An Overview”, Johns Hopkins University, 1994
p.15 Parentheses author.
（10）Salamon et.al.“ Global Civil Society ” volume two, Kumarian Press 2004 p.30
（11）John C. Cross, “Developmen NGOs, the State and Neo-Liberalism; Competition, Partnership
or Co-conspiracy” Proceedings of the Fourth Annual AUC Research Conference , The American
University in Cairo, 1997
（12）Pekkanen, Robert “ Japan’s Dual Civil Society ” Stanford University Press, 2006 p.71
（13）“Government-Nonprofit Relations” Rikkyo Journal of Social Design Studies , 2005 IV p.12
（14）Yoshida Shin’ichi “Ko-Kan Shakai no Mnagarikado” (Turning point of the society where @ublic
is equal to bureaucrat), Iokibe et al ed. “ Kan kara Min heno Pawa-shifuto ”, TBS Britanica,
1998 pp.14-62 This trend, however, seems to have started not by civil society’s initiative, but
just like in the game of tennis, “unforced error of opponents” brought about the point.
Also, “government” and “bureaucrat” have been used in this essay as interchangeable.
But in some countries, Japan for one, governmental, or political, control over bureaucrat poses
a serious problem. This issue may require another essay.
（15）Geuss., Raymond “ Public Goods, Private Goods ”, Princeton University Press, 2001 p.85
（17）Henderson, David “ Misguided Virtue ” IEA, 2001
（18）Leadbeater, Charles “ The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur ” Demos, 1997
（20）Mathew, Jessica “Power Shift” Foreign Affairs , Jan/Feb 1997, p.65
（21）Yamasaki Masakazu “ 21 Seiki no Enkei ” (Remote View of 21 st. Century) Ushio Shuppansha,
（22）Owen R. “ Program Evaluation: Forms and Approaches ” Sage, 1999
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