Part I: Economic FunctionsThere are both pessimistic and optimistic stories about the economic functions of civil society. One of the pessimists, Mancur Olson, building on his own logic of collective action, argues that small interest groups have no incentive to work toward the common good of society and every incentive to engage in costly and inefficient "rent-seeking"--lobbying for tax breaks, colluding to restrain competition, and so on(Putnam 1993:176). Rousseau also pointed out that "[m]an are forced to caress and destroy one another at the same time" in civil society(Fine 1997:17). Worse yet, as Olson holds, in the absence of invasion or revolutionary change, the thicket of special interest groups in any society grows ever denser, choking off innovation and dampening economic growth. More and stronger groups mean less growth(Putnam 1993:176). Another pessimist is Callaghy, who fears that the "wild passions" of civil society may undercut sound economic management and economic reform(Harbeson 1994:294).
Other scholars, however, hold that civil society has the function of provoking economic growth. Analyzing Italian regional-level data from the nineteenth century to the 1980's, Putnam found that levels of civic involvement around 1900 predicted subsequent levels of economic development even better than did economic variables. Historically, he argued that norms and networks of civic engagement have fostered economic growth, not inhibited it.
Inglehart tries to reconcile these two diametrically opposed theories about the economic functions of civil society. Analyzing data from 43 societies, he concludes that relatively dense networks of associational membership seem to be conducive to economic growth in the earlier stages of development, as Putnam has argued; but (as Olson has argued) these associations can become hypertrophied and excessively powerful in advanced industrial societies, distorting policy to defend well-organized interests at the expense of overall economic growth(Inglehart 1997:228).
Part II: Stabilizing FunctionsCan civil society stabilize the state? Both Tocqueville and Putnam stress the importance of networks of voluntary associations in support of a culture of trust and cooperation, which were essential to the successful functioning of democratic institutions. However, the answers to the question from other empirical test and theoretical analysis seem to be "not necessarily". In Inglehart’s multiple regression tests, although membership in voluntary associations is strongly correlated with stable democracy, this variable did not show a statistically significant impact when the effects of other variables are controlled for. Schmitter also argues that "[c]ivil society, ... can affect the consolidation and subsequent functioning of democracy in a number of negative ways". Among these he includes: "(5)most dangerously it may prove to be not one but several civil societies -- all occupying the same territory and polity, but organizing interests and passions into communities that are ethnically, linguistically or culturally distinct -- even exclusive" (Whitehead 1997:106). The analysis of the stabilizing functions reveals just the "paradox of civil society" proposed by Foley and Edwards: democracy and a strong state depend on the enforcing effects of its civil society, but such effects depend on the prior achievement of both democracy and a strong state(Foley and Edwards 1996:48).
Part III: Democratic FunctionsThe democratic functions of civil society seem long recognized. As Almond and Verba conclude from the examination of the survey data from five nations: the organizational member, political or not, compared with the nonmember, is likely to consider himself more competence as a citizen, to be a more active participant in politics. The member, in contrast with the nonmember, appears to approximate more closely what we have called the democratic citizen. He is competent, active, and open with his opinions(Almond and Verba 1963:320). The most striking finding is that any membership -- passive membership or membership in a nonpolitical organization -- has an impact on political competence, and thus on pluralism, one of the most important foundations of political democracy(Almond and Verba 1963:321).
Nie, Powell and Prewitt also investigate the democratic functions of civil society in terms of its effects on political participation. As shown in the Figure I above, as the density and complexity of economic and secondary organizations increases, greater proportions of the population find themselves in life situations that lead to increased political information, political awareness, sense of personal political efficacy, and other relevant attitudes. These attitude changes, in turn, lead to increases in political participation(Nie, Powell, and Prewitt 1969:808).
Civil society has yet another democratic function, that of facilitating democratic transitions. Montesquieu clearly believed from a theoretical perspective that civil society should function as a counterbalance to governments in order to inhibit their tyrannical tendencies; he also suggested that civil society actually did perform in this capacity (Harbeson 1994:26). This is enforced by the empirical finding by Inglehart that organizational membership does show a statistically significant linkage with changes in levels of democracy from 1990 to 1995(Inglehart 1997:193). Weigle and Butterfield’s case studies of the democratic transitions in the Eastern European countries and in the former Soviet Union also show the important role played by the civil society.