Bohanon: Daffodils and Civil Society

August 31, 2015

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

Did you know there is an Indiana Daffodil Society?

I don’t know much about daffodils except they come up after the crocuses and before the tulips and irises. Nor do I desire to acquire detailed knowledge about a flower that shows its face for 20 days a year. However, I think it is great that there are people in Indiana who do.

A quick view of the organization’s website indicates it began in 1956, is associated with a larger national organization and that around 50 of its members and friends posed for a picture at a recent Midwest regional meeting. The photo featured two babies in strollers; this indicates the group has a future.

From the best I can tell, the organization is entirely self-supporting, gets no taxpayer subsidies and, aside from satisfying its members’ quests for better daffodils, it actually makes all of our lives better by making spring more magnificent — at no charge to the public.

I discovered there was such an organization when I attended the Indiana State Fair with our exchange student from China. He and I both noted that Hoosiers have abundant interests — both commercial and hobby. Farmers show their hogs, sheep, goats, cattle and horses. There are trucks, cars, tractors and harvest combines on display. Hormel Meat Co. shows us new uses for Spam. And there are competitions in everything from playing the piano, to painting china, to baking cookies, to decorating scrapbooks, to canning pickles, to growing hot peppers and eggplants.

It is all a glorious display of the great American panache for forming voluntary associations that are self-organized and self-governed. All the hobby groups at the fair undoubtedly have constitutions and bylaws. They are all voluntary associations. They enrich their members’ lives and their communities. And they are not generally supported by the public purse. The French scholar Alexander de Tocqueville noticed this when he visited the United States in the 1830s. This is civil society — neither a creature of the market nor the state — and it is what makes America great.

But wait, you say, isn’t the State Fair a creature of the State of Indiana? Wouldn’t a doctrinaire libertarian like you, Bohanon, insist it be spun off and privatized? I suppose in this case my conservative instincts trump my libertarian proclivities: The state has been supporting the fair since 1852, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. In any case, the state appropriation is just under three million dollars for the fair — a drop in the bucket in a $15-billion budget. For every $100 the state of Indiana collects, less than two cents goes to the fair.

Whatever the cost, the operation of the fair gives an instructive lesson in civics: citizens engage in activities with the government merely facilitating a place where self-organized groups can display and share with other citizens what they are doing. This is different from the state organizing, directing, financing and bureaucratizing all civic activity.

I checked online and found there is an Indiana Daylily and Iris Society but alas no tulip or crocus societies. The interventionist progressives — you folks know who you are — see an opening for a new state program, an additional appropriation, a new mandate to improve society from a top-down plan. After all, we all agree that flowers generate external benefits. But we traditional conservatives and libertarians (sigh) just hate you well-meaning progressives’ instinct to plan, manage and cajole us for our own interests.

It is better, as the Chinese say, to “let a thousand flowers bloom” — but from the bottom up.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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