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The following article about freedom of assembly and community organizations appeared in The Jeffersonian nine years ago:

My aunt’s an active, healthy woman in her late eighties. She serves as president of her garden club, and maintains many active connections to her community. In January her club’s treasurer received an unexpected letter from the Massachusetts state attorney general’s office. The letter requested complete financial records for the last four years, including a half-inch stack of forms to be filed with the attorney general’s office in less than one month. Every garden club in Massachusetts – 161 in all – received the same letter. Clubs that did not complete the forms in time would be held in violation of the law. Clubs that did not file proper financial reports for the past four years would be subject to disbanding.

For all the criminal activity in the state, note what activity the attorney general made a priority:

  • Most garden club members are women in their seventies, eighties, and nineties.
  • Garden club fund raising compares to bake sales, car washes, and church bingo nights. Clubs sell house plants and similar items to contributors.
  • Proceeds from fund raisers support the club’s community activities related to gardening.

You know how hard it is to keep a volunteer community going. When my aunt and other club members saw what was required to comply with the attorney general’s reporting requirements, they decided they would disband the club. They could meet socially, but they would close their books, contribute the small balance in the club’s bank account to charity, and cease any activities involved with money. They reported their decision to the attorney general.

That wasn’t good enough. The attorney general’s office replied that as a non-profit charitable organization, the club must still meet the state’s complex reporting requirements for such groups. The law still applied, even though the group no longer existed, and all fund raising had ceased.

Now the disbanded group could not even give its money away. It would have to hire an accountant to fill out the half-inch stack of forms. Then the state can post the information online, so potential contributors can check the information before they contribute to make sure the local garden club is honest. Never mind that the state has already forced the club to shut down, so the club cannot accept donations in any case.

My aunt rightly asked, “So this is what they want to spend their time on? Garden clubs? It’s like they’re taking our tax dollars” – she waves an invisible fistful of money above her head – “and lighting a match to them.” The other hand touches an imaginary match to the bills. She’s right that the attorney general’s office has better ways to spend taxpayers’ money.

She didn’t emphasize an even more pernicious result: an effective, well run and beneficial civic group no longer exists because the law placed an unreasonable burden on it. Other garden clubs faced the same choice as my aunt’s, and those clubs decided to disband, too.

My mentor in graduate school wrote his dissertation on Hannah Arendt. Arendt wrote about the origins of totalitarianism in modern societies. She was most familiar with Germany in the 1930s, where the Nazis used labor camps, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, surveillance, torture, suppression of assembly and free speech, and special military units to break down people’s ability to engage in activities that could undermine the state. Any forms of civic activity apart from the state constituted a threat. Community activities not under the state’s purview became illegal. With total control, a new concept of governing appeared: totalitarianism.

Softer forms of totalitarianism grew up in place of Nazi tyranny after World War II. The softer variety differs from hard totalitarianism in these ways:

  • It progresses more slowly than its more violent cousin.
  • It relies less on violence and other overtly coercive methods.
  • Rather than rely on naked power, it persuades people that the steps it takes to control liberty are necessary, justified, and all-around the best for everyone under the circumstances.

Most importantly, soft totalitarianism appears to advance by constitutional means. Resistance is by definition unconstitutional, illegal, and if undertaken seriously enough, a seditious threat to the state’s authority.

Now we’ve come some distance from my aunt’s garden club, but we can see that soft forms of state control appear in many contexts. Licensing requirements, financial reporting requirements, building codes, regulatory regimes, tax provisions and more all constrain behavior and grind down civic organization, as well as the individual initiative needed to sustain them.

That’s the key point here. Civic organizations – whether garden clubs, trade groups or professional organizations, churches and charitable groups, independent political campaigns and parties – all contribute to community participation and democratic politics. They’re points of contact where individuals become involved in communities beyond their own households.

The Massachusetts state attorney general’s office might believe it serves a public interest when it demands financial information from local garden clubs, but the effect is far different. The effect is to remove these intermediary organizations from the civic picture, so no independent groups stand between the state and would be citizens. When that happens, it won’t matter how many garden clubs exist or how many have disbanded. No locus of civic participation – except organizations that have the state’s permission to operate – will remain.

In publication for since the early 2000s, The Jeffersonian has produced several excellent collections of essays on politics. To learn about these books, and their author, visit Dr. G’s Writing Workshop.

Garden Variety Totalitarianism