This chapter investigates the claim that a robust democracy depends upon the ability to ‘strengthen civil society’. It describes how and why civil society has come to be used so widely and with such enthusiastic hope. A number of conceptual objections to the term are also addressed. The concept of civil society is ‘indispensable’ because it promises ‘a theoretical framework that can anchor what is in the end a common discussion across boundaries’. The idea of civil society is unrepentantly grounded within the history of liberal thought. The proponents of ‘civil society’ must be able to reply to three objections: the definition is too ambiguous; causal relationships are circular or misidentified; and falsifiability is impossible. The concept of ‘civil society’ has been overused and overrated, and remains analytically insubstantial. ‘Civil society’ is a shorthand way of expressing the principle of limited government.
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