That is largely what we seem to have today: associations stripped of their local vibrancy, characterized by state power rather than local energy. As Rachel Lu noted for The Week a few days ago, Catholic dioceses are too big: “In some, the bishop is officially responsible for the spiritual guidance of literally millions of souls. How much oversight can we really expect under those circumstances?” Community and accountability suffer in the mega-diocese, just as they suffer when mega-churches replace small congregations, mega-newspapers replace the local press, and local communities have no relationship with their police officers.
We cannot fix all these things by merely changing their geography. As Nisbet pointed out, tyrannical power is a symptom and not a cause of our condition. Rather, our release from traditional commitments and alienation from “historic moral certitudes” caused things to slowly fracture and dissolve along the chain of association, throwing the individual back onto the state instead of onto his or her community. As one friend suggested, existentialism made institutions into an “accessory” that can be accepted or discarded, rather than an intrinsic good necessary for human flourishing. This freedom from limits has made our leaders freer and more vicious, and it has made us more individualistic and egotistical in our societal dealings.
Today’s associations are broken for many reasons, and perhaps one is because they have ceased, in many ways, to be real associations at all. They offer the trappings of togetherness, but fail to offer the deeper constancy, accountability, and empowerment that should arise from the real commitment of a community.