Government, Home, and Civil Society

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One of the prerequisites for the functioning of a democracy is that society must operate on three "levels": the state, the private domain, and civil society. It is essential that these three levels are clearly separated from each other and that they support one another.

The three levels each have their own tasks and history, and each provide the individual with a form of protection and opportunities for development. Different rules apply for each of the levels.

The state

Formation of the first states occurred some 4000-5000 years ago in the form of Middle Eastern urban communities. Nation States, in the modern sense, emerged in 17th-19th century Europe and America. Up through the 20th century, many new nation state formations have taken place.

It is the role of government to legislate and to ensure that laws are respected. In a constitutional state, therefore, it is the state that determines the general rules regarding what is legal and what is illegal, and it is the state that has a monopoly on violence, and thereby guarantees the safety of its citizens. The acts of state, therefore, constitutes the laws, and if someone violates the state laws, that person can be brought to trial before a judge.

The private domain

The private domain encompasses everything that is happening at home among family and friends. An important prerequisite for democracy is the inviolability of the home: Neither the agents of the state, one's neighbours, friends, or strangers - be they thieves or not - may enter one's home without permission. The police may only enter if they have a demonstrable reason for suspicion of a crime and even then only if they are issued with a warrant. A friend or neighbour might, of course, also "break into" the private domain, e.g. if they suspect someone is injured or otherwise needs help. But otherwise the home is inviolable.

Generally speaking, the state laws also apply in one's private home: people may not kill each other, steal, or commit other illegal activities, merely because they are committed in one's own home.

At home other rules also apply, rules which are not state laws: examples are values, morals, ethics, habits, and some expectations as to who makes decisions. In contrast to state rules, home rules are not usually written down - perhaps they are never even articulated; this is called tacit understanding.

If one breaks home rules, they cannot be enforced by a court. One can debate, argue, and/or move out, or one can - if one is the controlling head of a family who is not accustomed to being challenged - threaten with violence or otherwise punish family members who are breaking the home rules. The latter practices are forbidden in democratic societies, and if one intends to cause bodily harm to one's family members, it becomes a matter for the courts.

Civil society

Civil society is all that is neither in the realm of the state nor in the realm of the private. It is the public space, i.e. streets and public squares, clubs and associations, workplaces, sporting events, theaters, cinemas, religious gatherings - all the places where we meet outside the family.

In civil society one is bound both by state law and by many of the same codes of values, morals and ethics that apply at home. But one cannot be sure that other people in civil society have the same morals that apply to one’s own family.

In civil society, in other words, we are forced to communicate about what our morals, ethics and values should be. This is, to some extent, the function of art and culture: through art and culture we tell stories about what we think is right and what we think is wrong and what may need to be changed in our society.

In limited circles of civil society - such as associations, religious gatherings or various businesses - there may be special rules that apply only to that specific realm. If one does not agree with these rules, one is free to leave such circles. If it is a democratic association, one can choose to stay and work to change the rules.

Law and morality

State law and the morals of civil society are not always identical. Few laws are directly immoral, but there may be laws which some people find immoral. The right to abortion is one example.

The opposite is probably more common, that is, that something perceived by most as immoral is not actually illegal. Adultery is such an example. Family and civil society may condemn adultery, but there are hardly any democracies in which it is illegal, and where one can take one's partner to court for committing adultery. Someone who violates civil society's morals cannot be punished for this unless the violation also is contrary to law.


In traditional societies, religion conveyed both state law and the attitudes of civil society, and the private sphere was not acknowledged. In democratic societies the state legislates the rights of religious bodies, but the individual citizen's exercise of religion is a private matter. The state may not interfere in an individual's religious practices provided they remain within the bounds of civil law. Temples, synagogues, churches and mosques exist in the public space, and they are part of civil society as much as other organizations. As such, they must operate on equal terms with all other organizations in civil society.

The road to democracy

In many societies without democracy, there is no separation of state, private, civil society and religion. A prerequisite for the introduction of democracy, therefore, is that the state recognizes private and civil society as autonomous zones - and that religious organizations abstain from political activities.

Next chapter: A Constitution