The Common Good
May-June 1995

Government by the People

by Kelly Green | May-June 1995

The balance of rights and responsibilities.

Former Sen. Huey Long regularly quipped, "All politics is local." According to a collection of essays on citizenship, Building a Community of Citizens, edited by Don Eberly, current political thinkers would agree. Although the writers offer differing perspectives, all concur the brand of citizenship being expressed in America today is dangerous to the health of the nation. They lament that the United States, built upon the principle of self-government, has become a nation of consumers of government.

Though the writers are in agreement that "rights talk" has undermined responsibility and hurt our nation, they vary in assessing solutions. They weigh in across the ideological scale, ranging from William A. Strauss and Neil Howe's nostalgic look at the '50s, when conformity was in style, to Harry Boyte's herald of populism.

The final section of the book, by far the most helpful, compiles five different perspectives on civil society-traditionalist, communitarian, libertarian, populist, and centrist. The concise essays outline the main tenets and precepts of each "movement," with no apologies. The inclusion of this section highlights the central assumption that common people can be trusted to govern themselves.

This assumption and its threatened state drives this book's creation. This work differentiates itself from others arguing for minimal federal government because the authors did not fall to the endorsement of extant free-market capitalism as the panacea, or even necessary evil, of a political democracy.

Authors do talk about values, that oft-misunderstood word, abused and manipulated by the conservative Right. In his essay, Edward Schwartz illustrates how both Alexis de Tocqueville and Adam Smith were basing their optimism on the assumption that American values would hold. Each essay comments on the need to be a value-informed society.

THE BOOK FAILS, though, by acquiescing to the current rhetoric that blames the poor. It is the behavior of these "value-less poor" that is always used to illustrate how we have fallen. It is those ever-present welfare mothers, with the audacity to be single at that, who best depict how our principles of a community-oriented, citizen-driven democracy have failed. White-collar criminals like the CEO of Phar-Mor, whose act of embezzlement ultimately resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs nationwide, slip the mind when discussing selfishness and loss of community values.

In fact, it is because of events like this that it is unlikely we will find our panacea in returning all politics and "power" to the local level. The decision by communities to attempt to take responsibility for their community is not likely to influence companies that regularly abandon those same communities in search of greater profits. The danger of a minimalist approach to federal government is not that no one will govern, but that everything will be governed, not even by market principles, but by corporations and other economic actors.

The authors also consistently disregard the inherent danger of handing over hard-won rights. Though it is necessary to reassess rhetoric that compromises the good of the whole for excessive individualism, we must not forget the tendency toward the "tyranny of the majority" that Thomas Jefferson warned of.

This tyranny is not a distant risk, nor one under control. Racism and sexism are pervasive, contrary to Michael Joyce's argument that our "elites" unnecessarily call for more "professionals to minister to the hurts allegedly inflicted on hapless victims by industrialism, rac-ism, sexism, and so on in the course, taking away yet more authority from citizens and social institutions."

Many of the authors relied heavily on de Tocqueville and Jefferson to ground their arguments. Each article that utilized de Tocque-ville's crediting of "voluntary and civic associations" included examples of such associations that exist today. Only Harry Boyte thought to mention community organizations, such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which epitomize citizens taking active responsibility for their communities. This is a remarkable oversight, given the content of the book and the number of such organizations in the country.

With all of the reliance on Jefferson and de Tocqueville to hearken back to democracy as "originally intended," no author acknowledged that the democratic idea embodied in the United States was informed by those that were here before de Tocqueville knew there was an America to visit. The silence given the Native American influence gives reason to question the real motives of the "back to basics" philosophers.

Even with its flaws, the book is worth reading, if you can stomach non-inclusive language. The topic covered is an important one, and some individual essays provide a great deal of food for thought.

Given its self-heralding as a book with "a variety of philosophical and political perspectives," it tends to advocate responsibility at the expense of rights. However, the book is based on the responsibility side of citizenship. It addresses this well, while providing a cogent case for the urgent need to address the state of our democracy.

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