An Argument for More Self-Government

Here's something the left and the right can agree on: we need a bigger role in solving our collective problems

  • Share
  • Read Later
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

A women walks in front of the nation's capital in Washington, DC, June 29, 2012.

What do Newt Gingrich and the Obama White House have in common?

Back when he was still a presidential candidate, Gingrich said to his fellow conservatives, “if we shrink government then we have to grow citizens.” Last week, at a forum hosted by the White House Office of Social Innovation, many in attendance said essentially the same thing: we citizens need to take on more responsibility for the common good.

Does this mean Republicans and Democrats are suddenly in violent agreement? No. Gingrich wishes for shrunken government; most of those gathered at the White House last week don’t. But it does mean that the old political frames for defining the role of government are in flux — and that it’s time for all of us to rethink what it means to govern ourselves.

(MORE: Real Neighborhoods Do More Than Watch)

At last week’s forum (which I helped to organize), the unspoken reality was that, like it or not, citizens everywhere now have to do more of what the state used to do. This is partly the result of decimated public sector budgets, and the exit of government from entire lines of civic work such as local courts and road maintenance. But it’s also because technology is rapidly rewriting the relationship between state and citizen.

Consider platforms like SeeClickFix, which allows anyone to post a photo and the location of local problems like potholes or graffiti, and prompts neighbors or town officials to address them. IndieGoGo crowdsources funding for community projects that once might have been publicly funded. Such platforms not only give people power but allow them to see themselves not only as clients or cranky customers but also as responsible co-owners.

Is this trend of more empowered citizens conservative or liberal? Both and neither. It’ll please the right because it shows that given good tools, Americans can do more without the state. It should also please the left, because it reminds us that for change at scale, the state remains indispensable: universal health care, for instance, isn’t going to be crowdfunded voluntarily.

(MORE: Why Community Service Should Not Be a Punishment)

But this trend will also force each side to shed its shibboleths. The right has to recognize that there are collective endeavors that require, well, collective endeavor — which is to say, government. The left has to recognize that doing public work requires less bureaucratic bureaucracies.

A new deal for citizenship is emerging, and it makes the debate about big versus small government seem irrelevant. We need government today that’s big on the what and small on the how — government that sets great goals for society and offers ample resources, but then fosters more bottom-up innovation in methods.

This means we need more competitive challenges such as the X Prize or the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, which offer big monetary awards for teams that solve complex technical or social problems. The administration is already using grand challenges to spur education reform and clean energy development.

It also means redefining public service so there are more ventures like Code for America, which deploys techies into City Hall for a stint. And finally, it means evolving past the usual politics of left and right. We thrive when we have both strong citizens and a smart state, personal and mutual responsibility.

Are Americans prepared to participate in such self-government? Are we ready as citizens to fill the breach?

SPECIAL: A Time to Serve: The Case for National Service

12 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
Jem Maxwell
Jem Maxwell

Self government? Our country did that well 1933-1965 when we had a tax system that was fair and government did the public services and produced the public goods that the free market cannot and will not do as anyone knows in Econ 101.  The idea of growing citizens can be nothing more than paying taxes, voting, registering others to vote, petitioning, marching, writing letters, and running for office and working on someone's campaign.  As for voluntary action and charity, well its not at all democratic or a part of being a citizen, but rather a private interest.

Jem Maxwell
Jem Maxwell

Logically a citizen can be nothing else. Basic classical liberalism states "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." So why would anyone expect people to eve rdo enough charity to garuntee the most vulnerable will be protected; people give less to charity during recessions. Mostly charity volunteers come out to feed a few pets and do not cover a majority of anybody in need. They feed, mentor and educate a few people in their communities mostly to feed their own egos. Those pets have no democratic say in how the charity spends money on them and what they provide and how. That's not citizenship or Democracy. 1933-1965 was when we as citizens and our government worked best and those were our shining moments where we were most noble. These are similar times and for some reasons we have departed from the Greatest Generation on ever single issue and policy choice. The radicals, the Jacobins, and the Know Nothing Parties of the 1800s seem to be stearing American now on a strange risky new journey. Will they be lucky enough to be called the Greatest Generation. I doubt it. A $4 trillion Iraq War and Climate Change will be their legacy.

smooth edward
smooth edward

Self-government, inherently requires caring about something more than yourself. We have made self-interest a religion in this country. It’s come to the point where just caring about anything that does not effect one personally, is considered a waste of time by many. The individuality and liberty we speak of comes about when individuals decide to gather in an organized manner and work on solving problems, not “bowling alone."

Jardin J
Jardin J

"Are Americans prepared to participate in such self-government? Are we ready as citizens to fill the breach?"Truthfully- no. Human beings, particularly Americans, have shown ourselves to be too selfish and shortsighted to self govern.

Jem Maxwell
Jem Maxwell

You're right about us today, but that wasn't the case before the selfish greedy Baby Boomer Generation took over. This author knows nothing about government, political or economic theory, or American history. Americans knew how to be citizens back in 1964. We don't have to re-invent anything. Pay more taxes, make the 1% pay lots more, legislate strong campaign finance laws, break up news media monopolies and re-install equal time laws to get Rush off the air and Fox News to be fair and ballanced, then vote, march, register voters, petition, run for office, organize, march, vote...it's that simple. That's what it means to be a citizen. Our country's taxes are really low, government is not as intrusive as it once was economically, but plenty in other ways thanks to the right.

AlCelestial
AlCelestial

Each individual should have a say on how his tax dollars are spent. The enabling technology for this is easily reachable. We should get out of the liberal vs. conservative blaming game and get on with really fixing the problems before it is too late.

Nonaffiliated
Nonaffiliated

I must be old.  I remember when the political right was associated with oppressive government that limited individual freedom 'for the public good'.   At that time, the left was known for championing individual freedom and demanding that government keep its nose out of our lives.  When did this reverse itself?  When did the so-called liberals become establishment?  When did the conservatives become counterculture?

Jem Maxwell
Jem Maxwell

This never happened. You really should study the history of the enlightenment and liberal thought. Being left or right has nothing to do with beign liberal or conservative, but rather radical or reactionary. Obama and the Democratics are far  less envasive, intrusive, taxign, or regulating than the Democrats were in the entire 20th century after 1929. Where have you been? Obama is so incredibly moderate and is to the Right of Nixon on policies. He's deported more illegal immigrants, killed more enemies, and maintained tax cuts that are lowest since pre 1929 and we've been deregulating since the 90s. What are you talking about. Conservatives are not counterculture either. They are ultra-orthodox radicals and are trying to return to a time in history that never existed. They are akin to the Jacobins in France and the Know Nothing Party movement of 1850s.

redfish
redfish

How old are you? Even when conservatives talked about the involvement of government in cases of the public good, they still argued for strict Constitutional limits (witness William F. Buckley in his debate against Gore Vidal). And even when liberals argued for the government staying out of our lives, they still supported programs liked forced busing, when they thought government involvement could create just conditions.

Nonaffiliated
Nonaffiliated

 Good points.  I suppose everyone loves government when government does what you want it to do (and vice versa).   Still, doesn't it seem odd that today Democrats see no limits to what a government could/should do, while Republicans oppose everything, no matter how beneficial it might be?   Am I wrong in thinking this is a change from the 60's amp; 70's?  We've got one party that doesn't know how to say 'no' and another party that says 'no' before it hears the question.

Jem Maxwell
Jem Maxwell

Today's Democrats are the Republicans of the 1970s. They favor far less government than the 1960s-70s and far far less taxes. America between 1933-1965 gave us a New Deal with huge public works projects, damns, highways, conservation corps, and Social Security; Securities and Exchange Commission that cracked down on Wall Street lead by Wild Bill Douglas who’s slogan was ‘Get the Bast%^#; a WWII war effort where government intervened in our economy on all levels to win the war, retooled our factories to build the world’s largest naval fleet and air force, all in a couple years ( today we can’t build that many wind farms, solar panels, or electric cars to defeat the Saudis, Iranians, and Venezuela?); then the GI Bill and affordable college; the Marshal Plan that rebuilt Europe (we could do the same for Mexico if we didn’t blow $Trillion on the Iraq War); desegregation of schools; Space Program; Civil Rights Act; and Medicare; and the marginal tax rate on the top income earners in America was 90%. We did the latter to pay off WWII and help our economic recovery from the Great Depression. 

 

We didn’t just try to get our economy to bounce back as soon as possible. Why you ask dumb libertarians? Because an economy can bounce back, but a human life can’t. Economic recoveries always happen faster than human recoveries, family recoveries, and community recoveries. Let’s say our economy could have bounced back in 8 years starting in 1933 and not after WWII. Some things don’t recover, such as families who experience domestic violence, a young person missing out on their window to go to college and moves on with a family and job, a family who can’t pay healthcare bills, 4 years of homelessness does damage that can never be undone, alcoholism can cause life long damage to body, family, and employment, and so on. These are called social costs. Human beings are a kind of capital. You wouldn’t leave expensive machinery during a Depression to rust out in the rain. So why would you let human capital. So you have to spend some money to maintain the human machinery during a Depression. That expenditure might slow down the economic recovery, but we had working human machinery when we did post-WWII. We had really good working human machinery, homes, schools, universities, communities, roads, energy infrastructure, factories, and so on.

redfish
redfish

When in popular discourse, conservatives became "libertarians" and liberals became "progressives", I guess. 

But conservatives always had a libertarian side and liberals always had a progressive side. I don't think that much has actually changed, except rhetoric and politics. Its a re-marketing. But of course, that makes things difficult for people in between libertarian and progressive just like it was difficult for people in between conservative and liberal before.