We are all individuals! But we are citizens too!

In this blog entry, John Fairfield, author of The Public and Its Possibilities urges us to consider the value of personal responsibility.

Our public life is infected with such deep anger that our elected representatives hesitate to meet with their own constituents. Bailouts of Wall Street bankers, industrial corporations, and homeowners have added to a mounting national debt already swollen by the wars and tax cuts of the past decade. So how do we get “we the people” to use their collective powers for good?

The dominant values in American life have always been private ones – self-reliance and personal responsibility, individual rights of property and privacy, the domestic joys of hearth and home. But there is also a civic strand in our history, a rich legacy of public experience and political aspiration.  The United States came to life in a revolution to protect political liberty and, as Thomas Paine put it, “prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”  The United States underwent a painful rebirth in a bloody civil war that President Abraham Lincoln described as an effort to preserve the “last, best hope of earth” and ensure that “government by the people, for the people, and of the people shall not perish from the earth.” Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died to protect a Constitution that provides “we the people” with the power to “form a more perfect Union.

For the past thirty years, however, we have embraced the belief that government is the problem. Public initiative has taken a back seat to a market fundamentalism determined to privatize every aspect of American life. Occasionally a candidate has won office with a campaign centered on public initiatives and civic aspirations. Sadly, little has come of such campaigns, even in victory, due to our leaders’ personal and political failures and our own apathy. A pervasive cynicism about government always returns, leaving us to shun public responsibilities.

The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 once again suggested that leaders willing to ask Americans to participate in something larger than themselves could succeed. “What is required of us now,” Obama explained in his inaugural address, “is a new era of responsibility —  a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly.”

As in the past, the Obama administration has had to contend with its own mistakes and a pervasion frustration with politics. But there appears to be an inconsistency in our angry condemnations of incompetent and improvident government. Get the government out of health care, we say, but protect Medicare. Avoid bailouts and stimulus bills, yet somehow ensure economic security and prosperity. Deregulate the economy, but protect the purity of our air, water, and food.  

Both the anger and the inconsistencies are a visceral reaction to the unwelcome truth made unmistakably clear in our recent troubles: our unavoidable dependence on the same public and private institutions that we mistrust and revile. We think of ourselves as a nation of self-reliant, personally-responsible individuals. But the near-collapse of the credit system, the escalating costs of health care, and the horrific oil spill in the Gulf painfully reminded us of our reliance not only on government but on financial and industrial corporations over which we have so little control.

So as a new election cycle is upon us, I have wondered if my history of public experience and civic aspiration,  The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City, has something useful to tell us. I think it does. Self-reliance and personal responsibility are indelible values in American life, worthy of our respect and ignored only at great peril. But we must recognize that self-reliance and personal responsibility are not merely personal and private matters. No one is born self-reliant and personally responsible. We acquire those traits, if at all, through a host of social and civic relationships, starting with the family and extending outward into public life. Self-reliance and personal responsibility are also the product of the institutions, public and private, in which we spend much of our lives and which shape our ambitions and opportunities.

In other words, one has to be given a chance to be responsible. The great glory of democracy – and its great burden – is to create a society, economy, and culture which encourages and enables each of us to become self-reliant and responsible. This is a task beyond our capacities as isolated individuals and requires we work together. Self-reliance does not preclude co-operation and responsibility implies obligations to others. To realize these values, we must rebuild a civic realm not of privileges or entitlements but of common opportunities and obligations for education and service. It also demands that all our institutions, public and private, be reorganized to promote the widest possible distribution of political and economic responsibility. Such an effort combines our commitment to those great values of self-reliance and personal responsibility with our civic aspiration for self-government. It might even be a program the parties could unite behind.

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