Let’s Talk Social Infrastructure

Let’s abandon doom, gloom and Coronavirus, and talk instead about the brave new world we might be able to construct when the current crisis has wreaked havoc on the one we have.

The most basic question of political philosophy is: what should government do? The U.S. Bill of Rights is a list of things that government should not do—censor speech, favor religion, search citizens without probable cause or infringe their liberty interests or property rights without due process, among other things—but America hasn’t revisited (or, really, visited) the fundamental question: what is government for? What are the elements of the social and physical infrastructure that government in the 21st Century should provide?

And how should we define infrastructure?

We recognize physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, the national electrical grid. There is less recognition of the importance of other elements of the built environment: parks, libraries, public transportation, utilities, street lighting and other taken-for-granted elements that collectively produce a community’s “quality of life.” Despite almost universal agreement about the importance of physical infrastructure, America’s roads and bridges are in serious disrepair, the electrical grid is vulnerable to hacking, and sewer overflows continue to pollute rivers and streams. Aging pipes are contaminating drinking water in numerous cities and towns; the problem with lead in the water is not limited to the widely-publicized situation in Flint, Michigan.

The problems with America’s physical infrastructure are visible, widely acknowledged and await only a rebirth of political will to fix. The defects in our social infrastructure, however, are less clear-cut, and because they are highly contested, resist repair. “Social infrastructure” includes programs that help needy citizens and build community, including access to economic security, health, education, and the right to equal participation in democratic decision-making.

Aristotle taught us that social infrastructure should facilitate human flourishing.

I tend to harp on the challenges we face: a rapidly morphing information environment, overt tribalism, deepening economic inequality, widespread civic ignorance, and the corruption of America’s current legal and political structures. All of these elements of contemporary reality, plus the existential threats posed by climate change and a global pandemic, challenge America’s future.

What comes next?

We could continue the Trumpian withdrawal from global alliances and our historic civic aspirations, or we could enter a period of extreme social unrest, with escalating protests and accelerating social factionalism, leading to a very uncertain future. Or we could revisit the nation’s existing social contract, evaluate the current utility of our governing assumptions, reaffirm those that have stood the test of time, and modify structures that no longer serve us.

America’s definition of liberty as negative–the individual’s right to be free of government constraint unless s/he is harming the person or property of another– has generated significant conflict: what constitutes a harm sufficient to justify government intervention? How much deference to the rights of others is required? Which others? Is the obligation of government limited to non-interference, or do citizens have the right to demand that government pursue positive actions? If so, what are those actions?

Defining liberty has become even more complicated as America’s population has increased, as equality (another contested term) has become an equally important value, and as society has become more complex. At a minimum, genuine liberty requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government, important as those limits remain. True liberty– allowing individuals to determine and pursue their individual aspirations– requires ensuring that those individuals have the means to exercise choice, and sufficient information upon which to base consideration of those choices.

Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argued that freedom is the ability to exercise individual agency, and that personal agency is inescapably qualified and constrained by available social, political and economic opportunities. In other words, individual agency is dependent upon what Sen calls “social arrangements”–what I am calling “social infrastructure.”

In today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government’s responsibility cannot simply be to get out of the way.

Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the agency of the individual and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement. In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with a social safety net that affirmatively supports human liberty by allowing citizens to reach their potential.

That safety net can be constructed in ways that unify or further divide us.

A Native American parable is instructive: One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside all of us. One is evil. The other is good.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” and the grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”

America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial and pro-democratic behaviors and norms.

It is time to rethink how government should “feed” the good wolf.


  1. Two comments. First, the Social Contracts in the Scandinavian countries do not stifle innovation and make people lazy as we are told by the yahoos in the Republican party (as Groucho Marx used to say: “But I repeat myself”). In fact, because people do not have to worry about how to survive during an economic downturn, they can take chances. So innovation is rampant (compared to here) in those countries.

    Second. The late Elinor Ostrum who taught at IUB received the Nobel Prize in Economics for her studies on how some societies managed to maintain their living standards for centuries by what amounts to a Social Contract. They established and maintained the concept of a “commons,” which was an area or a feature that everyone could use, but no one could misuse. Social responsibility was the key to their success, not individual freedom to do whatever one wants, and to hell with everyone else. They established civilized societies.

  2. The Constitution does provide this country relief from control by a despot such as Trump; but he is head of the Hole In The Wall Gang who keep him in place so we must move on to the Bill of Rights for relief in this current Covid-19 Pandemic and beyond. Yes; I do know that isn’t the only issue in today’s blog!

    The current Republicans have changed this country’s Social Structure to be based on White Nationalism political and/or religious beliefs. It is somehow easier to sway non-believers to become believers on either level due to promises easily given but not fulfilled. Such as infrastructure, however you choose to define it.

    Back to Covid-19 Pandemic and Trump with his able sidekick Jared Kushner; both who know as much about any virus as I know about rocket science. Amendment X provides relief to the people of “powers retained by the states and the people”. Many, including those in places of political and medical authority, are pushing Trump for an all inclusive national “stay-at-home” edict. But Amendment VIII refers to “bails, fines and punishments”; would it legally be “unusual punishment” for Trump, or any president, to order a national “stay-at-home” edict even if it is for their own protection from the Pandemic? Can this be considered a temporary “Social Infrastructure” and would the activated National Guard and military troops be used by Trump to enforce it? These same two Amendments can be applied to any form of infrastructure but currently “States Rights” are moving closer to Sovereignty Commission regulations.

    “America needs a social and political infrastructure that feeds—encourages, promotes and rewards—prosocial and pro-democratic behaviors and norms.”

    To accomplish these goals we need our civil and voting rights fully restored and to accomplish those goals we must FOLLOW THE MONEY to remove those sources.

  3. “Anti-government attitudes that permeate contemporary American culture have been profoundly influenced by a Protestant Ethic that exaggerated the agency of the individual and minimized the extent to which the social infrastructure contributes to, enables—or hinders—individual achievement. In addition to older, traditional functions, today’s governments must provide citizens with a social safety net that affirmatively supports human liberty by allowing citizens to reach their potential.”

    These attitudes took a virulent turn with the election of Ronald Reagan. Add to that the one-trick-pony of the Republican Party: When in doubt, cut taxes for the rich. When you call your own government “the problem”, then try to “drown it in a bathtub”, you are summarily dismissing the infrastructure too. The social safety net is considered communistic by Republicans….until one of THEIR loved ones needs it.

    So, what must coincide with the slowing of the virus and social distancing is the removal of as many Republicans from office as possible in the coming November elections. Trump was right about getting more people out to vote. The vast majority of voters will vote out Republicans across the board and at every level of government if they are indeed motivated to vote at all. The elitist party fears that voter turnout because their donors fear they won’t be able to exact more wealth from the taxpayer both in sales and in tax dodges.

    As so many of us on this blog have been saying for a very long time: Republicans, by their very nature and philosophy destroy democracy and its necessary infrastructure for the sake of profits. Everything else, to them, is irrelevant or socialistic – not that they understand that word at all.

  4. JoAnn,

    I’m sure you know way more about rocket science than 45 and Jared know about any virus.

    I’ve asked this question before, but I’m nothing if not persistent. What does it mean to promote the general welfare? It seems to me that it is a reference to social infrastructure. I know that’s in the Preamble, but still it gives us a rationale for government, doesn’t it? We have ignored it for 232 years. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring it any longer.

  5. We are off to a good start this morning folks, at last on the path to talk about “fixes” rather than ranting about problems. But, we all know where the devil is…So whatever we try to do to turn our Titanic, it must be pragmatic and, God forbid, evolutionary from where we are. If we try revolution, the NRA will come home to roost.

    So…looking for proposals for the Biden administration…

  6. Peggy,

    As I suggested above, “general welfare” only applies to the donors of the Republicans….at least as far as Republicans are concerned. They STILL hate the New Deal and want to eliminate unemployment compensation. They STILL hate Medicare/Medicaid and want to cast poor, sick people into the street with idiotic platitudes like: “They should have made better choices during their best years.”

    FDR defined the general welfare clause with his last state of the union message where he defined the second bill of rights. Bernie has been trying to re-establish those rights, but he is just the wrong candidate to do that. Nonetheless, ensuring those rights of home, job, education, health and safety are what civilization is supposed to be, not grubbing for every dollar at the expense of every other “competitor”.

  7. Here’s where I would start: get back in the Paris Climate Accord, restore (and fix as needed) all the environmental regulations recently rolled back, restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act, enact comprehensive immigration reform, massive infrastructure program, student debt relief, apply known fixes to the ACA,…

    All doable (with a DEM senate)….

  8. Sheila, excellent choice for today!

    My great grandfather, John Wesley Scott, was a great man! He actually alluded to that Cherokee parable even though he was not Cherokee. But most Native American tribes had similar parables.

    As we stand now, society is careening towards a more defined caste system. A system where government aids the upper echelon while increasingly abandoning the least advantaged. The lower caste is always good for cheap labor, and consuming. But has no protections afforded to the upper echelon. Healthcare, food security, education, civil justice, ethical treatment, housing, working conditions and employment, equality amongst all citizens regardless of race, color, or creed, these things should be basic rights regardless of social caste! Unfortunately, these basic rights are used as a bargaining chip, because, after all, does a commodity really need these things? Because that’s all any of us are right now, commodities!

    We are extorted by municipal, Township, County, State, and federal governments, sometimes under the purview of all, but are given very little say so in how the money we pay in taxes is spent. Or, should they have the right to arbitrarily raise taxes on those that can afford to pay, taking property from those citizens who cannot pay. Maybe, properties that individuals work for their entire lives. Just to pay a tax obligation! Very rarely do you see this with large corporations, because many times because of loopholes they don’t pay any tax or very little tax. It’s a very un-equal playing field.

    So, I know I’ve mentioned it before, whose job is to care for one’s brother? Has there ever been a society in recorded civilized history that has not treated people according to a class or a caste system? Democracy is a wonderful idea, but democracy has not solved any of these above-mentioned problems. And in many ways, given the elete a much larger bludgeon against the less fortunate.

    The African parable that Hillary Clinton referred to several times, and I believe wrote a book about, it takes a village to raise a child, and, how true that is! It is better for a child to have an extended family, but that extended family brings about its own challenges! Because you better know the leanings of that extended family. There is strength in numbers when it concerns family, many grandfathers and many grandmothers, many experiences and many conclusions, many mentors and many teachers.

    These things are ideal, but what societal construct in any civilization promoted unilateral equality and concern for their fellow citizen? None that I am aware of, the Mosaic law provided for those who are less fortunate by instituting the Sabbath not just the weekly Sabbath, but the Jubilee years. Where debts were forgiven, and families reunited. And, the wealthy did not completely glean their fields, so those who were needy had food. A needy Israelite could borrow money without interest, and was shown respect and a spirit of generosity. Jesus Christ himself said; “When you spread a feast, invite poor people, crippled, lame, blind; and you will be happy, because they have nothing with which to repay you.” (Luke 14:13, 14)

    The same loving concern for the poor was manifested in later years by Christians as they provided material assistance for their poor brothers. (Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10) But some did forget, making it necessary for the disciple James to reprimand them for bestowing favoritism on the rich and looking down on the poor. (James 2:2-9). I certainly don’t see that amongst today’s evangelicals, they seem to be concerned about power and riches/wealth rather than concern over there needy brethren or the widows and orphans or the foreign resident!

    Education, shame, and condemnation can be used to point out man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, but, I fear that horses left the barn a long time ago. I don’t think the will is there for mankind to band together and change the course of the mighty rivers of injustice, just think of the work it would take to reroute to the Amazon or Mississippi Rivers! Now, extrapolate that globally, there is too much evil, and as Scripture denotes, those mountains/governments, are not protecting those in its shadow, as you can see by what’s going on today with the pandemic. People are asking the mountains to fall over them, but the mountains remain stoic to their needs! ( Revelation 6:15-17)

  9. Genuine individual liberty requires more than enforcing limits on the reach of government; IT REQUIRES ENFORCING LIMITS ON THE OMISSIONS AND INADEQUACIES OF GOVERNMENT, for those omissions and inadequacies, such as the neglect of “social infrastructure” Sheila speaks of, are powerful oppressors of individual liberty, often more powerful than overt oppression.

  10. Liberty is MORE than individual liberty; it is also the LIBERTY OF A PEOPLE, of a nation as a whole.

    THE LIBERTY OF A NATION–its ability to assure its national independence, as well as its capacity to compete with or wither before other nations for resources and global influence–SUPERSEDES THE LIBERTY OF AN INDIVIDUAL, for without national liberty there can be no individual liberty.

    Therefore, that entity and that individual who elevates and exalts individual liberty over the nation’s liberty or any aspect of the nation’s liberty has the wagon before the horse, and both the nation’s liberty and individual liberty shall suffer an ignominious crash.

    America’s national confusion of PERMISSIVENESS and LICENSE for the fundamental idea of Individual Liberty and then our raising of the Exalted P & L so high above National Liberty has been our undoing.

    The generation of the 1960s and all succeeding generations have elevated individual liberty over national liberty, and we are now witness to a most inevitable and inglorious crash.

  11. Lester,

    All that you suggest are excellent and necessary. BUT, from a more pragmatic and immediate agenda of necessity, I’d suggest passing the legislation for the money – and get the projects funded and going – for the bricks and mortar projects like bridge/road repair. Funding high-speed rail projects will save billions in gasoline and pollution costs. Expanding tidal, wind and solar energy generation will put displaced manufacturing labor back to work earning living wages and benefits. Oh, and while we’re at it, with the demise of Betsy DeVos, the Dept. of Education needs to scrap the high-stakes testing bullshit and fund teachers, teacher training programs, consumable budgets for labs in schools and expanding buildings to reduce class sizes. This applies to K-12 schools. Forget vouchers and charter school “special” funding. If we don’t tend to the basic structure, we will continue to destroy our seed corn, aka our children’s education and development.

    To add to your list, though, overturning Citizens United v. FEC is paramount to fix the root cause of our corrupt governments. Next, make election day a national holiday. Next, register everyone to vote when they apply, as a verified citizen, for Social Security. Next, shorten the legal election season to 6 months. Next, ensure that mail-in ballots are available everywhere, upon request, for every election at every level. We have this in Colorado, and it works just fine. Election ID is, of course, required. Next, shorten terms in the Senate to two terms of 6 years. In the House, shorten them to six terms of 2 years.

    There is much to do, but first we must elect a Democratic Senate with 67 seats. There is much repair to do from the political decay since 1981, so a government that isn’t around to bicker and dump on one another is, perhaps, the most important action we the people can undertake.

  12. Vernon – thanks for the additions. Suggest many of these are much more divisive and will take much longer. Often the way to do stuff like that is incrementally. That way, when they show “no harm” and good results you begin to “sow” the more radical change. For example, high-speed rail has not proven to date to be a silver bullet, is very expensive and complex to implement and has a very mixed record of success.

  13. While the virus is doing us in it’s also done some good. I see a great deal more sharing and caring for each other going on. I see less time wasted on entertaining ourselves and more time invested in caring for each other with the most in need getting the largest share and the least in need leading the effort. I see a humbled government returned to experts instead of Trumpian tiger kings competing for power through brag and blame contests.

    I have the feeling that the country may not be as broken as the daily examinations here purport. We are a people, a culture, starved for good because advertising maintains our addiction to only more. We need to use the greatest gift we have, the ability to help each other, giving during our personal good times and receiving when that is all we are capable of.

    We do need to use our democracy to restore competence and leadership to the government we have. The rest will come over time.

  14. From another Web Site a quote:

    “No reason to complain however, we are the lucky ones. As with all pandemics, it will be the poorest and weakest in the pecking order who will bear the brunt. People in countries engulfed by war, refugee camps, metropolitan slums, prisoners in overcrowded prisons stand no chance against this medieval plague.”

    America has totally failed to protect the poorest and weakest in our society. When the poor and working poor did not have access to health care, they were ignored. When people had to work two jobs to pay the bills they were ignored. Republicans and the Corporate Democrats all bowed down to hail the the Stock Market going up.

    We see everyday now in-spite of some very courageous people acting individually, our collective has nearly totally collapsed. What we may have thought were strong underpinnings or a foundation to our collective has turned out to be illusion. There are no life boats for the vast majority of the American people.

  15. Vernon,
    your list, exactly…i may add,, when im speaking with da trumpers,when im engaged in my truckin duties, one comment made almost every time, goverment surveillance..we have seen the drone ideas and back to the f.b.i.s. filiming,before video of protests and club functions.i ask them, you got facebook,google and twit? well yea, to keep up with the family etc… your providing your privacy and thoughts to corprate America,on your own doings..how? well for one, corprate America doesnt need a warrent to gather,or provide to,law inforcement/goverment..the fact corprate search engines are a for profit org,that gleefully keep any and all information you provide,without regard to your own privacy..being in step with the crowd only provides for your privacy to be invaded,hense, the goverment doesnt need consent,you provided that,opening any account on the web..the euro have the GDRP in place, where you can on one page,secure your searches,who you communicate with,as just afew privacy guarantees, when google was fined 6 billion and then again by the euro courts ,for not following the rules,it shows they at least try to provide privacy,the rest is up to you… we have no such privacy guarentees,and money runs this country,and sees your privacy as a way to,make money and profits, influence you, follow you around,and make alist of every keystroke you make on most every site you visit,timed down to 1/100 of a second…the people im talking with,just stand there dumfounded..it didnt take but a few minutes to explain what they have allowed to happen,with thier own privacy..they did nothing to prevent it except blame the goverment,and its not the governent,but very people your hard earned money flows through,to screw you.. i wrote about corprates keeping your info and using it back in high school,in 1971 and they dont need a warrent,to surveil us…

  16. Great discussion all!!! So much knowledge, thoughtfulness, and attempts to improve our community systems from this group. I am grateful to be an observer and learn from you all.

    I am wondering if we are using language from our past history, experiences, and definitions of what we lived and knew, to attempt to define and recover in a perhaps at least partially unknown future? This may seem a little far out; however, at least to me, this pandemic and our necessary response is also a little bit beyond even my ability, of yesterday, to imagine.

    Perhaps we will not have the ability to live our future based upon past parameters. What then?

  17. Barbara,

    Let’s hope that the “future parameters” derive directly from the heroic efforts of healthcare professionals, the countless “neighborly” good deeds, the truth from our scientists and the outpouring of money and goods for the less fortunate.

    One more Biden early actions – Presidential Medal of Freedom for Dr. Fuchi…

  18. I thought the most significant statement is Sheila’s blog today was to the effect that in today’s complex and inter-dependent society, government cannot just get out of the way. This all-encompassing observation subsumes our individual complaints in re government’s role in working out such matters as racism, gender, labor-management etc.

    As my fellow contributors know, my favorite gripe that I feel government has not permanently addressed is wage inequality. With FDR, who did not get out of the way, wages moved in tandem with the Dow during the New Deal. With Reagan, who did get out of the way, median wages have hardly moved for the last three decades while the Dow has gone stratospheric (until lately, and that due to a pandemic rather than a change in political philosophy). I will not go into the effects of poor wage scales on aggregate demand, which are plain to see, nor the known fact that consumer demand at a 70 percent level is the arbiter of economic growth.

    Our founders were clear about what government cannot do via their adoption of the First Ten Amendments, but they left it up to their successors (and a political process) to determine what government can do. This is not the world of serfs and slaves that was inhabited by Locke, Smith and Marx; it is a world of Trumps and McConnells, of bribes and greed, and our task is to battle through this rough patch in history and come out the better on the other side, a task which requires a view that government should get in the way of a system that rewards the few over the many – and persevere politically to see that it does.

  19. An ideal candidate stands for and articulates how every issue builds or destroys further the middle class (an economic and social phenomenon built out of our reactions to the depression and WWII). Nancy P. comes close over the last 2 years in her rhetoric and legislation. Many 2020 POTUS candidates have spoken of it, but it IS the central defining theme for communication and decision making. Bernie carries much of the rhetoric but Amy and Bennett articulate it well.
    I don’t care who so much as what. It will take 20 year minimum of holding many of the strings of power.

Comments are closed.