Rights And Obligations

 A few months ago,  Bret Stephens wrote an essay in New York Times that included the following paragraph about what he–accurately– called the  “classically liberal core of intelligent conservatism,” defined as:

 The idea that immigrants are an asset, not a liability; that the freedoms of speech and conscience must extend to those whose ideas we loathe; that American power ought to be harnessed to protect the world’s democracies from aggressive dictators; that we are richer at home by freely trading goods abroad; that nothing is more sacred than democracy and the rule of law; that patriotism is about preserving the capacity to criticize a country we love while loving the country we criticize.

Well, how extremely “woke” of the Times’ conservative columnist…

I continue to be amazed–gobsmacked, really–by the complete 180-degree turn of a Republican Party that used to be serious about such old-fashioned ideas, along with “duty” and “responsibility.” 

In January, Richard Haass published The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. While it once might have been seen as an exercise in “preaching to the choir,” these days, a depressing number of Americans are no longer members of that choir.

As the linked review begins,

It’s an idea as old as Rousseau: With rights come responsibilities toward the social contract. To this, Haass adds the admonition that “American democracy will work and reform will prove possible only if obligations join rights at center stage.” Those rights are constitutionally enumerated even if “the struggle over rights…continues to this day.” The obligations are less well enshrined, though the 10 Haass offers are unobjectionable. The first, echoing the right of freedom of speech and thought, asks that citizens be informed about how the government works and be prepared to participate in civic duties. On that second point, the fundamental obligation is to vote (and to insist on it when that right is impeded). “Voting is the most basic act of citizenship,” writes the author. “It creates a bond between the individual and government and between the individual and country.” Given a largely uninformed citizenry, that bond would seem tenuous, and it’s also conditioned by a lack of civility, which asks of each citizen a reasoned willingness to set aside ideology in order to deal with matters of shared concern or interest “on their merits, not on motives you may ascribe to those making the arguments.” Civility bespeaks a willingness to accept another obligation, which is to reject and repudiate violence of the kind we saw on Jan. 6, 2021. Civility also feeds into the obligation to respect norms and the lessons of civics, such as the idea that the common good often overrules one’s selfish demands—e.g., being allowed to smoke in a crowded restaurant or walk around unvaccinated and unmasked in a pandemic. Sadly, of course, those who most need to read this agreeably thoughtful book likely won’t, but that’s the way of the world.

I am hardly the only observer of today’s rancid and decidedly uncivil politics to endorse the importance of re-emphasizing these obligations. 

Rights–as Haass points out–imply duties. Your right to exercise freedom of speech, for example, imposes a duty on me (and especially on government) not to engage in behavior making that speech impossible. I don’t have to listen or agree; I am free to respond critically–but neither individual citizens nor government is free to censor you. (A/K/A “pulling a DeSantis.” ) When an individual citizen does so, it is unbecoming and, I’d argue, unAmerican; when government does so, it’s unconstitutional.

Haass does not limit the obligations of citizenship to the duties implied by our constitutional rights. He quite properly includes duties/obligations of  democratic participation–especially informed voting. 

The approaching national elections are very likely to be a turning point for this country. What is at stake is nothing less than our national commitment to America’s longtime–albeit still unrealized– aspirations to democratic self-rule, liberty and equality.

In 2024, the electorate will be faced with a deceptively simple question: will we continue to work toward realizing those aspirations? Or will we make a philosophical U-turn into White Christian Nationalism? 

It really is as simple–and profound–as that.

I have absolute faith in the good will of most Americans. I remain convinced that–no matter how loud they are– the racists, anti-Semites and misogynists are a minority. What I worry about is the willingness of the majority of Americans to take their civic obligations seriously–to inform themselves, to ignore the incessant messaging that tells them their votes won’t count, and to turn out at the polls.

Good people need to vote like America depends on their ballots, because the version we and they want to inhabit really, truly does.


Civic Saturdays

It’s hard to ignore the cynicism and even despair that so many Americans express about the country’s current governance and future prospects. Partisan polarization, social media manipulation, filter bubbles…the list of impediments to genuine democratic deliberation is daunting.

An intriguing new initiative is hoping to avoid those impediments. It’s called “Civic Saturdays,” and in Indianapolis, it will be sponsored by Spirit and Place, a well-regarded community-building initiative that is part of the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, in partnership with the League of Women Voters and the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library.

It will be adamantly non-partisan–an effort to bridge political differences by revisiting shared civic aspirations.

Civic Saturdays are described as an effort to create “a shared sense of moral and civic purpose across all publics.” It’s the brainchild of Citizen University, a national organization that works to foster responsible and empowered citizenship. Civic Saturdays are best understood as brief dialogues–they last only one hour–  that invite citizens to reconnect with each other and with America’s foundational principles and documents.

Indianapolis is now one of 19 cities that host Civic Saturdays, and the first session will take place on April 28 at 10:30 a.m. at the Glendale Branch Library, 6101 N. Keystone Ave.

The flyers that have been produced to invite participation explain the concept.

In a time of deep political divide, we must create new approaches to fostering a shared sense of moral and civic purpose. Civic Saturday seeks to bring friends and strangers together to nurture our civic spirit.

Civic Saturday is a civic analogue to a faith gathering. But it’s not about, nor does it aim to replace, faith traditions. It’s about American civic religion—the creed of liberty, equality, and self-government that truly unites us (even as we argue over it).

We’ll hear poetry, sing songs, read great and provocative American texts, and listen to a civic “sermon.” We’ll also gather in Civic Circles to share thoughts and ideas on how we can show up and support each other in public life.

Civic Saturdays are one of several promising efforts popping up around the country that are trying to penetrate the “filter bubbles” and other tribal enclaves within which too many of us reside. The goal is to build community among people who may not agree on the preferred solutions to the issues confronting us, but who do agree on the rules and behaviors that enable civil, productive debates.

America won’t solve its problems if we don’t talk to each other, and those conversations are likely to be illuminated by reminders of our foundational aspirations.

If you live in or around Indianapolis, consider attending.


Is Participatory Democracy Possible?

When I was in City Hall, a very long time ago, I had a discussion with John Sweezy that made an indelible impression on me. John  was then the Republican County Chair (and a man who regularly reminded his “troops” that “good government is good politics” Times were different then, and so was the GOP.). I was complaining that a local political gadfly didn’t have a clue how government worked or was supposed to work.

John said he’d long thought that citizens should be required to work for government for at least two years–and prohibited from working in government for more than four. Long enough to understand the challenges and realities, but not long enough to become part of the problem.

I might quibble with the time limits or the implicit lack of appreciation for expertise, but I thought then–and think now–that John was on to something.

That long-ago conversation came to mind when I read a recent article in Aeon, arguing that democracies fail when they ask too little of their citizens.

Modern states are plagued by the problem of ‘rational ignorance’. The chance that any individual’s vote will make a difference is so vanishingly small that it would be irrational for anyone to bother taking a serious interest in the issues and candidates. And so, many people don’t – and then fall for implausible rhetoric. In this way, democracy has come to mean little more than electing politicians on the basis of their promises, then watching them fail to keep them.

This was not the case in the Athens of two and a half thousand years ago. Then, democracy – rule by the people – meant active participation in the running of the state, if not continually, then at least periodically throughout one’s life. As Aristotle put it: ‘to rule and be ruled in turn.’ This participation was a right but also a responsibility. It was intended not only to create a better state, but to create better citizens: engagement in the political process was an education in the soberingly complex realities of decision-making.

The author noted that (male) citizens were expected to serve not only in the army and on juries, as is the case with some modern states, but also to attend the main decision-making assembly in person.  Some public offices were elected, but many others were selected by lottery. He acknowledged the vast differences between ancient Athens and today’s governments, but argued that we should nevertheless seek ways to make our government “radically participatory.”

For example: legislative bodies could be wholly or partially selected by lottery. Even better might be separate assemblies summoned to review each proposed new law or area of government. This would hugely increase the number of people involved in the legislative system. The ancient Athenians managed exactly this; today, digital technology would make it even easier.

I’m dubious. But on the other hand, the way we choose our Representatives and Senators clearly isn’t working. (Ted Cruz’s old college roommate was recently quoted saying that picking a president at random out of the phone book would be preferable to a Cruz presidency, and everything I’ve ever heard about Cruz suggests he’s right.)

Even a cursory look at the House of Representatives suggests we could hardly do worse than we’re doing now….

Lottery, anyone?


Economic Straw Men

A friend recently sent me one of those irritating articles purporting to lecture “liberals” about economic realities. This one was unusually smug. It was written by a self-styled “economist” and published by Forbes; titled “Ten Economic Truths Liberals Need to Learn,”   it mostly rebutted “straw man” positions that no one–liberal or not–actually takes.

I won’t go through the whole list, because you can read it for yourselves, and because we’ve all heard these “truths” before.

“Government cannot create jobs” is an oldie but goodie. Like many of the others, it is “true” only in a very limited sense; obviously, government can and does create jobs for teachers, police officers, and other government workers, and when it invests properly in infrastructure, those investments also generate jobs.

What that flip formulation also misses is the essential role government plays in providing the infrastructures that make private enterprise and private job creation possible.

Several other “truths” on the list are equally wrongheaded: the author claims that low wages are not exploitative, for example–among other things, conveniently overlooking the fact that taxpayers are making up the (enormous) difference between low wages and living costs, and thus effectively subsidizing corporate profits.

I guess it depends upon what your definition of “exploitative” is.

But the “truth” that sent me over the edge was this one:

Education is not a public good. We provide publicly funded K-12 education to all (even to non-citizens), but the education provided produces human capital that is privately owned by each person. This human capital means more work skills, more developed talent, and more potential productivity. People with more human capital generally get paid more, collecting the returns from their education in the form of higher earnings. One common defense of education as a public good is worth refuting here. Yes, education helps people invent things that benefit society. However, they will expect to be paid for those inventions, not give them away for free in return for their education.

This betrays an appalling lack of understanding of both education and the public good.

READ MY LIPS: Education is not synonymous with job training. There is nothing wrong with job training–it’s essential–but a genuine education is far more than a skill set that makes someone marketable in the dystopic society idealized by the (presumably trained but clearly uneducated) twit who wrote this.

Job training produces people who produce things. Education produces people who create art and music and literature, who develop philosophies and political systems, who innovate and imagine and beautify cities and civic environments.

Job training allows people to be productive economic units. Education allows people to be responsible citizens.

If a polity consisting of thoughtful and informed and genuinely educated citizens isn’t a public good, I don’t know what is.