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My father in-law, Ron, tells me a story of what life was like when he moved his young family (my wife not yet born) to the bucolic Southern California college town of Claremont in the mid-1960’s. Life was simpler then: “dry town” simple, take your garbage to the dump simple. It was the confluence of these two conditions that provided the basis for an interesting local custom. With the town dump located just outside Claremont’s boundaries, Ron quickly learned that the weekend trip with the garbage was rarely made without young kids in tow, and a six-pack or martini-shaker. It was a weekly neighborhood cocktail party. After busy weeks these excursions provided the rare opportunities for these young professionals and their families to connect with the help of that great lubricant for community building: alcohol.

But some times, simple is not good enough. Within a couple years, the city government decided that they had enough of this frontier existence.  A measure was passed that provided curbside garbage pick-up. My father in-law remembers most clearly the sound of clinking liquor bottles in the garbage bags his neighbors walked to the end of the driveway. The former large group gatherings with kids were replaced by smaller, formal, adults-only get-togethers. The weekend congregations were placed in the garbage can of history. In the building of community in Claremont, ease proved to be the enemy of simplicity.

Our friends in the “dismal science” coined the phrase “crowding out” to describe the process by which government spending “crowds out” private sector (non-profits, individuals, business) spending and investment. The measure is purely financial as either directly (government services supplant private sector offerings) or indirectly (government spending drives up interest rates, reducing private sector investment). One wonders when some bright young economist will analyze the loss to community due to government intervention – there could be a Nobel Prize in it for her. There was for Gary Becker. His research on the approximate subject of the impact of public policies – from no-fault divorce laws to Social Security (!) – on the most elemental community: the family, earned him that distinction in 1992. In his Nobel Lecture that year, “The Economic Way of Looking at Behavior”, Becker concluded that “these developments [predominantly the growth of social spending programs] have generally made people better off, but they have also weakened the personal relations within families between husbands and wives, parents and children, and among more distant relatives, partly by reducing the incentives to invest in creating closer relations.”

In previous centuries the elemental public policy question has been normative: what should governments do? The general reply – at least in the United States – was “as little as possible, and as locally as possible”, leaving still glaring societal needs to be addressed by civil society and families.  Out of necessity (taxes were low and governments small) and mores, governing institutions more often played the role of enabling and promoting these intermediate institutions rather than supplanting them. In a recent interview for AEI’s organ, The American, the godfather of “compassionate conservatism”, Marvin Olasky, tells the story of Associated Charities in Boston at the turn of the 20th century, where an older widower had applied for support. Rather than just provide aide, the organization searched for (and eventually found) a family member that would take him in.  The result, as Olasky quotes from the tattered case file, was to rebuild relationship: “If there had been no careful investigation, the man would have received some bread but would have remained alone.”

As the nation grew more prosperous throughout the last century, governments began to ask this same basic policy question in a more pragmatic way: what can government do? In recent decades, and in other (mostly European) countries, this query has been answered in the positive, as governments at all levels, but increasingly centralized in national capitals, have taken on greater responsibilities for a public that increasingly demands greater services. This has been a symbiotic relationship for both the individual and the government, but community-reinforcing frameworks from family to civil society have, in many instances, paid a heavy price.

This historic movement in the growth of government is, of course, a subject on which Tocqueville was prescient. But while he used the language of “schoolmasters” and “immense tutelary power”’s, it is the rhetoric of business that more aptly describes what has taken place over the last three decades particularly. The organization I work with, Common Sense California, consults with city and regional governments as they engage their publics around these role questions. What many of these local leaders tell me is that the private sector focus on things like “TQM” (“Total Quality Management”) and “Customer-Centric Service” in the mid-1970’s through the 1980’s bled into the public sector. This new paradigm moved beyond the Progressive’s “expert/uninformed masses” connection to a more enervating “expert service provider/expectant client” tension. Few have communicated more forcefully on this topic, and what it portends, than Northwestern University’s John McKnight, who has written, “The service ideology [in governments] will be consummated when citizens believe that they cannot know whether they have a need, cannot know what that remedy is, [and] cannot understand the process that purports to meet the need.”

Putting the “chicken/egg” question aside for now, at the same time city halls and state governments and school districts were implementing this new service “ethic”, we, as citizens allowed our consumerist values to poison how we interact with our governing institutions. The highly respected City Manager of nearby Ventura, Rick Cole, uses the “vending machine/customer” metaphor to describe what has become the de facto relationship between citizens and their governing institutions. As Cole tells it, “the unspoken mindset of many of our customers (italics mine) is that local government is like a vending machine. You put your money in the slot and expect to receive the goods and services you desire.” Instead of regarding our governing institutions as enforcers of laws and protectors of freedoms, which can be used to participate in civil society, we see an increasing dependence on governments as the sole service provider – taxes have become the bills we pay in transacting this business. “We the People”, have become “We the Customers” – and yes, we want fries with that!

The costs to community from this process have been relegated to nostalgia, but as they have become fiscal, governments and citizens are being forced to review and change their relationship.  One wonders if the present national economic calamity, which has been caused in part by this “service ideology”, might also be the “stimulus” for a new awakening in communities around the country, as our governments draw back from spheres they have recently come to inhabit. As Mayor Dennis Donohue of John Steinbeck’s hometown, Salinas, recently told me: “The gap between service expectations by the public and the public sector’s inability to deliver those services needs to be bridged.”  This comes from a man who leads a city with a $20MM deficit, and incredible gang problems.

But “bridges” are built from both banks, and stories – some heart-warming, some breathtaking – from Maryland to Kauai demonstrate that, when left to their own devices by their cash-strapped governments, Americans still know how to use them. In all of these instances, the absence of government ignited community with face-to-face relationships built around modern-day barn-raisings – tremendous examples of self-interest rightly understood.

Through one lens this is a uniquely American dilemma, through another it is uniquely modern – even current. Our deficit-riddled governments – from Claremont to Washington, DC – wrestle as never before over questions about the roles they will play and the services they will provide. Tocqueville who famously remarked, “Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.” The aforementioned Cole believes that while we have moved from citizens to customers, we are not on a path to return to the “rugged individual” citizen status of the 19th century and earlier. Instead, we are moving into a new period of “customer-citizens”.

After all, from driver’s licenses to building permits to passports, we will continue to interact with some of our governing institutions as clients, expecting short lines and prompt service – even if we rarely receive it. Still, on a growing number of issues – ranging from education (charter and home-schooling) to public safety (neighborhood watches and church-based prisoner re-entry programs) to even some infrastructure projects (see Kauai story above) – citizens and governments are mediating a new relationship. One in which governments returns to their convening roles, and citizens return to communities founded in self-governance.

Pete Peterson is executive director of Common Sense California, a multi-partisan organization that supports citizen participation in policymaking (his views do not necessarily represent those of CSC). He also lectures on State & Local Governance at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Pete, as I read your essay I began to wonder what functional meanings people have for “public,” as in “public schools” and “the public interest” and “public opinion.” What relationship have governments to the public, either in constituting them or reflecting them or doing their will? The answers to the question “what should government do?” depend on how it fits into our definitions of the public.

  2. Thanks for reading, Ted. The questions of definition when it comes the “public” vs “government” are important, but the greater thrust of my piece here is describe an environment in which these questions are increasingly obviated by the financial crisis.

    Though somewhat anomalous, the Kauai story I cite illustrates a trend I’m seeing at the local government level here in California where necessary service roles – from road-building to safety – have been assumed by governing institutions, which can no longer fulfill these responsibilities. My discussion of the “citizen to customer” trend is meant to show that this condition has not been foisted upon us by the “Leviathan” state, but has been welcomed by we citizens who have grown to treat our governing institutions as mere service providers.

    Newsweek’s Robert Samuelson wrote this about the California situation yesterday, “So California is stretched between a precarious economy and a strong popular desire for government.” Obviously, this has proven, to borrow a term, “unsusatainable”.

    Without meaning to sound melodramatic, I see a fundamental restructuring of the citizen/government relationship – at the local, State, and Federal levels in our present and future. And in this “reshuffling” lies a tremendous opportunity for building community – not just out of common ties of ethnicity and history, but, more effectively, out of common work that will need to be done.

  3. Pete, great essay!
    “…I see a fundamental restructuring of the citizen/government relationship – at the local, State, and Federal levels in our present and future. And in this “reshuffling” lies a tremendous opportunity for building community – not just out of common ties of ethnicity and history, but, more effectively, out of common work that will need to be done.”
    But the Obama administration is trying to expand the role of the federal gov’t. Is this going to result in conflict between the various levels of gov’t, and how is this to be paid for, raising taxes will only prolonging Obama’s depression? Or is that the objective?

  4. How beautifully insidious! Depressing the economy to increase community-building…brilliant!

    Sadly, I don’t think this theory is operative here…

    Now, your question about “Federalism” is particularly pertinent. In California, one of the central policy questions in light of the current deficit falls under the rubric of “regionalism”. Specifically, there are a number of reform organizations (including the one I work with) that are wrestling over the basic question: who does what? In California, it has never been a better time to be Federalist. When I hear my highly-placed left/center colleagues pushing to “devolve power”, I know we have moved into a new era of governance.

    These discussions have brought to light a number of overlapping/duplicative service provision arrangements between the State, counties, and cities. Simply put, over the last several decades, political power has centralized in Sacramento. These policy discussions have not only looked at a re-configuring of service responsibilities, but, at the local level, these conversations have involved pushing more duties onto civil society. Again, this is happening out of fiscal necessity.

    Obviously, this move to devolve and decentralize flies in the face of many of the programs we’re seeing coming out of Washington, DC. I think the Administration is fighting gravity here, but am willing to be proven wrong.

  5. “These discussions have brought to light a number of overlapping/duplicative service provision arrangements between the State, counties, and cities.”
    Well, that’s a surprise! However, I imagine you’re doing God’s work trying to save California and congrats on uncovering (and I hope that’s not to strong a word) the “overlapping…” services. I do hope you might share with us here at FPR your adventures in gov’t!
    “How beautifully insidious! Depressing the economy to increase community-building…brilliant!” I really don’t think our community organizing president has any interest in “community building,” do you?

  6. “Customer Citizens”…as though the citizenry of a republic can be fully described in the act of tramping up and down aisles, placing the packaged products of the Government Emporium in one’s shopping cart before going to “check-out” and charging the cost away.

    Consumerism is the new Pagan Religion and Government is it’s great priesthood. Legislation , of course, is this Pagan Host’s Liturgy, providing thousand page documents that nobody reads but everyone burns incense in tribute too nonetheless.

    All Pagan Religions generally resort to human sacrifice and this one is no different, crafting two temples for the blood-letting..one being the Pentagon and the other being the overall trend to inculcate a sense of helplessness on the part of the citizen. It’s a cozy deal, Corporations finance the Priesthood while the Priesthood appears in public to inveigh against the evil corporations and reassure the poor flummoxed public that the Priesthood is there to protect them. Later, the Priesthood and their Financiers assemble over cocktails to review just how easy it is to run a nation of superstitious fools into the ground.

    I do believe there is a near perfect record of these kinds of Pagan-State combines going down in destructive and precipitous flames , leaving “localism” to its default devices largely occupied with survival. The howler of the Age is that our notions of independence and happiness are a fleeting mirage distracted by an excess of Votive Offerings bought on time.

  7. “I really don’t think our community organizing president has any interest in “community building,” do you?”

    That, Bob, sounds like a great premise for a new essay!

    Suffice it to say, I have two problems with many community organizers:
    1. They’re never elected, but pretend to represent the will of “the people”.
    2. They’re never wrong.

    I am seeing some of these qualities in the DNC’s “Organizing for America” campaign…something’s ironic about a “grassroots” campaign coordinated from DNC HQ in DC…

  8. Pete, I do look forward to the essay and, yes, I was trying to raise your ire, although in a friendly way! Also, please note that you earned a response from D.W., always a good sign!
    Re: the Commie-Dem’s latest escapade with their congress-people being assailed by angry Americans, I find their response inchoate and stooopid. And, I’d thought the GOP was the “stupid party,” if I may quote the immortal Sam Francis. BTW, please send along my regards to Mr. Keinker (sp).

  9. Pete,

    You might be interested in checking out the documentary “The Unforeseen”. It is about the Barton Springs controversy that erupted in the late 1970’s between Austin residents and developers. The residents fought to keep the vibrancy of Barton Springs alive, while the developers fought to develop the largest suburban housing development in the city’s history, which was to be situated directly upstream of the spring.

    The interesting part is the community that formed around the spring. It was a gathering place for Austin residents looking to relax and rejuvinate, and to meet up with friends and other locals. Their was (is) a community that is centralized around, and a result of, Barton Springs. I thought it was an interesting commentary on the reasons for community, as well as caring for our environment and bottom-line suburban sprawl.

  10. Cheeks,
    Regarding the current agitators at Summer Recess local Congressional Meetings, I’m left with another vague feeling that these mobs are just another flavor of rubes activated by Insider Washington Forces who will use them as though they were part of a Foosball game before casting them aside once their real purpose had been satisfied.

    Unfortunately, this kind of opposition to Washington is long overdue but it should be ACROSS THE BOARD, Bi-partisan and in a take no prisoners mode. The current scene may involve a bit of that kind of fitting response to a government gone narcissistically mad but rest assured, it is a caricatured and thoroughly staged and manipulated version of what should really be happening and with our media the way it is….the PR wing of the Rotting Imperial Edifice…these agitators will be made to look ridiculous, thus branding all concerted opposition as ridiculous.

    But then, with the opposition party , the drunken GOP in the state it is in, what else could be expected than this little sideshow of shouting and stamping feet?

    Informed and Principled Discourse, of course …is a thing of the past

  11. D.W.,

    I’m not aware that those heroic souls seeking redress from the commie-Dems and their punitive “health-care plan (HCP)” have been organized by either the insurance industry, GOP (which can’t organize a circle….), or any other right wing organization. It seems rather spontaneous to me, at least most of it.
    I called my congressman, Charlie Wilson’s office today and there ain’t no way he’s showing his head in the district. His aide told me he “hadn’t made his mind up” but the truth is he’s Nancy Pelosi’s bitch-boy!
    No, dude, people are pissed. I know democrats that when the find out what’s in His Holiness’s HCP go beserk! I believe this is serious and if the stoopid dems mishandle this it could get real weird, real quick.
    The longer this goes on, the more the ‘people’ find out, and even democrats can figure things out after a while, the bigger it’ll get.
    What are you gonna do if your wife, God forbid, gets ill and you can’t get her health care because of this plan?
    And trust me, The Enlightened One does not seek “informed and principled discourse” on this matter…he just wants to shove down your throat!
    Join me at the barricades!

    I’m thinkin’ of filing for an independent run for the congressional district. If I get elected I’ll have the POMo’s and Porchers down for cigars and whiskey!

  12. Cheeks, My wife will never get sick before me because I deliver a bigger life insurance payout upon croaking and so , always the good business woman, she will cash me out first, long before admitting any illness of her own. At that juncture, I will be beyond the best attentions of this thoroughly bollocksed Government and its many Gran Mal Seizure Plans.

    You know, in the old days, the Democrats at least could assemble some muscle out of the urban wards to crack heads but now a bunch of angry country folk scare them witless….or shall we say, more witless than they already is.

    Still, I wish we could develop a bipartisan front against the manifest foolishness of this government in EVERYTHING it does..besides adjourning.

  13. Well, in terms of a ‘bi-partisan’ front now’s the time. I was at the Lisbon Tea Party and half the people there were my union bros from Lordstown.

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