Civic Disengagement, Part I

Robert Putnam received a hail of criticism when he released his book Bowling Alone.  Some of it, in my opinion, is justified, but there is a grain of truth in there somewhere.  I do not think that there’s been any great decline in America’s social capital.  The type of community we have here online is a great example of how social networking can change to adapt to changing technology. It’s perhaps a testament to my generation that I don’t know my next door neighbors nearly as well as I know many of you.  But I tend to agree with Putnam that our civil society is in trouble. One major criticism I would make of Generation X and Y, is that we’re probably the most civically disengaged generation in American history.

I don’t think that’s because we’re selfish, spend too much time on the Internet, or play too many video games.  New technology has been distracting people for a long time.  No doubt thousands of years ago, tribe elders expressed concern that Og was more interesting in spending all his time painting up the cave by this newfangled fire, and wasn’t showing any interest in participating the fish cleaning committee.  Putnam was quick to blame technology for the problem, but I don’t think it’s that at all.

When it comes to civic engagement, what has failed our generation is not technology, but government.  High taxes have ensured that people have less free time to spend on civic activity.  Big government has fostered a culture of “let the professionals take care of it” that strongly discourages citizen involvement and participation.  Our public schools, colleges, and universities no longer teach civics and government, and are more interested in turning out people who can fill jobs than they are turning out people who can think, and who can participate in civil society.  We care about issues, we have energy, but because of the lack of understanding of how civil society functions, it gets send in random and unproductive directions much of the time.

I don’t think this was an accident.  Those in positions of power benefit greatly from a passive citizenry.  Politicians like Barack Obama want to force the schools to make us civically engage, and tax us even more.  This is only going to make the problem worse, not better.  Politicians like Obama recognize the problem, but will never accept their philosophy on government is the problem.  The solution is always more government.  It’s always more guys like him either telling people what to do, or even more damaging, taking care of people so they don’t have to take care of themselves.  You will never hear the Barack Obamas of the world talk about tapping the resources and ingenuity of the American people, getting the federal government the hell off their backs, and let people self-organize and self-govern in order to solve problems.  It always has to be experts. It always has to be bureaucrats.  To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that we don’t need them, and their egos and ambitions won’t allow for that.

In Part II, I’ll talk about how I think this kind of civic disengagement is affecting the gun rights movement.

6 Responses to “Civic Disengagement, Part I”

  1. Alan says:

    The US school system was designed to produce a compliant population that would do whatever their political masters told them to do.

    It’s not a secret, the guys setting it up flat out SAID that’s what they were doing.

    I’d say it worked.

  2. Justin Buist says:

    High taxes have ensured that people have less free time to spend on civic activity.

    The way I look at it about half my workday goes toward civic activity in a round-about way.

  3. david foster says:

    I think a big part of it is the attitude that anything important MUST be done by an expert, and ideally a certified expert. See my post arming airline pilots–the deeper issues.

  4. The real issue is the failure of the schools to teach civics. Community disengagement would require a revolution in human nature; community matters as much as it ever has, but technology has liberated community from geography (with consequences that are still unclear). If you’re interested, you might look at the following:

    Steinkuehler, Constance A. and Dmitri Williams (2006), “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as ‘Third Places,’” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11 (July), 885-909.

    It directly addresses Bowling Alone (taking a contrary position, as you might imagine) and is written in pretty accessible style.

  5. Bitter says:

    I don’t think you can blame the public schools completely. It’s not that easy. I come from a small town where it’s very easy to be involved in community groups. They also had an excellent mandatory Civic Education course, and American Government was essentially mandatory because of the lack of other available elective classes. Needless to say, there wasn’t any bias toward larger government. Yet, I see very few of my former classmates involved in the community in any serious way. There’s a couple of girls who married preachers, but that’s the extent of it as far as I know.

    Based on my own background, I think this sense comes from the family. My mom was very active in community service, and I, by default, picked that up after being dragged along for so many years.

    I think the notion of expecting experts in everything is interesting. I don’t know about valid, but it’s an interesting question to think about if we’ve actually taken specialization so far that we must rely on others in order to function in modern civil society, and for consistency’s sake, government can be there to provide that expert to some degree.

  6. Ben Mayer says:

    “Big government has fostered a culture of “let the professionals take care of it” that strongly discourages citizen involvement and participation.”

    I think that “let the professionals take care of it” comes from our society being highly specialized. Very large parts of our society are geared to learn about very specific areas and then do that one thing *very* well.

    People have figured out that there is an expert (or at least some group of people) that knows how to do thing X much better then they do. As a result they call an expert. As an example: I don’t farm or process the food that I eat, I don’t know how to build a refrigerator to keep my food cool, I don’t know how to find or process the metal needed to build a refrigerator, I don’t know how to process water so that it is clean and safe to drink, I don’t work on my car (much), I don’t know how to process the oil that comes out of the ground into gas and oil for my car. On the other hand when I get to work I do a thing that I am very good at and there may only be a few thousand people in the world that can do what I can.

    For everything I don’t know, I pick up the phone or trust the expert via the marketplace. Some people think that others should handle everything in their life, their safety and security, raising their children, etc and then try to build a system of experts to take control of their lives. The problem is that they are doing it via the government and making it required to participate in.