November 4, 2002
LESS IS MORE:From Citizens To Customers, Losing Our Collective Voice (Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg, November 3, 2002, The Washington Post)
Little more than a year ago, Americans rose up in outrage and grief to affirm their national solidarity in the face of a murderous attack on their fellow citizens. In Tuesday's midterm elections, most of us won't bother to show up. Not even al Qaeda's galvanizing assault can reverse a half-century of declining interest -- especially among younger voters -- in choosing our leaders.
We are watching the slow-motion collapse of American citizenship. For more than two centuries, ordinary citizens were important actors on this country's stage. Their vanguard entered political life with a bang in the 18th century, rising up to fire the shot heard 'round the world. Over the ensuing decades, tens of millions more served their revolutionary republic as citizen-soldiers, jurors, taxpayers and citizen-administrators who helped to extend government authority and services across a sparsely populated continent. At the same time, government extended voting rights to citizens once excluded from the electorate.
Now our government no longer needs us. The citizen-soldiers have given way to the professional all-volunteer military and its armada of smart bombs and drone aircraft. The citizen-administrators have disappeared, too, replaced long ago by professional bureaucrats. Americans may still regard each other as fellow citizens with common causes and commitments. But the candidates seeking votes on Tuesday see us as something less: not a coherent public with a collective identity but a swarm of disconnected individuals out to satisfy our personal needs in the political marketplace. We see them, in turn, as boring commercials to be tuned out.
It would be a mistake to conclude, as many commentators do, that Americans are apathetic citizens gone AWOL. But there's no question that the fundamental relationship between citizen and government has changed. Increasingly, public officials regard us as "customers" rather than as citizens, and there are crucial differences between the two. Citizens own the government. Customers just receive services from it. Citizens belong to a political community with a collective existence and public purposes. Customers are individual purchasers seeking the best deal. Customers may receive courteous service, but they do not own the store.
Essays like this one are simply maddening to anyone who takes the issue they raise seriously, because the answers they propose are always so trivial. The collapse of citizenship is a real problem, but voting is its least important manifestation and boosting votership almost entirely insignificant. The answer is not to get more people involved in picking who will run the bloated and antihuman government bureaucracy we've built up, but to dismantle that monstrosity and thereby force people to reconnect with their communities and one another. We are become disconnected individuals precisely because all of our needs are now serviced--however badly--by government. But folks like these essayists somehow imagine that they can have the "best" of both worlds, both a massive social welfare state and healthy human communities. Rather, as conservatives have been warning for nearly two centuries, it's more likely an either or proposition. Posted by Orrin Judd at November 4, 2002 7:45 PM