Posted by: dacalu | 22 October 2012

The Future of American Community

For the last few posts I’ve been speaking about common property.  It begins with “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”  The last post addressed current problems in the Unites States community.  This post will suggest solutions.

So, what are we to do?  How do we deal with the rise of individualism and the demise of common purpose and common identity.  I have several suggestions:

1) Communication.  Partisanship will not work.  Everyone says it but no-one seems to understand.  I favor the Democratic perspective.  I even think that Republicans have been the worst offenders.  That means I vote Democratic.  BUT I also look for, try to understand and value the things that motivate people who disagree with me.  I value fiscal responsibility.  I value a minimally regulated market.  I like social and moral responsibility.  I will do everything I can to convince you, whichever side you are on (and there are far more than two) to talk to people you disagree with about your priorities.

Don’t jump straight to policy.  Figure out what it is they want.  Figure out what it is you want and see if there is common ground.  Get to know them as people, not as one of them, but as one of US.  Accept that, for good or ill, the U.S. is made up of people – neither more nor less – who strive for at least some common goods.

2) Education.  People are lazy and irrational.  I have a generally high view of human nature, but I also know that our naive intuitions about how to achieve our goals are often completely wrong.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman and Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein for details.)  All of us are subject to error, the more so the less attention we’ve devoted to improving our knowledge and reasoning skills.

Once you know what you want, investigate how to achieve it.  One of my greatest frustrations comes from people clearly expressing intentions I admire then following up with means that simply cannot get them there.  This is not an admonition to the uneducated.  It is an admonition to everyone.  Do the work necessary to understand how the world works.  Just as egregious examples:  Too many Democrats seem oblivious to how the markets work – many “fixes” result in really bad incentives and harm the common wealth.  Too many Republicans seem oblivious to scientific reasoning – it’s an amazingly strong way of understanding the world.

3) Common commitment.  Commit to promoting a stronger civic community by speaking well of our our government, which in the U.S. is US.  Commit to supporting the common purse by paying taxes and taking pride in contributing to something beyond yourself, even when you don’t agree with everything your government does.  Commit to sharing your opinion.  Learn what’s going on and vote in every election you can.  Not voting gives greater weight to the opinions of the people who do.  It’s your money, it should be your voice.  Commit to ministers of government.  That means looking for good people and perhaps running for office.  It means volunteering and holding ministers accountable.  You are part of the process.

4) Commit to a common American narrative.  By all means, help shape it, but you really need to have a common understanding, a common language, and a common community to communicate.  We need to establish, monitor, and (having monitored) trust non-partisan authority figures.  This means scientists and clerics, reporters and teachers.  No, they aren’t all reliable.  Yes, we need to hold them accountable.  We need to be able to change our minds and trust people who change theirs.  We need to be transparent about why we believe what we do and demand justifications and explanations from authority figure.  We need to hold them (and ourselves) accountable to the truth.  That’s going to take work and trust-building.  It will also mean jettisoning with extreme prejudice those authorities who get it wrong and don’t immediately admit it.

It also means public standards of behavior.  Avoid slander not because it’s actionable, but because it’s wrong.  Go one step further; don’t insult people.  Sorry liberals, this means you can’t do whatever you want, even when it doesn’t hurt anyone else.  You’ll have to limit your public behavior for the sake of conservative sensibilities.  Sorry conservatives, this means you cannot presume that the common standards will be ones you’re used to.

5) Compromise.  I can’t say it often enough.  It’s become a dirty word in modern society, but it’s absolutely essential.  Toss morality aside for a moment and think strategy. You want things you cannot get with just half the country on your side.  You want a more perfect union.  You want good roads, telecommunications, a reliable justice system, public health.  You want other people to be educated – even if you don’t want to educate yourself.  You want trade regulated, contracts enforced, measures enforced, stable currency, and regular behavior by banks.  You want the armed forces and the police to protect you from your neighbors.

Add morality and you only multiply the reasons to commit to the common welfare.

6) Balance Powers.  Keep the judiciary strong, with the power to hold executive and legislature accountable to the constitution.  Distribute the wealth.  Yes, really.  I large middle class means a large group of people with leisure and wealth enough to get educated and stay informed.  It also maximizes the number of consumers and keeps the markets healthy.  Educate as many people as possible, because knowledge is power.

Stop talking about whether you’ll compromise and start prioritizing what you want the most.  That’s how democracy gets done.  Our country was founded on common culture, debate, and making deals.  We do not believe that any one person has all the answers.  We believe that wisdom resides in the common will.  As long as America remembers that dream, I will be proud to be an American.


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