I read an article this morning that considered a recent book The Consumer Citizen by Ethan Porter. The gist of Porter’s argument is that Americans don’t think like citizens but rather consumers. The difference is that citizenship implies responsibilities and sacrifices while consumerism implies a cost-benefit trade off. Porter’s proposed solution appears to be adjusting government to the consumer mindset.
Porter is right that government is not a business. In its most basic formulation government is an organized monopoly of force. Beyond that lies the question of why government exists. Why do the masses grant government a monopoly of force? The fundamental answer is that a contract exists between the government and the people. This is true to some extent in every configuration of government, but particularly so in a liberal democracy. The people surrender some of their liberty in order to protect all of their liberty. The modern liberal conception of the reason for government is to protect liberty, meaning, mostly, natural rights. In order to be able to accomplish its mission it requires support from the people in terms of taxation and other considerations. The government does not exist separately from the people, it reflects the will of the people.
The United States’ system was heavily influenced by Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. Locke describes the origins of government arising out of a need to protect private property. According to Locke people needing protection of their property banded together to protect each other. As time passed these people erected a government to protect them, given the means to do so by voluntary surrender of liberty in the form of taxes and compliance with government stipulations. Locke argues that If the government fails in its responsibility to protect liberty and instead threatens it, by infringing on the people’s rights (such as seizing private property without popular approval or imprisonment or forced labor without due process), it is the right (some would argue the duty) of the people to abolish that government and erect a new one. The model for this, again, is the American Revolution. Britain taxed Americans without their consent, and the Americans threw off British rule. In all of this, “the people” are supreme, hence popular sovereignty
Sovereignty does not imply the provision of goods and services in return for monetary gain. Sovereignty implies a responsibility to protect and advance the public good. Popular sovereignty (rule by the people) implies that the people have an obligation to act in favor of the common good. Individual taxation and other acts of citizenship are not payment for goods contracted by the individual, they arise from the responsibility to act for the public good.
One thing that Porter notes is that Americans think of government in terms of cost-benefit. What am I receiving for my taxes? As Porter says:
Imagine a person who leaves work on Friday to get his biweekly paycheck and finds that some of the money is already removed for taxes. He feels it as a sort of cost that government is imposing upon him. Over the weekend, he takes his wife out to dinner. Working around the house, he pulls his back, so he takes a painkiller. He takes his kids to the park. He’s actually constantly receiving government benefits, but it’s really unlikely he’s actually going to understand those benefits come from government. So, as a consumer, he feels ripped off.
As a consumer, he says, well I paid for something on Friday, I paid money to the government and I’m not getting any benefits.
Porter suggests that one remedy is for government to rearrange itself to accommodate this mindset, for example by advertising its services, much like the signs along stretches of highway under construction saying “Your tax dollars at work.” It’s not a bad idea to advertise but government services are not created and administered for individual consumers. The government doesn’t build a road or a park to serve one person. It builds them to serve everyone, sometimes regardless of their ability to pay. The teenager who doesn’t earn enough to pay taxes has as much right to use the parks and roads as the person who pays thousands of dollars in taxes every year. No business could survive this way. The founders did not devise and could not have imagined a government that existed to serve customers.
Every student of US history since at least the 1970s knows that the our government was originally created by property owning white men for property owning white men. The fact is almost always associated with racism, misogyny, and greed of white property owning males. To whatever extent that association is true, it obscures that the ethos of the time equated civic responsibility with the ownership of a stake in society. The thinking was that those who didn’t own a stake shouldn’t be able to help decide. At the time the Constitution went into effect only white men could own property, hence they were the ones upon whom the responsibility of protecting property was conferred. This was true not just in the United States but in all of the nascent democracies of the era. It wasn’t until decades after the revolution that citizenship came to consist of more than just owning property.
Civic responsibility incurs costs beyond the payment of taxes. The old cliché “freedom isn’t free” in the contemporary mind reflects patriotic pride in public servants (mostly military) who sacrifice to maintain our freedom and safety. Freedom isn’t free, but in our minds the sacrifice is made by someone else. I pay my taxes, and the government funds the military. But citizenship involves more than reluctantly writing a check to the IRS. It means devoting time and effort into imagining how the common welfare can be translated into public policy. A citizen’s vote should reflect that effort, and it is an effort. A vote should not just be a bid for goods and services for self. Citizenship requires sacrifice. Go ahead and dismiss the idea by saying “OK boomer,” but the boomer generation was educated into this mindset. For whatever reason succeeding generations appear not to have been.
Government is not a business and shouldn’t try to be. Government, at its best, is the reflection of the will of civic minded people seeking what is best for the community. Not my community, but the community. If we want better government, we have to become better citizens.