music and civic engagement (an analysis of private and public goods with intrinsic value)

A colleague recently suggested an analogy between music and civic engagement, emphasizing that both have been transformed by technological/economic changes, and there is no going back to the old days. We used to get music from recording companies and participate in public life thanks to daily newspapers, unions, grassroots political parties, and durable civic associations. The traditional institutions for both music and citizenship have been replaced by loose networks and individual choice.

We could extend the analogy by noting that civic engagement, like music, can bring satisfaction to the participants. Neither activity is a mere chore to be done to achieve an outcome. In both cases, people may be enthusiastic to participate (or not–their interest varies). Both activities are heavily collaborative. And in both cases, we should welcome a wide range of excellence. The one-in-a-million talent is admirable in politics, as in music, but we also need average people to sing and to express their political views. In both cases, people appreciate excellence better if they also contribute at their own level.

The differences are also worth noting. For one thing, civic engagement has a strong ethical aspect. Mussolini was active and skillful, but he made the world worse. We must able to evaluate civic engagement ethically with attention to means and ends. I would, for example, build into the definition of good engagement a strong desire to understand alternative views. The most ethically demanding aspects of citizenship do not come naturally. Neither does good musicianship, but I think that the ethical demands of citizenship are more onerous than the preconditions of making music.

Also, certain forms of civic engagement are rivalrous or competitive. More engagement by Tea Partiers means less success for liberals, and vice-versa.

Everyone has a right to be heard in the political domain. Although no one is obligated to listen to me sing (an unpleasant experience), my fellow citizens must give me equal time in a public meeting, just because I am a member of their community.

Finally, it is healthy in both civic life and music for people to form smaller communities of interest with diverse styles. However, as long as important decisions are made by governments, the people of each political jurisdiction must sometimes form a single political community to discuss and act on their common fate. In contrast, we never have to bring all the choirs, bands, and orchestras together to make one stream of music.

The differences between music and citizenship mostly point to the need for intervention in the civic domain. I think music will thrive in a world of digital files, free choice, and loose voluntary networks. Civic engagement needs help.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.