seeing like a citizen

(New York City)

How a state sees: A state establishes a boundary around its jurisdiction and counts and classifies the land, people, and property within that bound. The Lord tells Moses: “Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls” (Numbers 1:2). Near the beginning of Luke, we are told, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The emperor needed information, and the people complied: “All went to be taxed, every one into his own city” (Luke 2:1-3). And not long after William the Conqueror seized England, he “sent his men over all England, into every shire, and caused them to ascertain how many hundred hides of land it contained, and what lands the king possessed therein, what cattle there were in the several counties, and how much revenue he ought to receive yearly from each” (Giles 1914, A1085).

What is counted and categorized can be taxed and regulated–ideally, in the public interest rather than the self-interest of the state. In order for people to determine how their government acts, they too must be counted and categorized: as voters or non-voters, office-holders or independent citizens. Thus the state sees the people as data.

How a market sees: Objects have prices. So does an hour of a person’s time; and since time is the material of a life, life too is priced. Everything with a price is fungible. Anything without a price is invisible. Value is nothing but price, which is a function of several factors, including what people subjectively value or demand. Ultimately there is just one global market, although moving things across borders may have costs.

How a citizen sees: A citizen is someone who–to any degree–seeks to leave the world greater and more beautiful than she found it, to paraphrase the Athenian oath. That involves constantly judging the value of things, organizations, rules, and people. The citizen’s values are heavily influenced by what other people have taught her. But the list of her own judgments is unique, and she has the capacity to shift her own values. She also decides with whom to associate and what issues to address. At any given moment, her current interaction is likely to be bilateral (e.g., she’s reading an email from one person), but everyone has many bilateral relationships, producing a network in which the citizen sits. So her perspective is out into a network of which she is the center. In her vision, the state and the market tend to dissolve into actual people or groups who make decisions.

The citizen is committed to affecting the world. Some important phenomena may be beyond her grasp, so that she sees them but sees no way of changing them. But she is drawn to levers she can pull, handles she can grab onto. To choose an action, she combines value-judgments, factual beliefs, and tactical predictions into a single thought: “It is good for me to do this.”

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.
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