an appetite for public work?

The Washington Post interviewed some undecided voters who had watched John Kerry’s convention speech on Thursday. One viewer “said Kerry made her feel that she had a role to play as a citizen. ‘He seemed to be saying we all have to make this happen. Give me a shovel. I want to dig,’ she said. ‘With Bush, it’s like he’s going to take care of it and we’re supposed to go about our business.” Another said: “He was energizing me. I felt like I need to go out and do something for the country.”

I don’t actually see much evidence of this theme in Kerry’s speech; so far, I’m not convinced that he would substantially increase opportunities for citizens to create public goods or to protect America. However, I do find it heartening that people want those opportunities.

The public role of ordinary citizens has shrunk over the last century. This is partly because professionals and experts have taken over many traditional duties of citizens, from managing towns to setting educational policy to lobbying. (Lin Ostrom notes that four percent of American families included a member of a government legislature, council, or board in 1932, compared to roughly one percent today). At the same time, many civic functions have been privatized. For example, Americans often pay companies to provide neighborhood security or to watch their small children.

All that is left for citizens to do is to complain, vote, and volunteer. Volunteering can be valuable, but it is usually squeezed between work and family time. Moreover, conventional volunteering tends to mean direct, face-to-face service that does not change policies or institutions or grant much power to those who participate. A national survey of Americans conducted in 2002 found that many volunteered, at least occasionally, but only 20 percent of the volunteers (and 10 percent of young volunteers) described their participation as a way to address a ?social or political problem.? In a qualitative study of Minnesota citizens completed in 2000, respondents said that volunteering often consigned them ?to positions of mediocrity with the assumption that they lacke[ed] the capacity to work on big issues that impact the community.? At its best, public service is demanding, creative, responsible, serious business.

It is typical not only of the Bush administration but of modern government in general that no one could think of much for citizens to do after 9/11 other than volunteering to help neighbors; shopping to boost GNP; and possibly enlisting in the military. Our 2002 survey found that young Americans wanted to serve, but weren’t actually doing anything more than they had in 2000–probably because no one was asking them to work in demanding ways.

A president who really wanted to increase opportunities for public work could implement many concrete policies to that end. (See “Idea #4” at the end of this mini-essay, and some proposals for getting citizens involved in national security, here.)