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An engaged–not enraged–citizenry

In this morning’s Defining Ideas, Claremont McKenna College political theory professor Mark Blitz has an interesting article discussing the proper role that citizens have to play in their governance. Worrying that “we have let our powers of self-government be usurped by bureaucrats, experts, private interests, unaccountable representatives, and mysterious and uncontrollable social forces,” Blitz calls for public debate to be centered around common-sense ideas that everyone can understand and grapple with. These ideas, he argues, are broad enough to carry real policy implications, but are not so couched in the rhetoric of bureaucracy that lay citizens cannot actively enter the discussion. For example, Blitz writes:

Understanding our ends requires correctly grasping our broad aims of freedom, virtue, and excellence, and our more concrete or immediate goals such as security and health. Much vigorous public debate is about the meaning, rank, and relationship of these ends to each other. How much security of what sort should be risked by how much freedom of speech, care in trials, privacy in activity, and so on. How much health is worth how much funding? How much equality is worth how much excellence? How much safety is worth how much local control? How much military might is worth how much money? How much short-term economic difficulty is worth how much long-term fiscal stability?

These are questions that both technical experts and lay citizens can answer. These are not mere matters of arbitrary speculation; they can be discussed reasonably by all people. Yet, for such discussion we need a thoughtful public characterized by intelligent opinion and virtuous practices. We need a public that seeks to conserve our founding liberties.

The whole thing, well worth reading, can be found here.

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Do Americans still want self-government?

The always-interesting Christopher Caldwell surveys the state of conservatism in the New York Times Book Review. Here’s a key nugget, from his discussion of Angelo Codevilla’s hotly-debated new book, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It:

Codevilla takes seriously the constitutional preoccupations of today’s conservative protesters and their professed desire for enhanced self-rule. He sees that the temptation merely to form “an alternative Ruling Class” in the mirror image of the last one would be self-defeating. Americans must instead reacquire the sinews of self-government, he thinks. Self-government is difficult and time-consuming. If it weren’t, everyone would have it. The “light” social democratic rule that has prevailed for the past 80 years has taken a lot of the burdens of self-government off the shoulders of citizens. They were probably glad to be rid of them. Now, apparently, they are changing their minds.

Codevilla has no illusions about their prospects for success. Americans are not in the position to roll back their politics to before the time when Franklin D. Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson or whoever-you-like ran roughshod over the Yankee yeomanry. Town, county and state governments no longer have much independent political identity. They are mere “conduits for federal mandates,” as Codevilla puts it. He notes that the 132 million Americans who inhabited the country in 1940 could vote on 117,000 school boards, while today a nation of 310 million votes in only 15,000 school districts. Self-rule depends on constitutional prerogatives that have long been revoked, institutions that have long been abandoned and habits of mind that were unlearned long ago. (Not to mention giving up Social Security and Medicare benefits that have already been paid for.) “Does the Country Class really want to govern itself,” Codevilla asks, “or is it just whining for milder taskmasters?”

Read the whole thing.

Image by Sage Ross.

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