Published on Thursday, January 23, 2003 by the Boston Globe
The State of Citizenship
by Robert B. Reich
THE STATE OF THE UNION is an opportunity for the president to rally Americans, but toward what? Throughout history, Americans have spoken in two distinct ways about what we owe one another as members of society. In different periods, one view of citizenship predominates over the other.
The first is the language of shared sacrifice - of honor, duty, and patriotism. We're asked to rise above selfishness and honor the common good. We are in this together and can survive and prosper only to the extent we dedicate ourselves to the public interest. Whether in town meetings or school committees, volunteer fire departments or soup kitchens, we celebrate that which binds us together. America is the land of public-spiritedness.
The ideal of shared sacrifice arises especially in times of war or national economic crisis. In the aftermath of World War II, few questioned that the very rich should pay a high proportion of their incomes in taxes or that every young man should be eligible for the draft. It was thought unseemly for corporate executives to earn vast multiples of the pay of average workers and shameful for corporations to disregard the public interest in favor of shareholder returns.
Government's purpose, likewise, was to act on behalf of the nation as a whole. Democracy was thought to be the means by which we discovered the common good and summoned the fortitude to achieve it.
The other language is that of individual opportunity and personal ambition. Here, our first responsibility as citizens is to do all we can for ourselves and our families. By working hard and striving toward our own private goals, we exemplify the benefits of liberty. In seeking to maximize the our own well-being, we contribute to a strong economy.
Within this ideal of citizenship, the common good is largely the sum of these personal efforts, and the nation's well-being depends primarily on individual enterprise. Corporations should do everything they can to maximize profits. Indeed, the competitive race invigorates all our institutions. Meanwhile, the assumed purpose of government is to maximize individual well-being; citizens are consumers of public services, analogous to consumers in the private sector. Democracy is thought of as a process for reconciling competing claims.
The ideal of personal ambition gains prominence in times of peace and prosperity. The norm of shared sacrifice becomes less powerful because there's less agreement about the common good and less urgency to achieving it.
The past few decades of comparative peace and prosperity have witnessed a gradual decline in the language and ideal of the common good and a corresponding increase in the ideal of personal ambition. By the 1990s the public-spirited heroes of the ''greatest generation'' had been supplanted by the entrepreneurial heroes of the new economy.
Few thought it unseemly for CEOs to earn 400 times the wages of average workers or for corporations to deny responsibilities to the broad public. The era of big government was over, Bill Clinton assured us, to thundering applause.
We now find ourselves in an awkward age, poised between these two conceptions of American citizenship. The legacy of the 1980s and '90s lives on, still giving prominence to opportunity and ambition. The president argues in favor of more tax breaks for the rich, which he says will motivate them to invest and thus spur economic growth. That the gap between the rich and most other Americans is wider than it has been in 60 years and that the gap will widen further as a result of this initiative is assumed to be beside the point.
Yet the new challenges of the 21st century call for shared sacrifice. More than 100,000 Americans are now in the Persian Gulf awaiting further orders. Within the next months it is possible that some of them will be called to risk their lives for their country. This war may not be brief. Surely an occupation of Iraq, if it comes to that, could continue for many years.
We are also called to protect ourselves against terrorism within our borders. The job will require widespread vigilance by American citizens. We will have to join together not only against terrorism but also against any corresponding erosion of civil liberties, undermining of public trust, and unleashing of prejudice and fear.
There is, finally, a distinct possibility that the American economy will stall, or worse. Many Americans may find themselves in economic peril. If so, a central question will be how to spread the burdens. Here again we will be called upon to examine what we owe one another.
If we are to meet these new challenges, the ideal of personal ambition may have to give way, once again, to the ideal of shared sacrifice. The cohesion and moral authority of the nation will depend on it. Our leaders will have to speak the language of civic virtue. As in previous times of crisis, we will be less tolerant of unbridled individualism and ambition, of conspicuous consumption, of greed, and of corporate disavowals of responsibility. We will be summoned to act together on behalf of the common good.
Robert B. Reich, former US secretary of labor, is professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University.
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