Confessions of a Bad Citizen

I have been a bad citizen most of my life. Not that I willfully broke laws like robbing banks or cheating on taxes, but because I did not realize that a free society is not a free ride.

It had not occurred to me that freedom entailed obligations which entailed effort. I don’t mean the effort to go out and earn an “I Voted” sticker. I mean the effort to understand the principles underlying our form of government and how they should apply; the effort to understand the issues that arise and how to view them in the light of these principles and of human nature and of the promises of contending candidates; and the effort to be aware of the politicians’ actual behavior and keep them accountable.

I tended to vote for “What’s in it for me,” or “What makes me feel good,” or just because Foghorn had more signs up than Blowhard. After I voted, I did not follow up. Is the feel good legislation working? Were the bennies for me doing harm elsewhere? Were they constitutionally or morally justified? Such thoughts never crossed my mind. I was a bad citizen. Unfortunately, I have not only been a bad citizen, I have been a very typical citizen. Which begs a question; what, then is a Good Citizen?

It seems to me that a good citizen in one who does the things I didn’t do. I some respects, I think us typical bad citizens didn’t do these things because they have become harder to do. Why? Unlike our ancestors,

  1. We are poorly educated in citizenship. If you’re under fifty, the odds are pretty good (and they go up the younger you are) that you were poorly educated on how our government is supposed to work, why it was designed that way, its underlying principles, and the role of a citizen in making it work. I don’t have this excuse – but maybe I was on the cutting edge of poor learning.
  2. We are ensnared in a world of distractions, a world of instant communication, deluged with information and entertainment. We’re like minnows trying to swallow an ocean – and so bombarded that we are suffering from Attention Deficit Syndrome at the same time.
  3. We are living in a more complex and faster paced world with competing ideologies, faiths, and world-views where a disturbance on the other side of the world can rapidly affect us with problems that are subtle and hard to grasp and problems that are stark and hard to face.
  4. We are living in a world of political correctness where in too many cases, to express a differing opinion is “offensive” or “hateful” and we are increasingly accustomed to avoiding topics where someone might find a less than politically correct fact or argument “offensive” particularly because the politically correct feel free to attack the person, not the argument.
Perhaps this complexity and speed means we should leave it to experts and many argue for the equivalent. This would mean “government of the people by the experts for the people.” But human nature dictates that such an arrangement is virtually certain to soon become “government of the people, by the experts for the experts.” Worse, history shows those “experts” are far more likely to be a “crony” than an “expert.”

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois titled The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions where he said,

“As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.” 

In the modern complex world, can a citizen with a reasonable education but no great time to spend becoming expert on issues come to reasonable conclusions on public policy and cultural issues? If not, then a free civil society cannot endure modernity. If so, then a free, civil society remains possible but as citizens we must then figure out how to think critically and engage in reasonable discourse so we can direct our politicians. Then can we change from being bad citizens to good citizens.

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