If you had told a 19th-century American that the federal government had been forced into a partial shutdown, he or she would have probably stared at you blankly for a moment, then shrugged and said "So what?"
Today, of course, the reaction is a bit different. Washington, D.C., and its dealings, or lack thereof, are the favorite topic of conversation among the chattering class. Those of us who are constantly exposed to their diatribes through the spoken, printed and digitized word can’t help but believe that if Washington is not working, America itself is on the verge of collapse. Though all around us we see evidence that life, indeed, does go on without the blessing of the federal government, we can’t help but be uneasy. Disaster is right around the corner, right?
Though modern Americans have been trained to look to Washington first whenever there is a problem, in truth there are many ways to meet challenges, most of which do not involve government at all.
In civil society we have families, neighbors, friends, church communities, civic organizations and charitable groups among which to help and be helped. With such a cornucopia of options, it’s a shame that government even comes to mind when solutions are sought.
Some would argue government is the most efficient way to centralize and solve problems. I would vehemently disagree with that (the health insurance exchange debacle comes to mind) but even if we cede that point, is efficiency always the most desirable outcome?
Perhaps when the focus is primarily material, but if the long-term well-being of individuals and society are considered it seems the personal and societal growth that comes through organic, creative community-based actions benefits everyone now and later.
Too many of today’s centralized, top-down solutions involve taking money from one group and giving it to another, with a big chunk skimmed off the top for bureaucrats and politicians. There is no personal interaction, no sense of gratitude, appreciation or obligation and everyone is left dissatisfied. What’s worse, the problems are never truly solved -- more money is always needed. Eventually the money runs out and we have places like Detroit, a city that is currently bankrupt.
Detroit’s bankruptcy has resulted in few city services. Despite this lack, people continue to live and work in Detroit. Since they know they can’t rely on government to solve problems, many residents are taking matters into their own hands. People such as Tom Nardone, who hated to see the parks and playgrounds in his neighborhood fall into disrepair when the city stopped maintaining them. He was pleasantly surprised when dozens of volunteers answered his invitation to take this task on.
Now "The Mower Gang" regularly "kicks grass" around Detroit’s abandoned parks with semi-monthly mowing parties and other improvement projects. Sure, it helps the kids but it is arguably the adults who really benefit as they build friendships and leave a legacy of community service. The Mower Gang is a timely example of achieving cooperation without coercion.
This used to be the American way. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked upon it in "Democracy in America," his 1831 treatise on life in our then-young republic. Americans of all ages, conditions and dispositions formed numerous and diverse association, Tocqueville observed, accomplishing everything from building inns and churches to circulating books, founding hospitals and hosting entertainments.
"I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion," Tocqueville wrote. "And I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them to voluntarily pursue it."
We have been robbed of our cultural heritage by a large, centralized government which insists on trying to do everything and then holds us hostage when the political process fails. The wheels of this most recent failure were set in motion several years ago when an unpopular law with the Orwellian name of the Affordable Care Act was muscled through without bipartisan support. Legislation that initiates sweeping social change requires unity and Obamacare has never achieved that. It doesn’t help that many are being exempted from the law such as certain corporations, some unions and even government workers. The divide between the ruling elite and the rest of us continues to widen and such events as the current government shutdown are merely symptoms of how far we have strayed from our foundational moorings.
This is one crisis, though, which truly shouldn’t go to waste. The Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of two characters, one representing opportunity and the other meaning danger. The opportunity before Americans is to take back our place as proponents of a robust civil society in which families, churches, neighborhoods and community organizations once again provide the bulk of assistance and service. The danger is that the more we take care of ourselves and each other the more we’ll discover we don’t need Washington nearly as much as they want us to believe.
Banner columnist Audrey Pietrucha is a member of the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at email@example.com.