An Argument for More Self-Government

Here’s something the left and the right can agree on: we need a bigger role in solving our collective problems

What do Newt Gingrich and the Obama White House have in common?

Back when he was still a presidential candidate, Gingrich said to his fellow conservatives, “if we shrink government then we have to grow citizens.” Last week, at a forum hosted by the White House Office of Social Innovation, many in attendance said essentially the same thing: we citizens need to take on more responsibility for the common good.

Does this mean Republicans and Democrats are suddenly in violent agreement? No. Gingrich wishes for shrunken government; most of those gathered at the White House last week don’t. But it does mean that the old political frames for defining the role of government are in flux — and that it’s time for all of us to rethink what it means to govern ourselves.

At last week’s forum (which I helped to organize), the unspoken reality was that, like it or not, citizens everywhere now have to do more of what the state used to do. This is partly the result of decimated public sector budgets, and the exit of government from entire lines of civic work such as local courts and road maintenance. But it’s also because technology is rapidly rewriting the relationship between state and citizen.

Consider platforms like SeeClickFix, which allows anyone to post a photo and the location of local problems like potholes or graffiti, and prompts neighbors or town officials to address them. IndieGoGo crowdsources funding for community projects that once might have been publicly funded. Such platforms not only give people power but allow them to see themselves not only as clients or cranky customers but also as responsible co-owners.

Is this trend of more empowered citizens conservative or liberal? Both and neither. It’ll please the right because it shows that given good tools, Americans can do more without the state. It should also please the left, because it reminds us that for change at scale, the state remains indispensable: universal health care, for instance, isn’t going to be crowdfunded voluntarily.

But this trend will also force each side to shed its shibboleths. The right has to recognize that there are collective endeavors that require, well, collective endeavor — which is to say, government. The left has to recognize that doing public work requires less bureaucratic bureaucracies.

A new deal for citizenship is emerging, and it makes the debate about big versus small government seem irrelevant. We need government today that’s big on the what and small on the how — government that sets great goals for society and offers ample resources, but then fosters more bottom-up innovation in methods.

This means we need more competitive challenges such as the X Prize or the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, which offer big monetary awards for teams that solve complex technical or social problems. The administration is already using grand challenges to spur education reform and clean energy development.

It also means redefining public service so there are more ventures like Code for America, which deploys techies into City Hall for a stint. And finally, it means evolving past the usual politics of left and right. We thrive when we have both strong citizens and a smart state, personal and mutual responsibility.

Are Americans prepared to participate in such self-government? Are we ready as citizens to fill the breach?

this op-ed appeared on Time magazine on 7/12/12  Liu is the author of several books, including The Gardens of Democracy and The Accidental Asian. He was a speechwriter and policy adviser to President Clinton.
follow us on facebook and twitter

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.