We, the People

It is only now beginning to be talked about, but there is a profound re-formation of American society going on today at the civic level, and it owes a great deal to the advent and spread of relatively inexpensive computer technology.
The personal computer, as well as all the other recent technological innovations, have empowered Americans as never before in human history. And one of the byproducts of this empowerment -- unremarked until now -- is the slowly growing but widespread recognition that those among us who have always wanted to be our masters -- and who have often succeeded via sweeping claims of public need -- have in actuality had at heart little more than their own desire for the exaltation of high office and the exultation of that power. We cannot but see that, despite the confiscation from us, for generations now, of an immense share of the wealth we have created, and despite an infinitude of silly and obtrusive laws and regulations, government has not solved the public problems for which it took our earnings and our freedom. Instead it is overwhelmingly clear that government itself has worsened those problems.
This recognition grows out of our everyday experience: implicitly we compare the standards and norms of performance inherent in the technology we use everyday in the business marketplace with the standards and norms we observe operating in government's sphere. Having been disciplined into clear intelligence by free and competitive innovation in the economy, we look at government and have to laugh.
Or we get angry. And even though such anger tends to produce hand-wringing in the establishment media (with its vested interest in the established power alignments), that anger is turning out to be quite positive. Why? Because the anger is turning out to be the fuel for a local activism that is re-building American civil society.
Richard Harwood, director of a Maryland public issues research firm, identified this trend in a 1991 survey. "It was one of the first reports that people were angry about politics," said Mr. Harwood, who founded the Harwood Group. "But if you asked the same people who said they hated politics, 'Do you care about your community?' they were the same ones who were involved" at the local level.
It was not a paradox. When it is recognized that the government can't solve community problems, the only remaining option, for those who care, is to themselves organize and attack the problems. And that is happening, not only here in Nevada, but all over the country.
"This is the equivalent of a nonviolent revolution," says Franklin Thomas, president of the Ford Foundation in New York, "and it's not very well known. It's people in communities and neighborhoods organizing to cause positive things to happen, feeling the sense of responsibility and not becoming totally subject to the policy whims of any level of government."
With the discrediting of 'big government,' what is rising again in America is the idea of the "civil society," an idea perhaps unfamiliar to many people today but a concept that was once central to American life.
Civil society, or the "civic sector," was the sum of all the community's private and voluntary non-profit institutions: churches, schools, clubs, and all kinds of service groups. In the first century of America, the civil society was an equal player with the private and public sectors, often mediating between the other two. And then, social historians recount, it was increasingly pushed off stage.
Entering the American scene were European collectivist and other ideologies which sniffed at the many voluntary private programs as unenlightened and unscientific. Increasingly, over the coming decades, American elites embraced the essentials of those ideologies, until, ultimately, partisans of the new orientation gained control of American government, and its coercive and taxing powers. The re-direction of national resources and priorities that ensued hollowed out the civic life of American society.
Now, though, precisely out of our experience of the flaws and dangers of government as an instrument of social reform, civil society is rising again.
This movement is unlike other recent social movements, in that it simply has to do with ordinary citizens digging in to deal with today's most pressing issues -- schools, family, crime and safety -- and relying on the tools at hand. One of the most important of those tools, with which community and civil society is being re-built is the Internet, and we'll return to that subject in future editorials.
But for now we'd just like to draw attention to an important precedent this civic revival has -- another era when the dark side of government had recently been seen all too clearly by Americans, and across the United States of that time citizens were re-discovering that the key to addressing community social problems was within themselves.
The spirit that pulsed through that time came forth in memorable words, words that founded a nation.

Those words were:

"We, the People."

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