by Dean Wallraff

Res Publica


Res Publica means, literally, "the public thing." The word "republic" has come to mean a system of representational government similar to the Romans'. But for me it's the term that comes to mind when I think of the public, as opposed to the private, side of life.
     Conservatives, seeing it as a necessary evil, want the public thing to be as small as possible. Many of my fellow citizens share this point of view because, for them, government is just a bundle of services requiring a mandatory subscription fee in the form of taxes. They just want more services for less money, and, above all, a choice about what services to buy, and from whom. "Why should I pay taxes for public education when I can buy a better education for less money from a private school?"
     This is a sleight of hand, focusing our attention on the services aspect of government while conservatives and their big-business cronies manipulate rules and policies to further their own interests. Corporate interests benefit when citizens are uninvolved in their government.
     There are some functions that must be performed by government, for example, foreign affairs, national defense, maintaining a framework of laws. How much more than the minimum should government do? The decision could be based on:

  • whether the government can perform a needed function more efficiently or effectively than private parties;
  • whether we can achieve a more just and equitable result when government performs the function;
  • whether we, collectively, want to undertake a project, as a nation, state or city.

     The first two are a classic trade-off: fairness versus efficiency. I'm not convinced that the private sector can do everything more efficiently. For example, most county recorders maintain antiquated systems, using paper files or microfilm, making it very time-consuming for citizens to do real-estate title searches. Private title companies computerize this information for their own use, each one paying to develop its own database and to develop or license software to access it. Wouldn't it be cheaper and better for everyone (except the title companies) if the counties developed their own systems, and paid for the project by charging a small fee for title searches? The current system allows title companies to profit from their de-facto monopoly on this public information.
     National parks are an example of the third item listed above. We decided as a nation that we should preserve some of the most beautiful landscapes in our country for all to own in common and to enjoy. Could this be privatised? Yes, but we might end up with condos in the Grand Canyon.
     Most Americans I know don't participate in public affairs. They relate to the public sphere as a child relates to its parents, seeing it as a largely incomprehensible matrix, arbitrary and all-powerful, that sets the rules that they must play within – or break without getting caught – to win the game and maximize their personal gain. The more politically involved pay just enough attention to public affairs to vote intelligently in the presidential election.
     Increased citizen participation in government would give citizens more ownership and involvement in the res publica. One way to achieve this would be to run the government, at least partly, with volunteers, and to reward the volunteers with tax credits.
     The Sierra Club provides an example of how this might work (mutatis mutandis). Its Los Angeles Chapter has a paid staff of seven, but hundreds of volunteer activists work from five to a hundred hours per month on conservation campaigns, which they organize and lead. Staff provides structure, stability and expertise, but staff is not in charge – they are managed by the volunteers.
     We couldn't structure government this way, of course; it would be impractical to fill the Secretary of Labor position with three volunteers, each working 15 hours/week. Using volunteers to do work in government would add overhead, some of it due to the part-time status of the workers, some of it because the traditional means of employee discipline such as firing and demotion don't work with volunteers. But it would allow many citizens to see inside our government, and make them feel more like participants, instead of involuntary purchasers of government services. This program could be carried out by states as well as the federal government.
     Until such programs are enacted, there are many important (but unpaid) volunteer opportunities, as citizen overseers of government. Business entities such as large corporations and housing developers are deeply engaged with government at all levels because they realize the importance to them of the rules made by government. Individual citizens do this to a much smaller degree, although we collectively deserve a much larger say in the policies and working of our res publica than businesses. It's easy to do: find a public issue you care about, then contact the public officials and other individuals dealing with it, and get to work to improve things. Not only is it personally satisfying to work for the common good, but you'll be part of a community that cares about and contributes to our res publica.

Copyright © 2000 - 2008 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.