Good Citizenship Is Out Of Date

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Norms of good cit­i­zen­ship have been de­clin­ing. Th­ese norms are a cru­cial piece of so­cial tech­nol­ogy vi­tal to the health of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and in­sti­tu­tions. While good cit­i­zen­ship norms are cer­tainly still pre­sent in Amer­ica to­day, they are sub­stan­tially weaker than they were in the 1930s-1950s. This is not be­cause of con­tem­po­rary peo­ple’s per­sonal failings; rather, it’s be­cause we’re still op­er­at­ing from a foun­da­tion of norms that were built for the New Deal era, and so are not adapted to to­day’s con­di­tions.

A so­ciety’s norms lead to bet­ter or worse out­comes de­pend­ing on how well they fit the cir­cum­stances. For ex­am­ple, in a small town, po­lite­ness norms of­ten in­volve greet­ing ev­ery­one you pass and some­times chat­ting a bit; this func­tions well be­cause there are few peo­ple and they mostly know and care about each other. In New York City, this would be ut­terly im­prac­ti­cal, so in­stead po­lite­ness norms de­mand ig­nor­ing passersby. Less adap­tive norms will nat­u­rally lose force as peo­ple no­tice that they don’t lead to good out­comes. Norms can be adapted to phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics (like pop­u­la­tion), to the land­scape of in­sti­tu­tions (con­trast Amer­i­can vs Mex­i­can norms of bribing po­lice officers, which are adapted to the lo­cal po­lice in­sti­tu­tions), or even to other norms (con­trast Amer­i­can vs Ja­panese norms of pub­lic clean­li­ness, which are adapted to lo­cal lev­els of con­scien­tious­ness and trust).

In the mid-1900s, the norms of good cit­i­zen­ship were richer and more pow­er­ful than to­day. There was a shared idea that the good cit­i­zen was an ac­tive and in­te­gral part of his or her (norms differed some­what by gen­der, but there was more similar­ity than differ­ence) lo­cal com­mu­nity, as cap­tured by arch-Amer­i­can­ist Nor­man Rock­well in his iconic Free­dom of Speech. The good cit­i­zen was sup­posed to be in­volved with or­ga­niz­ing at least one lo­cal civic or­ga­ni­za­tion, per­haps a church, or a lo­cal re­lief so­ciety, or a fra­ter­nal club like the Shriners. My grand­father made a point of serv­ing on the board of the St. Louis chap­ter of the ACLU and writ­ing in­ces­sant let­ters about lo­cal is­sues to the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch, while his wife was heav­ily in­volved with the St. Louis plane­tar­ium and sci­ence cen­ter. For them, these things were part of a larger pro­ject through which en­gaged cit­i­zens would do their part to bring about a bet­ter world.

(I don’t mean to im­ply that ev­ery­one was always, or even usu­ally, fol­low­ing such norms. For most peo­ple, these things are as­pira­tional, like the con­tem­po­rary norm that one should read the ar­ti­cle be­fore shar­ing an in­flam­ma­tory link. How­ever, even as­pira­tional norms can have a no­table effect on most peo­ple—think of how the idea of home­own­er­ship af­fects even peo­ple who rent, or how the idea of launch­ing a startup af­fects pro­gram­mers who have never founded a com­pany—and an in­fluen­tial minor­ity will make a se­ri­ous pro­ject of liv­ing up to the ideal.)

Over time, so­ciety changed, and the norms be­came less adap­tive and thus less pow­er­ful. For ex­am­ple, 12 An­gry Men, a clas­sic of 1950s Amer­i­can civics, shows how a good ju­ror was meant to be­have: a bulwark of En­light­en­ment jus­tice shield­ing the com­mon man from the pas­sions of the mob, in­de­pen­dent-minded, rea­son­able, and char­i­ta­ble. (I don’t think fic­tion de­ter­mines these pat­terns, but I do think it re­flects them, and some­times crys­tal­lizes them into their most co­her­ent forms.) Since then, as jury tri­als have been drop­ping off in fa­vor of plea bar­gains, these norms have be­come less rele­vant. This pat­tern has played out many times, in ways large and small: some part of so­ciety changes, so the norms re­lat­ing to that part be­come less func­tional or less im­por­tant, and so the norms at­ro­phy.

As a re­sult of this pro­cess, norms of good cit­i­zen­ship are not nearly as satis­fy­ing to as­pire to as they once were. To­day’s cit­i­zen­ship norms tend to be nega­tive rather than pos­i­tive: don’t be racist, don’t dam­age the en­vi­ron­ment, don’t fall for fake news. The few pos­i­tive di­rec­tives tend to ad­vo­cate vague and pas­sive things like “be­ing in­formed”, or at most par­ti­ci­pa­tion in a large face­less mass, such as vot­ing or march­ing in protests. There is no con­cep­tion that a good cit­i­zen should build, in the way that a cit­i­zen of old would as­pire to sup­port the opera house or be a voice at City Coun­cil de­bates or what have you. There are still peo­ple who build lo­cal in­sti­tu­tions, of course, but when I talk to them they mostly seem mo­ti­vated by lo­cal pride, and not by the idea of par­ti­ci­pat­ing in an over­ar­ch­ing na­tional or civ­i­liza­tional pro­ject that mo­ti­vated my grand­father’s gen­er­a­tion. Not co­in­ci­den­tally, this call is now much more rarely felt by up­per-class or up­per-mid­dle class peo­ple, who to­day of­ten see them­selves as too cos­mopoli­tan to be in­volved with lo­cal in­sti­tu­tions.

In Mr. Smith Goes To Wash­ing­ton, note how es­tab­lish­ing that Mr. Smith is a pop­u­lar Boy Scout leader is in­stantly suffi­cient to tell the au­di­ence that he’s an up­stand­ing, com­pe­tent pillar of the com­mu­nity, more wor­thy of power than the cor­rupt in­sid­ers who know how to work the sys­tem. His role as a lo­cal in­sti­tu­tion-builder makes him part of the liv­ing sinew of civic so­ciety, and it is morally right (if not nec­es­sar­ily prac­ti­cal) that he should be­come a Se­na­tor. To­day’s cul­ture doesn’t have any roles with quite the same cachet.

A large rea­son for the de­cline in norms around build­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties is that there is a new source of com­pe­ti­tion for or­ga­ni­za­tional tal­ent: build­ing on­line com­mu­ni­ties. From per­sonal ex­pe­rience, I know that lead­ing lo­cal and on­line com­mu­ni­ties can be so­cially re­ward­ing in similar ways. So, they will draw from a strongly over­lap­ping tal­ent pool. While on­line com­mu­ni­ties fulfill some of the func­tions of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, they don’t fulfill nearly all of them. Build­ing on­line com­mu­ni­ties is not a part of good cit­i­zen­ship ideals in the way that build­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties used to be (try to imag­ine a mod­ern re­make of Mr. Smith Goes To Wash­ing­ton where Mr. Smith is a be­loved fo­rum mod­er­a­tor), largely be­cause we don’t know how to make a com­plete civil so­ciety out of on­line in­sti­tu­tions.

The de­cline of these norms is a loss, and our so­ciety is the poorer for it. How­ever, they can­not be re­stored by sim­ply re­peat­ing what our an­ces­tors did; the rea­son the old norms fell out of fa­vor in the first place is that they are no longer as fit for their pur­pose. If similar norms are to ex­ist in the fu­ture—and I be­lieve they can—then they must be built to func­tion in the so­cial and tech­nolog­i­cal land­scape of to­day.