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September 15, 2003

Public participation and the war on terror

Influenced by Harry Boyte, I believe that opportunities for people to contribute public goods have shrunk over the last century. Government is increasingly "rational" (in Weber's sense): this means that important functions are divided into specialized tasks and assigned to experts, who are given minimal discretion. The government as a whole does good, but relatively few people can gain deep personal satisfaction from their own public service. Meanwhile, the private sector grows ever more efficient and competitive. As a result, there are few niches for people who want to work in business for partly public purposes. (An example would be the demise of the old publishing houses, which were "for profit," but not very efficient about it; editors saw themselves mainly as friends of literature.)

The loss of opportunities for public work is unfortunate, because we waste the talents and energies of millions of citizens. It also means that people lose the very special satisfaction that comes from creating public goods. And I believe that it partly explains the decline of other forms of citizenship, such as voting and reading the newspaper. People who don't make public goods are less likely to participate in other ways.

Now we face a national crisis, terrorism, and it seems worthwhile to look for opportunities to involve many citizens in significant public work. Only an expert on national security could tell us what jobs people are equipped to do. Spying on our fellow citizens is not a good idea (the damage to privacy and due process is too great). Thus I offer some very ill-informed ideas about some other roles that citizens might play. My main goal here is to provoke others to think of better ideas:

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