Saturday, July 04, 2009

Independence Day in Tucson: A celebration of civil society.

Quite a few Tucsonans, having heard that the City government will not fund a fireworks display this year, think that the city will not see a major fireworks display on Independence Day. They're in for a surprise tonight: according to the Daily Star, Tucson Electric Power, the Arizona Builders Alliance, Cox Communications, the Tohono O'Odham Nation, the Pasqua Yaqui tribe, and several anonymous donors, on hearing this news, contributed more than enough to fund the the traditional fireworks show at Sentinel Peak.

It's long been known that government crowds out civil society. (See Russ Roberts's Concise Encyclopedia of Economics article on "charity" for a plain-language introduction, and its bibliography for rigorous development.) If nothing else, when government is allowed to attempt to do "good" beyond a limited scope, the individual's sense of obligation is removed. No longer can one assume that if one doesn't support one's causes, the causes will not receive support. It even becomes cheaper to lobby for government expense on the things one values than to self-fund.

But as the scope of government grows, encroaching on the many functions of civil society, government, charity, and civic life are all broken. Throwing money around substitutes for genuine civic interest and compassion for the poor. The level to which causes and interests are funded becomes dependent not on genuine persuasion of those who pay but rather on appeal to the prejudices of a few opinionmakers in the press and decisionmakers in government. And the number of political issues grows to the point where voting is corrupted and ineffective. The voter concerned about civil liberties, the effectiveness of the criminal justice system or the health of the environment may be canceled out by someone who supports the incumbent because he voted to give a few thousand dollars from the public treasury to support basket-weaving or folk dancing or his favorite charitable aid organization.

Civil society's decline, and the associated corruption of the voting mechanism, can be reversed by a controlled withdrawal of government from activities that aren't governance. We've been seeing that happen out of necessity in Arizona. The private takeover of responsibility for the Independence Day fireworks was but the first conspicuous reclamation of civic life by civil society. As reported on the Desert Lamp, (mining firm) Freeport McMoRan stepped up to fund the University of Arizona Mineral Museum. More examples are certainly to come.

After over a year of war, on 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence from a government which no longer served what, to them, was its purpose. This was no mere separation; the Congress's statements and actions, even as they fall squarely within the English liberal or whiggish tradition, were motivated by radical ideas, such as the republicanism popularized by Thomas Paine. The break was not just with Parliament and the King, but also with Man's past. Strongmen, chieftains, and military commanders became monarchs and nobles, over and over. In the new republic, there were no nobles; all were equal before the law.

Nobility throughout history (and before) was privilege and power, certainly, but it would be inaccurate to say that it was nothing but privilege and power. Military service was expected, as were displays of generosity, support for the arts and sciences, and civic festival and ceremony. Send the tax collectors to terrorize, then hand out denarii at the parade. The expectation of conspicuous generosity from strongmen, chieftains, nobles, and the like is so universal that some have it as a human instinct that continues to influence our voting behavior and our thoughts on leadership.

This expectation carried the day at the Arizona Daily Star, which speaks of a duty of the city government to take action for boost civic bragging rights, and plays up the relatively low cost of a fireworks display, as though it were shaming a stingy nobleman. Instinct or not, this line of thought, lamenting that rulers do not do for us what we can do for ourselves in civil society, is servile.

Among what we threw out on 4 July 1776 was the expectation that civic life would be provided for us by the government. That Tucson's festivities are, even accidentally, in accord with the spirit of the day makes the celebration so much sweeter.

I wish the readers of Goldwater State a safe, happy, and free Independence Day. (Take Evan Lisull's advice if you encounter any swarms of officers!)

No comments: