Citizens of the CommonwealthMarch 30th, 2011
Will O’Brien is a member of the Project H.O.M.E. community, where he serves as Special Projects Coordinator.
We received an email at the office several days ago, one that had been making the virtual circuit among liberal and progressive types. It was the text of a speech by Michael Moore, the popular filmmaker and celebrity radical. He had come to Wisconsin in the throes of the political battle over the Governor’s proposal to curtail public employees’ collective bargaining rights. True to form, his words were firey and provocative.
Moore was raising the issue of the ever-growing chasm of wealth inequities in our country. One figure he cited could certainly make one blanch: The 400 richest Americans have as much wealth as half of all Americans combined.
Whether these exact figures are accurate would need some corroboration, but the fact of growing wealth disparities is certainly a real trend in this country, and one that should concern us all. But how we choose to approach this issue is important. On all sides of the political fracas we hear cries of “class warfare.” Conservatives and moderates decry critics like Moore, saying they are inflaming class warfare through a blame-the-rich, soak-the-rich approach to public policy. Moore and his compadres on the left, meanwhile, assert that the rich are the ones who instigated the class warfare through a systematic plunder of the public wealth and support of policies that hurt the middle class and those on the bottom. And so it goes, back and forth, critique and counter-critique, ever partisan, ever polarized, ever poisoning of our political culture.
Let’s step aside from the scorched-earth debate and consider a very different way to think about these issues. At Project H.O.M.E., as our friends and supporters know all too well, we put a high premium on community. We speak of people from all walks of life being part of a community of hope, all engaged in the work of healing our society, all on a common journey home. In considering our broader political discourse, we might suggest that a very different and perhaps helpful image is one from our cultural and political history, but one shrouded in some obscurity: the Commonwealth.
The word comes out of the English political tradition, meaning a political community founded for the common good. It also developed the meaning of a political system in which power was invested in the people, but again with the purpose of fostering the common “wealth” or well-being. Four U.S. states are legally designated commonwealths, including our own Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Massachusetts constitution describes its commonwealth in these words: “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.”
While the United States constitution never opted for the legal definition of commonwealth, the tradition is evoked in the phrase from the preamble delineating one of the purposes of the government, “to promote the general welfare” (the word “welfare” being a linguistic cousin of “weal” or “wealth” or “well-being”).
The commonwealth is a richly evocative image. It suggests that, far from being an aggregate of atomistic individuals each pursuing our unique destinies and living our separate lives, we all participate in a multi-dimensional and highly interwoven web of civic and economic activity, to which we all contribute, from which we all benefit. It is also descriptive of undeniable truths about our common life: None of us really picks ourselves up by our own proverbial bootstraps – we make our way in life dependent on public systems and institutions and structures. Power grids, financial systems, educational opportunities, commercial regulations, traffic laws – all of these emerge out of citizen covenants, all of them make possible both the common good and individual flourishing. Not to mention how our success in life is largely dependent on other people – family, friends, teachers, mentors, colleagues, and others.
Is it possible for us to reframe our political dialogue under the paradigm of the commonwealth? What would it mean if we took seriously that we covenant together as citizens with a shared commitment to the common good? Can we agree that a legitimate role of citizenry and government is to promote the general welfare? Can we approach public policy with a concern for a healthy balance between the common good and individual liberties – rather than assume that the two are mutually opposed?
For instance, in the often venomous debates on budgets currently taking place in state houses and in Congress, a key issue is taxes – raise or lower, who pays, at what rates, what is fair, what is good for the economy. But the very framing of the issue is deeply problematic: The dominant paradigm in American thinking is that taxes are the government taking “our” hard-earned money and giving it to “other” people who didn’t earn and probably don’t deserve it. This way of thinking is fraught with a radical individualism, in which any intrinsic connection between citizens is negligible if not non-existent.
What if we debated the issue of taxes within the framework of the Commonwealth? As unpleasant as they may still be, we would understand taxes as the investment we each make as citizens in the commonwealth, an investment that fosters the common good which in turn further empowers each of us to flourish. We are investing in the various systems, structures, institutions, and initiatives that make our society work – for all of us. We don’t squall that the government is “taking my money,” because we understand that a portion of our income, which is made possible precisely because of a healthy commonwealth, goes back into the sustenance and nurture of the commonwealth, from which we will continue to benefit, at least indirectly.
At Project H.O.M.E., part of our budget includes public moneys, derived from taxation, which we use to develop permanent supportive housing, affordable home ownership programs, health, education, and employment programs for adults and youth. We make every effort to be good stewards of that public investment. We are helping to solve some of society’s pressing urban problems. We are enabling persons to move from being needy and unstable to being productive and contributing. In the end we believe that what we do is good for the commonwealth – and that all citizens ultimately benefit.
We are concerned that the hyper-individualistic and hence minimalist approach to taxes is unhealthy for our commonwealth – especially when such an approach invariably forces our elected officials to make severe cuts in programs that assist millions of our fellow citizens. We believe that, guided by the beautiful image of the commonwealth, we can have more productive and fruitful conversations about reasonable and fairly shared levels of taxation and public investments.
Can the notion of a Commonwealth heal our political discourse — and help us move toward a society where we more equitably share in our common bounty?