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Saturday, February 12, 2005

Citizens or Customers

In Richard Jaeggi’s column in the February Silver Spring Voice we are asked: "Are we citizens or customers of the county?"

After indicating the problems with despotic government, elections, and money in politics, Jaeggi suggests:

"The real danger to self-government, however, is not an American Caeser, or corporate conspiracy or even money politics. The mortal danger to American democracy is indifference."

Jaeggi’s reading of Tocqueville suggests that what we most should fear is something "...beneficent yet more degrading: a centralized government that serves its citizens so completely that their self-determination becomes redundant."

And he quotes Tocqueville for effect:

"The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constatly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents its existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguises, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is shepherd."

The key to the column is that Jaeggi considers Montgomery County to be a perfect example of the impact of this kind of government. While much of the rest of the column goes on to discuss a particular issue on which he wants citizens to become active, the piece is important because it reminds us that democracy is surely a use it or lose it proposition. Are you merely a consumer of government services, or are you contributing to a vital representative government?