All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1990

Whats Happened to Community Spirit?

James L. Payne has taught political science at Yale, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, and Texas A&M. He is working on a book on negative effects of tax systems, Hosting the Federal Banquet: The Overhead Cost of Taxation.

Are people as considerate as they used to be? Drive through any large city and you don’t even have to get out of your car to know the answer. You can see the vandalism that has destroyed property, the graffiti that insults the passerby, the litter and trash thoughtlessly thrown, the steel grillwork to check the press of crime. The occasional jogger runs with an attack dog.

What we see in the streets is reflected at other levels of society. Professions that used to be characterized by an ethic of service and self-sacrifice, such as nursing and teaching, are now known for strikes where members abandon their responsibilities for personal gain. Bankers and brokers overlook their fiduciary duties to make personal “killings.” Even our top “public servants,” the Congressmen, are a national scandal, grasping for higher incomes and benefits at the expense of the community. Today, everybody seems to be reading Self magazine.

What can be done about all this selfishness? How can we move toward a society of helpful, caring individuals? Several generations ago, a lot of reform-minded people thought they had the solution. It was government. Government was supposed to amplify our community-oriented impulses in helpful, compassionate programs. Government was supposed to check our self-centered disregard for others and make us behave nicely. Obviously, something is fundamentally wrong with this theory. Over the past century, government helping and correcting programs have multiplied many times over. Yet instead of a society of considerate, sensitive individuals, we have an alarming jungle. What happened?

The answer is that reformers didn’t understand government. They overlooked the fact that government is a coercive institution, that it works by using physical force to push people around: guns, billy clubs, handcuffs, and jails. Once you realize that, you begin to see why government action undermines community spirit. Forcing people to do things, even nice things, does not make them nice; it makes them resentful and self-centered,

Suppose your neighbor has a barking dog that is bothering you. If you take a gun and threaten to kill him and his dog, he will probably do something to end the barking. But is he going to feel helpful toward you in the future? If your battery is dead some freezing night, is he going to get out of bed to give you a jump start?

The same principle applies when “society” uses force. Take a simple example. In 1988, the Internal Revenue Service levied 2,153,000 accounts of some 1,133,000 taxpayers. That is, it sent banks and employers letters demanding money belonging to the taxpayer. Employers and banks complied because the IRS threatened to use force against them if they didn’t.

How did these million-plus taxpayers feel about this? They went to the bank and discovered that their savings were gone, or their checking account was wiped out and their checks were bouncing. Perhaps the levy was an IRS mistake (there are hundreds of thousands of these), but even if it wasn’t, the individual is bound to be angry. Political philosophers may say this seizure process is necessary to enable the government to help the needy, but our taxpayer is not a philosopher. He feels “ripped off,” robbed by “society.”

What, then, will be his attitude toward “society”? As he drives home, is he going to be patient and courteous toward other drivers? Does he feel that it% his duty to make the world a better place for others? More than likely, he is looking for an opportunity to get back at the impersonal “they” who injured him, by defrauding the phone company, or a department store, or a stranger with whom he does business. And so continues the cycle of selfishness and harm, initiated by the government’s use of force.

Federal, state, and local governments are now making wide use of coercion to produce desired behavior in a myriad of activities. Force is being used to dictate hiring and firing decisions. Force is being used to prevent all but officially approved individuals from operating schools, restaurants, bus lines, clinics, beauty salons, and scores of other enterprises. Force is being used, through the government’s legal liability system, to enable individuals to pursue real and imagined grievances against businesses, professionals, and neighbors.

Each instance in which force or the threat of force makes someone do what he didn’t want to do adds to the cynicism. The individual is increasingly persuaded that be lives in a hostile world and must protect himself. And so he indoctrinates his children, his friends and acquaintances: you’ve got to watch out for number one. Talk about helpfulness and self-sacrifice is for saps. The message spreads, even to Congressmen.

How to reverse the process? The answer is simple, but many will have to swallow hard to accept it: recognize what government is. Make explicit the fact that government involves the use of physical force. When, for example, Congress takes up the issue of access for the handicapped, don’t say, “We should use government to help the handicapped.” Say what you mean: “We should use coercion to help the handicapped.”

Once we recognize what government really is, it will be easy to notice how we undermine civility by resorting to it.