04 Aug The state of civic virtue
Is civic virtue alive and well in New Hampshire? This question goes back to our Founders’ belief in a citizen’s role in government, and even further back to the origins of the duties of citizens.
Community service, to put it in perspective, goes back to ancient Rome and Greece. Roman citizens displayed a great sense of pride. When introducing themselves, they identified themselves as citizens of Rome. If I were to introduce myself, “Hi I’m Dave Alcox, and I’m a citizen of New Hampshire,” people would probably think “Wow, we have a live one here.”
Why do we think this? Because no one identifies themselves this way anymore.
Today, we are more apt to identify ourselves and state what we do for jobs. Have we lost that sense of “communitarianism” the Romans so proudly championed?
When leaving the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin referred to the new form of government as a republic. This republic was based on the ideals of the classical republicanism model of ancient Rome. Small uniform communities, moral education and, above all, civic virtue were the three tenets that made up this ancient belief.
Under this belief, people got involved in their communities. They shared common interests, beliefs and values. They taught their children how to be morally competent or, in today’s language, how to play nice in the sandbox. They got involved in voluntary organizations.
This belief was so ingrained in our society that when Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to observe our prison systems, he also marveled over the voluntary associations people formed. In his book Democracy in America, published in 1835, he identified that when people come together for common purposes, they formed active political and civil societies. They put aside self-interests for the common good, which resulted in a sense of enlightened self-interest. He believed “the health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.”
Back then, people still demonstrated the Roman belief of pride in government. State and local governments, the ones closest to the people, were where people had their strongest allegiances.
But are we still demonstrating de Tocqueville’s ideals?
In the first U.S. Census in 1790, New Hampshire’s population was 141,885. In 2015 it was 1,330,608. We’ve grown a lot. Do we still have the tenets of small, uniform communities and civic virtue?
Harvard professor Robert Putnam wrote in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community: “In America, at least, there is reason to suspect that this democratic disarray may be linked to a broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement that began a quarter-century ago. High on the nation’s agenda should be the question of how to reverse these adverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and civic trust.”
In short, nobody’s getting out anymore. Are we staying in because we want to play hours of Candy Crush or Fortnite? Has Netflix turned us into a society of ‘binge watchers’? (Those answers are for another column!)
Here’s the good news though. According to statistics published by Charity Navigator, total giving to charitable organizations in the United States was $410.02 billion in 2017 (2.1% of GDP). This is an increase of 5.2% in current dollars and 3% in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2016. They further state that giving has increased in current dollars every year since 1977, with the exception of three years that saw declines: 1987, 2008 and 2009.
Also, the majority of that giving came from individuals. Specifically, individuals gave $286.65 billion, accounting for 70% of all giving. So on the bright side, we’re giving more money. But are we volunteering and getting involved less? We sometimes hear the phrases, “Sometimes you just have to throw money at a problem” and “I’m so busy in my life, I don’t have time to get involved.”
Here’s the even better news.
According to data supplied by NHnonprofits.org, in 2007 there were 7,817 nonprofits in New Hampshire, and they made up 14.5% of our state’s gross domestic product. Nationally, in 2007, the volunteer rate was roughly 26%, but in New Hampshire it was 31.7%. And, according to the Charities Aid Foundation, a U.K.-based charity organization, in 2017 New Hampshire ranked fourth in volunteering and service and 29th in charitable giving, coming in at 13th overall.
Therefore, at least in New Hampshire, we’re getting involved more by giving our time and energy rather than just tossing money at a problem.
However, don’t be fooled. As James Madison wrote in “Federalist 51”: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control of the government.”
We must continue to be engaged. So far, we in New Hampshire have recognized that. I firmly believe this is what Alexis de Tocqueville recognized as the strength of a republic.
And when it’s all said and done, we’ll have better, more involved citizens who will champion the ideals of classical republicanism and civic virtue.
(Dave Alcox is a Civics teacher at Milford High School.)