Monday, October 22, 2012

What William Deresiewicz learned in India about the public household and the public good

In any society, the framework of the public household (to use Daniel Bell's very useful phrase) consists in large part of institutions, mores, and public policies, which need to be informed and supported by an effective sense of national community. But it also has a quite concrete physical and technological infrastructure. In the US we have been letting that run down for decades; and the fact that we've been doing this so heedlessly is one manifestation of a larger moral, political, and intellectual intellectual failure of the American body politic. Even from the perspective of so-called rational self-interest, this course of action (and inaction) represents the opposite of what Tocqueville would call "self-interest properly understood"; it comes closer to what he would describe as short-sighted "narrow individualism" and what C. Wright Mills would call "crackpot realism". The combination of private opulence and public squalor, as we have been warned by a long tradition of civic wisdom running from Roman statesmen through John Kenneth Galbraith, is foolish, shameful, morally and politically corrupting, socially corrosive, and ultimately self-defeating.

The experience of living in India and reflecting on it helped the writer William Deresiewicz to get a deeper understanding of some of these issues with respect to his own society, the United States, and to appreciate their significance. Here is (most of) a brief, thoughtful, and illuminating piece he wrote for The American Scholar earlier this year, nicely subtitled "What I learned in India about the public good" (to which I was alerted by Andrew Sullivan).

Yours for democratic citizenship,
Jeff Weintraub

The blackout in India at the end of July—300 million people without electricity the first day, 670 million the next—reminded me of the year I spent in the country about a decade ago. The power would fail almost every day for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. [....]

We were living in a middle-class suburb of a small city: lots of single-family houses with neat gardens, all of them surrounded by walls. Here are some of the things you would see on the other side, the public side: overflowing dumpsters; unpaved streets lined with garbage; smoldering trash fires; little rows of shanties tucked into corners of the neighborhood for the local servant class, the kind of miserable hovels that stretch for miles in places like Mumbai; and a small, polluted lake that no one in their right mind would have swum in. We never drank from the tap, of course; even certain kinds of produce were said to be unsafe. The phone was temperamental, too, and so was the television cable. One thing we were thankful for, however: we could breathe without feeling like we were damaging our health, something that could not be said in any of the larger cities we visited and the reason we were living where we were.

Being rich in a poor country, I discovered that year, is like being rich and poor at the same time. We could eat in any restaurant we cared to, could have had a fleet of servants at our disposal had we so chosen, but we couldn’t buy our own electric grid, or water system, or air.

I’ve thought of all this during the debate we’ve been having this election season about the extent to which business owners are responsible for their success. On the one hand, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama, trying to remind entrepreneurs that they didn’t build the highway system themselves, or put their employees through school. On the other, people who continue to insist that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Well, let them go to India and see what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t take public services for granted. We’ll see how far their bootstraps get them there.

Too many Americans, goes the common complaint, want other people to pay for them. Yet the same is true in generational terms. We have been able to live well, and do well, because we inherited a rich, well-functioning country, but for a long time now—I’m thinking of the tax revolt that began in 1978—we have refused to do our share to keep it going. Essentially, the bootstrap crowd is living off the civic-minded willingness to sacrifice of those who came before. The problem, in India, isn’t simply that the country is poor, but also that it has a very weak idea of the public good. That is what those walls meant in my neighborhood. I care about what happens within this perimeter, to me and my family; everyone else can fend for themselves. We’re in the midst of finding out how far that attitude will take us here.