Schubart: The Social Contract

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(HOST) In the national debate about the role of government in our lives, commentator Bill Schubart tries to envisage what it will take to rebuild citizen trust in the social contract.

(SCHUBART) "Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." So declared President Ronald Reagan 30 years ago, earning for himself almost cult-like status among anti-government libertarians and many conservatives.  

I think a lot about the social contract. It has a long history, going back to the philosophical writing of St. Augustine, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

In essence, it is an agreement between citizens and their elected government to manage a set of tasks, tasks which only government can carry out with any efficiency and effectiveness, and which benefit society as a whole, rather than specific individuals or entities.

Opponents don’t believe in the possibility of good and beneficial government. Their "Atlas Shrugged" vision of the world, in which a free and unregulated market, along with personal ambition or even greed, establishes the social and economic hierarchy. Neither do they believe in much of a social safety net for those who don’t compete as well as they do and end up at the bottom of that hierarchy.

To be fair, there are some who believe that government can and should do everything to meet the needs of its citizens, demanding little of them and consigning many to durable and paralytic welfare status at astronomical cost.

I believe that most Vermonters have not lost faith in the abstract idea of government but have become dangerously disconnected from its place in their lives. They struggle not with the idea of paying taxes but rather with their confusion about any visible benefits their tax investments might produce. All of which speaks to a need for more open and accountable government.

Let’s think locally. What constitutes open government? There are three critical tools.

The first is open and accessible meetings. The New York State Legislature now has video cameras in all of its meeting rooms. Citizens can watch on the Web all legislative deliberations and can bring up a .pdf of the document under discussion.

The second tool is online access to public records, recently strengthened by the new Public Records Law, H 73. The site is generally recognized as one of the most effective open government tools in the country for its navigable Web-access to public information. The Ethan Allen and Public Assets Institutes are collaborating on a site which is an excellent start here.

The third is government accountability to its citizens. New legislative and executive initiatives must articulate social, environmental and economic goals and objectives and report on them to their taxpayer-investors. Although measurement is feared, it actually helps law and policymakers manage better. More important, measurement rebuilds trust in the citizenry that their taxes are producing visible community benefits. The social contract has two parties, and government must become more accountable and accessible to the people who invest in it.

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