What can small groups do?

I’ve just returned from two weeks at the Tufts Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which culminated in a conference attended by 117 researchers, practitioners, philanthropists, and public officials interested in expanding the role of citizens in our democracy. Peter Levine summed up the conference here:

The Frontiers conference was modeled on No Better Time, a meeting held in 2009 at University of New Hampshire. The atmosphere then was optimistic, to say the least. Even the participants who had not voted for Barack Obama were encouraged by the outpouring of civic activism in 2008 and the expansion of relevant federal programs such as AmeriCorps. We talked then about how we would flourish as soon as the recession ended.

Now is not “no better time.” During our conference itself, the headlines screamed that a murderous racist had hunted and killed more than 90 children in one of the world’s safest and strongest democracies; the Speaker of the House walked out on the President of the United States during negotiations to save the full faith and credit of the Republic while the economy continues to sag; and the whole country baked in heat that seemed to portend the climate we will leave to our children. We conference organizers had hoped to engender optimism, hope, and confidence in our field. I am not sure we succeeded, or if that goal was possible.

He goes on to point out that many of us have a clear bias towards deliberative forms of participation, but that we are increasingly discovering evidence for a role for citizens in governance. Elinor Ostrom’s work (for which she won a Nobel Prize) is one example of this, and indeed during the two-week institute we frequently returned to the role her research could play. I’m struck in particular by an essay she wrote for Scandanvian Political Studies, “Crowding Out Citizenship.” She argues that current public policy is based on a theory of collective inaction, which assumes that most citizens are rational actors unable to sacrifice their individual self-interest in pursuit of the public good. Moreover, collective inaction theories assume that citizens lack sufficient knowledge to design appropriate institutions on their own, so this work must be left up to experts.

The title alone captures many of my own concerns with the current emphasis on steering the bureaucracy to justly and efficiently manage our political economy: there’s too little room for citizens in the public sphere because we have too much evidence of the ways their prejudices and self-interest can hamper effective governance. As she puts it:

Citizens are effectively told that they should be passive observers in the process of design and implementation of effective public policy. The role of citizenship is reduced to voting every few years between competing teams of political leaders. Citizens are then supposed to sit back and leave the driving of the political system to the experts hired by these political leaders.

Indeed, this is such a problem that we frequently see politicians from both parties rallying around slogans like “elections should have consequences” as they struggle to redirect entrenched and largely autonomous agencies in their efforts to change the status quo. By centralizing institutional design and reserving meaningful contributions for experts, we will tend to “crowd out” the motivations that make it possible for citizens to act in pro-social and collaborative ways:

External interventions crowd out intrinsic motivation if the individuals affected perceive them to be controlling. In that case, both self-determination and self-esteem suffer, and the individuals react by reducing their intrinsic motivation in the activity controlled.

Policies enacted on the basis of rational choice thus have a tendency to produce the kinds of self-interested and and ignorant actors that they assume, a self-fulfilling prophecy that disables citizens and de-democratizes communities. But Ostrom’s research makes two carefully researched and specific interventions into current public debates:

  1. Collective inaction theories are at odds with contemporary empirical social science. Pro-social and cooperative attitudes are rampant, while “rule-following punishers” internalize norms and police compliance from others with their own resources.
  2. Local communities around the world manage common pool resources using polycentric systems of semiautonomous governance rather than centralized planning and control.

The study of civic agency aims to reverse the “crowding out” effect. Instead, local self-managed communities arrange to “crowd in” pro-social attitudes and expertise. Our knowledge and power as citizens is weakest when external interventions render us irrelevant. Unsurprisingly, the opposite is also true: when we are forced to manage our affairs together, we develop the wisdom and the strength to do so.

Inspired in part by Peter Levine’s post here:

Paying attention to the effects of small-group politics seems naive, since big, impersonal social forces probably have more impact on outcomes. Academic “realism” marginalizes human agency. But small-group politics is morally important–it’s what we should do. It’s also more significant than the “realists” believe, although less powerful than Margaret Mead implied.

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